Hans Theys is een twintigste-eeuws filosoof en kunsthistoricus. Hij schreef en ontwierp tientallen boeken over het werk van hedendaagse kunstenaars en publiceerde honderden essays, interviews en recensies in boeken, catalogi en tijdschriften. Al deze publicaties zijn gebaseerd op samenwerkingen of gesprekken met de kunstenaars in kwestie.

Dit platform werd samengesteld door Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen). Het kwam tot stand in samenwerking met de Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerpen (Onderzoeksgroep ArchiVolt), M HKA, Antwerpen en Koen Van der Auwera. Met dank aan Idris Sevenans (HOR) en Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Michel Fran├žois - 1996 - Nothing up my Sleeve (and Nothing in my Pockets either) [EN, essay]
Tekst , 8 p.


Hans Theys

Nothing up my Sleeve (and Nothing in my Pockets either)
A Few words about Michel François’ work

I. Introduction

For once, I’d really like to try and describe images and sculptures. Without referring to literature. Without cheating. With nothing up my sleeve.

II. Leisure and survival

In a photo taken in Africa, we can see people with hoes working a vast and dusty piece of land. A video made in Morocco shows us a man who’s been given the job of demolishing a wall with a hammer that’s far too small. Behind him, a wild sea, as overwhelming and disproportionate as the desert in the photo with the hoes. A video made in Brazil shows us three men trying to split a rock with a wedge and two sledgehammers. Outside the picture, at the foot of the mountain, women and children are breaking up large stones into little bits.

A hoe is weighed down with a pile of plates with holes in them.

A video shows us a vigorous and enthusiastic caterpillar staking out a map. When it reaches the edge of the map, the caterpillar hesitates. After groping in the ‘void’, it decides not to make its way down the map, but to keep to the edge. It reaches a corner, hesitates a second time, and then decides to head on down.

You could see this image (what you see) as an ‘image’ (what you think) of our earthly residence. It’s a beautiful ‘image’, because the proportions are reversed. The world has become small and the arms have become long. The caterpillar has become a giant who can bestride the globe in a minute. But this ‘image’ interests me less than what you really see: a film about a little creature moving about on a map. We can see that someone has decided to film (or stage) this event. We can also see how the photographer has gone about it. At the moment when the caterpillar hesitates to walk down the map, the wide shot becomes a close one. But the photographer doesn’t use the zoom, he moves the camera closer. We see that someone is approaching, and bending forward.

‘The world and the arms’ (the title of a series of works by François) is not just the comic movement of the caterpillar, it is also this person bending forward.

Why is this little film funny? Because we identify with the caterpillar. At the same time, we feel the presence of an eye watching. We are being filmed. No, it’s the caterpillar that’s being filmed. We’re watching the event. But all of a sudden, we no longer see the map as a representation of a reality, nor as a flat surface, but as a volume, as an object made of a certain material, which is different from the material surrounding it. We have started to look at the map through the eyes of the caterpillar. We have become sculptors.
Michel Francois’ videos certainly show us the beauty of a caterpillar, a dung-beetle, a chameleon and a dog barking, but they also show us a sort of relation-ship to things and beings, a sort of attentiveness, and a way of making this sort of attentiveness visible.

“Usually the way you look at something,” François told me, “isn’t enough to understand it, you have to put you whole body into it.” In the beginning, I didn’t understand what François meant by this. I thought his observation was a common or garden defense of sculpture. Now I see it as a challenge. As a point of departure. His work is not just about the desire to live a physical relationship with things, but to find forms to make that relationship visible.

The title ‘Le Monde et les Bras’ (The World and the Arms) sums this up in a lapidary way. For me, it doesn’t just say that our arms are too short to enfold the world (we knew this already), but also that we can only talk about this world by assuming this limitation.

We live in Europe and we’re disgusted by the fact that at this very moment (now) hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to enough drinking water. What are we going to do about it? One of the things we can try to do, I think, is to try and live like beings who have eyes, arms, a belly, a brain and a memory. This can’t be easy, because you come across very few people, for example, who seem to have any memory. And if we are lucky enough to meet someone with a memory, he (or she) gives us the impression of having neither eyes nor belly. Use your hands, eyes and memory all at the same time! That’s a challenge. Have, at the same time, an inner life and an eye cocked to the outside world! Might such a thing be possible?

A photo shows us a girl swimming, wearing a white dress. Why didn’t she take off her dress before getting into the water? Because she thinks she’s Ophelia! ... that’s what people with a good memory will tell you. In fact, as she does every day, she’s looking for shells to sell to tourists. She’s working. What clothes do pearl divers wear? I don’t know, but I don’t think they wear costumes based on the latest fashion from Paris or Italy.

Between our eye and the reality of this girl a misunderstanding rears its head, which is summed up by the splendid phrase ‘Leisure and Survival’ (Loisir et Survie), formulated by Ann Veronica Janssens for the São Paulo Biennale and borrowed as a title by Michel Francois. The same object may be at the same time a question of leisure for some and a question of survival for others. (Today you’re one thing, tomorrow the other). How is one to take part in an exhibition of artworks in a country where children are slaughtered the way people slaughtered dogs in the Jardin du Luxembourg at the turn of the century?

When Paul Léautaud strolled around Paris, he always had with a leash in case he came across an abandoned dog. With the help of this leash, hidden in his pocket, he saved the lives of 150 dogs, which he invited to live in his house. You wouldn’t think so to look at it, but that leash represents the live of all those dogs (and 300 cats to boot), and the affection of that great writer. I’ve seen the leash in question. It looks like any old leash.

III. The water and the rock (the chair and the staircase)

A photo shows us a close-up of a chocolate block and the face of a child tucking into it, teeth first. The chocolate block looks stout and hard. The child’s wrinkled brow shows the effort she’s making. She’s determined.

This photo isn’t the portrait of the child or of the block of chocolate, but rather of the relationship between the two. This relationship is duplicated by the association between photographer and subject. We understand (see) that the photographer went to lie down on the floor to take the photo. Just like the child, he puts everything into it. The subject of the photo is repeated in the form (angle, framing, proximity of the photographer).

We don’t see where the child is. The sequence of events is interrupted. The action is isolated. We are faced with a shrunken fragment, a frozen moment, a condensed image, cut and forced. The chocolate becomes a stumbling block.

The tight framing closes the image in order to open it.

Showing is stopping, restricting the way you look.

A person shows his elbows, but at the same hides from the onlooker’s gaze. The elbows seem to want to protrude and contradict the absence of depth, but at the same time they push back the outside and close the image. The round holes, which the elbows seem to want to poke through, form the only aperture, like new eyes that are hard and blind.

In the photo with the little hands in a pile, we don’t see the faces of the children, or their village. The image is cut. The whole reality seems to be concentrated in this swarm of little fingers, in these little hands which are at once full and hollow. The hands become forms which rest on each other, curving and hollow, like a series of shells, a pile, a column, or a chain ready to uncoil.

A video shows us a waterfall. Now and then a person lets the water carry him down.

The fixed frame prevents us from seeing where the people sliding down the waterfall come from. We just see them crossing the screen. What we see is a fragment, an isolated event. The irregular gaps between the splitsecond appearances of the people sliding underscore the continual flow of the water. 

On the one hand, there is the perpetual swift passage and even flow of water, on the other hand, condensation, clash, and unevenness.

The rock is hard, but it is polished by the water. It’s as if the water, combined with time, is harder than the rock. But it’s not the same water. There are thousands of droplets which follow one another like a sequence or chain. Time is nothing other than the succession of these drops, threaded like pearls. If the rock is worn away, it is by the repeated movement of these thousands of drops falling.

Another video shows us a chair falling down a staircase. It bumps and breaks. It’s quite different with the water and the rock. Slowly, drop by drop, the water hews out marks in the rock, it wears it away, and reveals what’s inside it.

The people sliding down the waterfall are like chairs. They are masses. Objects erupting.

We find the same contrast between a continual time and a specific time in the rolling of paper strips. On the one hand, there is the repeated movement of rolling, a sort of addition which could go on forever, and on the other there are the polished stones, the bits of earth, the balls of silver paper and the pieces of polystyrene which upset the movement, interrupt the regular rolling, come to the surface, retort, resist, like stumbling blocks, or grains of sand in a cogwheel, or cores.

The cores are like indecent acts. They burst upon us, surge up, widen the interstices, like a head popping out through a turtleneck sweater, or the head of a baby being born.

IV. The core and the hole

The core is the solid part inside a mold, which, with the casting, will produce the corresponding void.

The Boule élastique, Le monde et les bras, Expiration dans le plâtre, the ball of string, the beam stuck to the floor, the great block of polystyrene fixed to the wall with lots of strips of brown scotch tape, the plaster ball with the pencil lines, the block of chocolate, the balloons filled with water, the soap, the pockets filled with plaster, the polystyrene mattress, the bed made of blocks of clay, the glove stuffed with plaster and wrapped in rubber bands, the belly-buttons and the hands photographed: all are cores.

Each core is threatened by extinction. It hangs on, it concentrates, it contracts, but the denser it becomes, the more imminent looms its extinction.

A ball of string is a dense object, formed by string rolled around itself. By pulling the string, you hollow out the ball from the inside. In the end, it will lose its solid structure, its carapace will melt away, it will soften, and vanish.

The ball of string is a hole hollowed out in very fine sand.

La ‘Boule élastique’ is a dense ball made of elastic bands stretched over one another. All the bands are stretched taut, pulling the whole ball towards its center. It wants to implode. You feel that the bands could snap. The ball is a critical mass. You imagine that if a band gave, the whole ball would explode, band by band, like a chain reaction retracing, in reverse, the adding-up of its making. (In reality, the ball actually undoes. Under the action of light and air, one by one, the bands outside dry, snap and fall on to the shelf.)

The sculpture ‘Le Monde et les bras’ consists of a plaster sheet, cast in the space formed by two arms, placed on a table with the hands clasped. The edges of the sculpture are concave, like rocks hewn out by the sea or by passing time. The arms are no longer there. It’s a classical sculpture, where the body, that ephemeral bundle, is represented by a durable object. We don’t see the body, but its outlines. The body is absent. We only see a trace of it: dense, solid, white, immaculate, smooth and implacable.

At the same time it is also a hole. It is a place of passage, delimited by the reach of two arms. It is a sample of our private space, of the world which is within our reach, of the continuous flux of our impressions and experiences, which we can neither grasp nor halt, which slip between our fingers like water, imperturbably, blind, deaf, and dumb. It is the hole in the sink. It is a rock. It is a hard hole which swallows up the world.

A balloon which fills with water or air seems to empty out the space around it by attracting all the attention, by becoming a point of condensation. But the more it fills, the more fragile and unstable it becomes. Gradually, the skin becomes thinner, until the moment when it tears. The balloon refuses to puff  up. Everything in it brakes this motion of expansion. If you let it go, the balloon would empty itself by itself. Torn between tension and relaxation, it is forced to contain.
‘L’Expiration dans le plâtre’ is the cast of an exhalation which has been caught in a balloon. It is the imprint of a cloud of hot air, shapeless and invisible.

Sometimes the photo of the little hands piled up is shown beside a collection of bits of earth hanging on bits of string. The bits of earth have been wrenched away with the hands, and they show the marks of them. They are evidence of the hollow of the hand.

“Pockets are blind spaces,” says François. “You don’t look into a pocket. You put your hand into it.”

Francois talks about the artist as if he’s someone who’s yawning, fidgeting, and walking in circles in his studio, hands in his or her pockets. On the washbasin, the soap awaits. (A bar of soap is a utensil doomed to extinction. The more useful it is, the quicker it vanishes).

Just the sculptures will witness this pastime, this ‘inactivity’ like leftovers from a sort of eager expectation, a slow provocation of things, which remain mute, but which, in the end, will show themselves, bend or cower, until you can gather them, separate them or put them together.

V. The inside and the outside (the world and the arms)

The world is divided into what is within reach of our senses, and what is not.

We can only talk of ourselves by talking of the world, and we cannot talk of the world unless we talk about ourselves, and our own experience. Art is a continual endeavour to broaden our realm of experience. I call artist a person who is able to transmit a love of experience.

Experience, though, is nothing other than that eternal to-ing and fro-ing between inside and out, between our impressions and goings-on, the objects and images that have given rise to them, between our private life and our public life.

In dilating, the balloon hides the face of the person blowing it up. The air comes from within the body. The surface of the balloon starts to reflect what is roundabout. We see the reflection of a room appear, a window, the outside. The balloon bursts and we are once more face to face with the person blowing into it.

VI. The inside and the outside (The sponge and the pebble)

A curved window closed from behind to make a kind of aquarium is filled with little balls of polystyrene. The little balls stop the light from passing through the window, but the whiteness of the polystyrene becomes a new sort of light.

A video shows us a woman and a child taking a bath of little polystyrene balls. A pile of little polystyrene balls is bath foam turned inside out like a sock. The foam is made of air bubbles surrounded by a thin layer of liquid, It is a white structure around dark hollows, The little balls are white volumes, surrounded by a darker area.

From afar. we see a white line separating two planes. Closer up, we see a column of threaded shells. The column becomes an axis around which the space revolves. It is a hollow axis, like a stretched sponge.

Seen from a distance, the surface of a polystyrene sculpture looks smooth to us. We see a beautiful shape. which looks like a large cushion of meerschaum. When we draw closer to the work, we see that this form has been obtained by scratching the polystyrene with the fingers, in such a way that the surface shows the little balls of which the polystyrene is made. We get the impression of seeing the inside of a polystyrene sculpture turned inside out.

“Sometimes when you look at a pebble (or anything else for that matter), you wonder if, inside it, it’s also stone,” says François. “You can see from the outside that it’s present and hard, condensed like a pebble. But sometimes you need to check it out. So you break the pebble to see what’s going on inside it. Usually it’s just more pebble inside.”

A sponge is at once hollow and full. It is a mass which can be filled with water or air. A sponge is just as much sponge be it inside or out. It doesn’t lie, You can check it out. And in so much as it lets you “check it out,” the sponge resembles the ball of string and La Boule elastique, two masses which have been shaped by a rolling motion or an addition which forms a link between inside and out
(Our bodies are sponges which fill and empty out. Sometimes we get the impression of being separated from the outside world, but we are nothing other than a place of exchange. a non-place defined by a temporary structure. We are between inside and out. We are neither one nor the other. We are “in between’, We are between a claimed introspection and the eyes of others, between past and future, between our bodies and words).

VII. The rosary and the inventory

The people sliding down the waterfall pass like the heads of a rosary. If we look from top to bottom at the column of threaded coins, we see a rope which frays and bleeds on the ground. The bed made of blocks of clay could easily come undone, it’s only a momentary concentration. It’s a rosary turned core.
A version of this bed exists where it is surrounded by bits of earth that have been wrenched from it. In turn, these lumps of earth form a rosary, a chain of decomposition, like the lumps fallen beside the block of chocolate, like the coins piled up at the foot of the column, like the tiny white hairs that remain when the ball of string has unwound.

The rosaries with the balls of earth, the piles of pierced plates, the series of pockets filled with plaster, the heaps of cans, the collections of empty bottles or ‘Solitaires’ (pieces of earth sculpted by squeezing the hand), the strings of fairy lights and shards of plates, the rolling and the piling, and the little hands piled high form the layout of a repeated stubbornness, a broken listing, an infinite inventory of a precarious pastime.

When associated with the corresponding parts of the body, affixed at different heights, combined with photos or arrayed on shelves, the sculptures have acquired the character of vital objects (‘Some Things to be Buried with’, as one of these installations has been called) provisions, prostheses and utensils necessary for survival and leisure.

Who picked up the empty bottles? Someone who’s just emptied them and who wants to carry on partying all alone, making music out of light? Someone who wants to make a few savings, someone who needs them or wants to sell them?

‘Residence terrestre’ (Earthly Residence), a sort of cabin, funerary monument or fairground hut, brings together violence and repose, saving and squander usefulness and decoration. The cans are chrome-plated. The burial went well. Boredom or the party can commence.

Montagne de Miel, March 30th 1996

Translated from French by Simon Pleasance