ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Erwan Mahéo - 2015 - Following the Needle [EN, essay],
Following the Needle
Some words on meeting Erwan Mahéo
Erwan Mahéo (°1968), the initiator of the current exhibition, dreamt of a show that would leave the exhibition space (big spaces on the ground level of an office building) untouched. He imagined a show where unfinished works (or studio stuff) of his could meet in a different and unexpected way to form new constellations without having to be works of art. Sébastien Reuzé told me about similar aspirations that led him towards the actual presentation of ‘Colorblind Sands’. We also recognise this dream in Doug Eynon’s attempt to reorganise fragments of his universe in painterly evocated spaces.
I have always been fond of Erwan Mahéo’s work, especially when he turns architectural plans of exhibition spaces into banners, which he calls “tissus” (pieces of cloth). For this show Mahéo collaborated with Gijs Milius (°1985). Together they made a video inspired by a toy. Furthermore Milius built a sculpture based on a banner made by Mahéo. This banner consists of a piece of cloth on which smaller pieces of cloth have been stitched with a sewing machine. Together these geometrical patches could be seen as an evocation of a volume, but not necessarily (because of the absence of shadows). The image remains ambiguous, like the famous image of the duck that might be a rabbit. Speaking of this effect: in the show we find a new work by Mahéo: a collage of black and white images covered by a stretched white cloth. We might expect that the black parts of the collage would shine through best, but actually the white parts are accentuated so that these ‘negative’ or ‘empty’ spaces become more present than the exposed ones.
Some people wonder why Mahéo uses floor plans of exhibition spaces as starting points for his banners and sculptures. Actually, one of his sculptures, consisting of silhouettes based on floor plans from different exhibition spaces, reminds me of the MAS-tower conceived by Luc Deleu (°1944). Deleu once told me about a piece of architecture conceived by Peter Eisenman (°1932) that combined the outlines of former buildings and flight paths of the airplanes that flew over the building site. Somehow, Mahéo seems to think in a similar way. Applying a technique used by post-modernist architects, he sculpts objects that sometimes prove to be paintings: new textures thinking about space by the use of colour.
The first time Mahéo worked with cloth, in 2003, he was working in the theatre and stitched words from the play onto the costume of the actor playing the role of the blind prophet Tiresias. That same year he made his first stitched work of art for Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, based upon the L-shaped floor plan of the allotted exhibition space. This shape reminded Mahéo of the coat belonging to the Emperor Talloo which was decorated with a map of Africa, described in a novel by Raymond Roussel.
At the centre of Mahéo’s work is the idea of ‘wandering’: of proceeding without intention. At the same time, he cherishes the idea of a general overview that includes all possible details. He calls this ‘the big picture’ (la grande image). While stitching he perceives only the small area around the needle. When he takes some distance, the image appears in its totality. We recognise this simultaneity of detail and overview in two ‘curtains’ onto which he stitched several of his banners (one of them is 16 metres wide and was, gladly, purchased by the French government).
The most beautiful sculpture of Mahéo’s I experienced in a physical way, was a wonderfully made hanging piece of lined cloth representing a mountain.
Strolling through his studio I find an amazing book consisting solely of photographs of one small garden. Mahéo tells me that one-day he decided to document the complete garden. We discover light patches on leaves, unworthy weeds, crumbled soil and so on. We meet a detailed observation of the garden of which a general overview is missing.
Mahéo shows me strange photographs of waves, consisting of assembled horizontally cut out images taken from several photographs made at the same moment. Each cut out contains images of waves of more or less the same size and seen from the same distance so that the image doesn’t recede and creates the illusion of a vertical sea surface.
I leaf through a book with beautiful drawings. I look at pictures of strange happenings or interventions in public spaces. I remember the artistic project ‘Le centre du monde’ for which Mahéo offered residences to fellow artists who were then given a budget to buy books that would eventually constitute the library of ‘Le centre du monde’. At the end of their residency he asked them to leave something behind, forming an unpredictable collection of things, artistic or not. I admire the book about Lionel Estève issued by the publishing house he started with Sébastien Reuzé.
In Brussels’ Central Station we can see a bronze cast of a raft Mahéo built with his son Malachi. Mahéo is a mariner’s son. A raft is built when a ship is about to sink. It stands for wandering, for improvisation, for survival. First there was the playing on the beach with his son, an innocent activity, which was then sanctioned by turning that action into an artwork.
Mahéo tells me about a film he created from two Super-8 movies his father made during a trip across the Mediterranean Sea. After several attempts to finish the movie, by adding music to it for instance, he eventually decided to hide it behind a black screen with two swerving circular holes in it, revealing details, showing us the movie through his eyes. This idea of focussing on details is a recurring element in his work. One piece in this exhibition that reminds us of this is a thick plastic foil with three large circular perforations.
Perhaps the show will also include a piece consisting of shutters partially hiding a silvery surface. An elegant and simple sculpture, seemingly unconsciously inspired by a shimmering sea surface.
Mahéo reminds me of the film Roma by Fellini in which a machine that’s digging a tunnel for a subway suddenly hits upon a huge dark space. This space is then lit by swerving torches that reveal parts of (disappearing) fresco’s. “We all consist of an immeasurable black space,” Mahéo says, “of which we can discover only parts. We can only dream of seeing a clear overview of our life. But one thing we know: we can only get closer to this general overview by concentrating on the needle.”
Montagne de Miel, 30 August 2015