LEIRIS OUR CONTEMPORARY
To shed fresh light on the numerous documents and modern works written about Michel Leiris (1901-1990), which feature prominently in Leiris & Co at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Marie-Laure Bernadac, who co-curated the show with Agnès de la Beaumelle and Denis Hollier, invited six contemporary artists to respond. They also answered our questions about the influence of this writer who can be seen as a pioneering figure in art, post-colonial studies and autofiction. As Bernadac puts it, “Leiris is a key reference for a number of artists for the way he transformed ethnography into literature, as a kind of ethnographer of his own self. In L’Afrique fantôme he expresses the difficulty of his relation to the Other, his frustration, his feeling of rejection.” That book is in fact a travelogue written during his anthropological fact-finding journey from Dakar to Djibouti, during which he was constantly questioning the status of the objects collected on the way. “He always positioned himself on the edge of things, on the margins of Surrealism and the Communist Party. There was always this gulf created by his deep-seated sense of doubt.” Leiris wrote about Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Schönberg and Stravinsky, among others. “That gave him the proper sense of distance. Whether in relation to Raymond Roussel or at the Black foyer in Ivry, he defended the Black cause, but also syncretic cultures—well before Edouard Glissant, who came to see him in Paris. He is a man of paradoxes.” And those paradoxes make Leiris’s work a rich source for artists today. A P PAROXYSM OF SUBJECTIVITY MATHIEU K. ABONNENC
I read L’Afrique fantôme when I was a student, and I went back to it when I found the photographs taken by my grandfather in the 1930s, which he indexed using the methods developed by Leiris and Griaule. You can read this book on several different levels: as a travel journal, for the psychoanalytical accounts of dreams, as a colonial and anti-colonial chronicle (because during the Dakar-Djibouti mission Leiris discovered that, inevitably, he was deeply anti-colonialist, causing him to fall out with Griaule when the book was published).
In my film Secteur IX B de prophylaxie de la maladie du sommeil I tried to amplify what Leiris had done, this debacle of scientific method. I had already done a piece of work on the question of the biography of objects, part of which is currently on show at the CAPC in Bordeaux as Un film italien (Africa-Addio). For that I bought copper crosses made in Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That was one of the first resources the Belgians plundered in the Congo: they sent them to Belgium to be melted down. I am greatly interested in the way objects are appropriated and made a part of another symbolic and economic system. Secteur IX B de prophylaxie de la maladie du sommeil talks about the stranger as
pects of L’Afrique fantôme. I had the idea of looking at the drugs and medicines taken by these ethnologists. Their mental state was constantly altered by laudanum or quinine, which prevented them from producing an objective scientific discourse. This is the approach taken by Leiris in L’Afrique fantôme: it is by taking subjectivity to extremes that objectivity becomes possible. The film is a fiction which says little directly about Leiris, but which moves around the subject. How do we relate things that are opaque to ourselves? How can scientific discourse be used to make them legible? I don’t believe that it can, any more than Leiris did. What interests me about him is that he uses biography as the smallest possible point of access, and then goes on to broaden the discussion. Themain character in the film is a researcher who tries to understand the nature of Leiris’s strategy in L’Afrique fantôme (which is sometimes really compelling, and sometimes reflects the tedium of travel), and the way this “agitates” scientific discourse.
Born 1977 in French Guiana. Lives and works in Metz ANTHROPOLOGY IN QUESTIONS CAMILLE HENROT I read L’Afrique fantôme in New York, when I decided to move there in 2010. It was an old edition, with great photos. This was also when I started making my Ikébanas. After that I read L’Homme sans honneur. Many times, during my trip to India in 2010, I felt the sense of unease described by Leiris, that loss of identity and sometimes even gender because one has become a representative of one’s species. In Vanuatu I attended a Mass where the priest, a woman, introduced me as “the Whiteman.” For
many of the Indians I was an American. What interests me about anthropology is the questions it asks about itself. In 2011 the Pompidou sent me to India to make a film, a bit like bringing objects back from a mission. In L’Afrique fantôme there is a moment when Leiris decides to take control of the caravan because the expedition leader is a racist. He would like to be able to talk to the mule driver because he has good stories to tell; he would like to go to Ethiopia because it hasn’t been colonized yet. But he fails to see that by eleven o’clock it will be too hot to set up the camp, so he ends p alone in the sun and becomes even worse than the person he considered so brutal. In the end he no longer knows where he stands and when he gets back to Paris, where war has been declared, he is completely destabilized. The book I found most inspiring is L’Homme
sans honneur. Leiris explains that art is a set of privileged situations. Now that is exactly the nature of any installation: the idea of finding an order to fight against the inner tumult caused by the outside world. Leiris was sensitive and he was deeply troubled by the things he had or hadn’t done. In L’Afrique
fantôme he talks about his relation to masturbation. I found that very inspiring, as regards the relation to the imaginary, for the masturbation scene in Grosse fatigue, and for my Tropics of Love drawings. He lives in a world of fantasies, which prevents his sexuality from engaging with the other, and at the same time he dreams of what is as “other” as can be. He is in love with the witch’s daughter and realizes that he can never have a relationship with her. He is at once honest and disturbing.
Born 1978 in Paris. Lives and works in Paris and New York
What most interested me in L’Afrique fantôme is the relation between the modernist object and tradition. When André Breton stated that masks are art objects, he is speaking from a world when the relation between the West and non-Western cultures was unilateral. Today, those cultures, anthropology, and even traditional Western cultures, are topical questions in art. But we still forget the history of these objects. I try to show how colonialism ramifies, in the political and economic fields as well as in the arts. Now, what I see in Leiris, as in his contemporaries, is an idea of dispossession of these objects, which passes for insignificant whereas it is actually problematic. Hence the idea of a reappropriation, a reparation. Most traditional African objects are in the West. They embody an intermediary space between the West and non-Western world, a “diaspora,” as John Pfeffer calls it, which echoes Edouard Glissant’s Créolité. The Mirror Masks create a mise-en-abyme for the viewer by reflecting them in fragmentary form on an African mask, and offer another genealogy of contemporary art. A passage from L’Afrique fantôme describes the members of the expedition carrying away statues in their boots when they leave a village. I am trying to tighten the link that separates us from the cultures and modes of representation of traditional Africa, to restore these objects’ role in history. Cubism is linked to Iberian sculpture, and to tribal arts, but I am struck by the increasing denial of the latter’s influence on modern art. As early as 1936 MoMA showed tribal masks, but in Picasso et les maîtres there wasn’t a
single African mask. I have often discussed this with Marie-Laure Bernadac, who curated that magnificent, historic exhibition.( 1) It’s vital we be ready to share History fairly. Whole areas of our society are at stake here, and the possibility of living together with our differences and our wounds. This connects with what I said in Le Monde about the attack on
Charlie Hebdo: at school, the populations with roots in colonized countries never received explanations about all the dispossessions and humiliations, about the thousands of Senegalese and Algerian soldiers who were killed. We in France severely lack the belief in history. That needs to be repaired.
Born 1977 in Dugny. Lives and works in Berlin
THEY BORE ARMS MIQUEL BARCELÓ
The first book by Leiris that I read was
L’Afrique fantôme, when I came back from my first trip to Mali in 1987, but now I prefer L’Âge d’homme. For twenty-five years I had a house in the Dogon lands, at Sanga, just where that photo was taken of Michel Leiris and Marcel Griaule on the edge of a cliff. I used to sit there and read with my feet dangling down into the emptiness, face to the wind. Reading L’Afrique
fantôme helped me understand the perverse relation between anthropology and colonialism. In 1934 Leiris was the first
toubabaou (white) voice to speak of his unease at exhibiting religious objects, for example the Mother of the mask that Griaule seized in the village of Gogoli, a holy object that is taken outside or made to dance. We imagine ethnologists holding a pencil, but in fact they carried guns. I am more on Leiris’s side than Griaule’s, because Leiris is on the side of art, of culture and of the spirit. I was lucky enough to meet people who had known Griaule. There was an element of pillage in his work but—and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted—the Westerners also did some remarkable things. Dams, for example. Today, the pillaging goes on but no one builds dams any more. Unlike André Gide, who expressed his compassion in his journal, Leiris takes a lucid view of the situation. Also, in La Langue secrète des Dogon de
Sanga (1948) he transcribes the coronation ceremony of the Hogon (Dogon chief). He understood that this “secret language” was spoken only in important ceremonies. This fine text consists entirely of sentences without verbs. A succession of substantives. The painting I am showing in Metz, Sangha
1921, is the size of a large book. I painted it in Mali in the 1990s. It’s a little bit devious: the first encounter between a white man, with his explorer’s hat and pistol, and a Dogon, who is wearing a mask and my sandals, as if I had been there before. I liked the idea of lightening up the subject a bit.
Born 1957 in Majorca. Lives and works in Paris
MICHEL LEIRIS THE ULTRA-LOCAL JEAN-MICHEL ALBEROLA
L’Âge d’Homme and L’Homme sans honneur, notes pour le Sacré dans la vie quotidienne are very close to what we are. Leiris does not go beyond what he sees, what he thinks, what he is experiencing. He knows that the supernatural exists, that there are phenomena beyond his understanding, because he frequented the Surrealists. But he stops before he gets there because he also knows that our sense of these phenomena exists in the real. He has a kind of ultra-localness. And then, too, there’s the connection with Artaud, a literality from the outside of the person, where anything is possible (which touches us directly). Leiris embraces what is inside his felt territory. This is not prudence, but a “clear consciousness” of things. Within our limits, there are no limits, and it’s much more complicated than if we leave them behind. My activity as a painter does not go beyond the literality of the painting. When I deal with that particular question, the more literal I am, the bigger the space. What saves us is the clarity of events, of feelings, of situations. Rimbaud, Kafka, Raymond Roussel describe this literality. Away from interpretation, from the symbolic. Leiris set out with Griaule for an unknown territory to describe what was going on there: the true work of the ethnologist. For me, in the 1980s Africa was a way of being elsewhere. I have spoken of the orality of Africa, compared to our very written societies. Leiris talks about that, too. It was in 1994 that I did my portraits of Leiris, which were shown in the exhibition, when the events were happening in Rwanda. I took two angles: the first Resistance networks at the Musée de l’Homme and the Massacre of the Innocents by Poussin. In these portraits, Leiris’s head is like that of a ghost. I ritualized them with Parisian connections and metro tickets, which for me are the most real objects in Paris, and therefore sacred. It’s a way of talking about movement within the local. That came to me from reading L’Âge
d’homme. Leiris is a political consciousness, the “clear consciousness” that Marx talks about. For him, “art is the illegitimate offspring of play and religion.” There is the political and religious space where we live, but there is also play, and there we are saved.
Born 1953 in Saïda. Lives and works in Paris.
THE POETRY OF MICHEL LEIRIS MARCEL MIRACLE
I discovered Leiris maybe about twenty years ago, through Bagatelles végétales, which I read at a secondhand bookseller’s in Lausanne. A book of aphorisms with a cover by Miró. It was Raymond Roussel who got me into Leiris. I realized that they had known each other. After that I read La Règle du jeu and Fissures. To write my text in the exhibition catalogue I referred to “Vois déjà l’ange,” first published in Les Temps modernes, then reprinted in
Fourbis (1955). Leiris is in Algeria, he’s talking about an encounter with a prostitute with a tattooed face, Khadidja, and he makes his famous commentary on the Latin cum. I share Leiris’s fascination with the magic of Africa. I was born in Madagascar, then I was a geologist in the Maghreb. I know Libya and Algeria pretty well. When he wrote this text Leiris was a soldier in Algeria. At the height of the colonial era, and as only a young man, his capacity for distance is tremendous. It so happens that he did his thesis on possession, and I myself was initiated into a method of division, called sikidy, in Madagascar, and later, in the Maghreb desert, I met the “Ghoules,” magic creatures that transported me. Truth to tell, I don’t know his ethnological work very well, it’s his poetry that interests me (I see myself as essentially a poet). Take the “Chestnut sculpted for Miró, no. 10”: “Which says the most: the chalk, that fleck of foam on the surface of the blackboard, or the mouths open in the white of the dice?” My career as a junior school teacher is behind me. I spent twenty years writing on the blackboard. In these four lines you have geology, the blackboard, and the innocence of play. I feel very close to that kind of poetry. For the drawings shown in Metz I started with the first three poems in Fissures, which express the simplicity of Miró’s painting: “Nothing, and yet not emptiness. Rather than nothing, a no-thing”; “No doubt it hangs by a thread but a no-thing is not nothing”; “Twisted thread, melted grain suffice for the emptiness in less than nothing to empty itself of all its emptiness.” I tried to do some graphic work on this nothing with which one can magnify the world. These works are little figures made out of the debris on a big yellow ground, as if stretched across the void, with Leiris’s text all around them. Born 1957 in Madagascar. Lives and works in France and Switzerland.
(1) Picasso et les maîtres, Grand Palais, 2009, Paris. But note William Rubin’s MoMA show, Primitivism in the 20th Century, Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (ed.).
Jean-Michel Alberola. « Portrait de Michel Leiris ». 1994. (Collection André Magnin. Paris)