Vast Enough for Search to Be in Vain


»I am intrigued by how human nature construes itself and how we explain cause and purpose in terms of stories.«
Aliénor Dauchez

How do we overcome the confinements of body and space – individually and collectively? Visual artist and stage director Alienór Dauchez’s work reflects on the dilemma between the promise of liberty and the inertia that sets in once an objective has been achieved. Interviewed by Théo-Mario Coppola, the artist and performer talks about the role of the body and the influence of literature in her latest work Vast Enough for Search to Be in Vain.

Théo-Mario Coppola: Aliénor Dauchez, you were an artist-in-residence at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2017. In March 2018 you opened your personal show there: Vast Enough for Search to be in Vain. The exhibition builds on essential aspects of your artistic practice. Testing the spatial boundaries of physical presence, repetition, and uncovering a quest are all paths you explore in the show, which is a kind of labyrinth.

Aliénor Dauchez: Yes, I held a residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2017, and I used it to develop my performance Sous Vide. This performance echoes my sculptural work and my practice as a theater director. It is a physical and acoustic dialogue with an everyday object, a fridge, that I literally lived with in Studio 21 at Schloss Solitude for seven months. It came to symbolize a closed space, a constraint that highlights our desires and the limits to them. On March 15, I opened an exhibition at Akademie Schloss Solitude in an underground space with the odd name of Unterer Hirschgang, which sounds as though stags wander through it. The show is constructed around this space, in the form of a long curve, like a nocturnal walk. It is a space that evokes machinery, the belly of the building. By extension, the place suggests the cogs that turn the narrative. How is a story constructed? I am intrigued by how human nature construes itself and how we explain cause and purpose in terms of stories. I was reflecting down there on Samuel Beckett’s short story »The Lost Ones,« where he describes a crowd locked up in a cylinder trying endlessly and in vain to climb the walls with ladders. Individuals would be forced to collaborate to find a way out. The action is determined by its own impossibility and by the spatial constraints.

T-MC: Why does this reflection draw specifically on that text by Samuel Beckett? Usually in your works the confined bodies, the often extreme physical states, don’t rely on a plot. You tend to focus on action, whereas Beckett’s text tries to identify the most primitive elements in a social situation created by the narrative. What role does the body play in your exhibition? Can I break out of the here and now I am currently experiencing, i.e. be somewhere else, or work toward being somewhere else? By choosing this text, you undermine the very message of the exhibition: The audience must pursue a quest.

AD: I came across this story by Samuel Beckett a few years ago. It describes a crowd trying to find a feasible way out. The exhibition space takes the form of a slice of the cylinder in Beckett’s text. So this is about searching for a solution to a problem that is both individual and collective: completing the quest, reaching the goal at the end of the road. The place evokes confinement, moving around inside a labyrinth. By extension it symbolizes a world that confronts the individual with choices. This is how individuals become aware of their freedom. Samuel Beckett, alongside Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Michel Butor, and Georges Bataille, is a crucial writer in my literary and philosophical background. By keeping his characters anonymous, his works refrain from using plot as a pretext for psychological characterization. It is space and time that structure the story. The stripping back, the circular forms, the associations with infinity seem to me to have a close affinity with my work as a sculptor.

»Ever since one of my earliest projects, I’ve been interested in the impossibility of decisions.«Aliénor Dauchez

T-MC: This personal show draws together threads from your works in different periods. The unity is created by the telling of the text and rests on an equation between the body, confinement and infinity. Sous Vide, Ich bin Rauch, S’il avait trouvé la langouste bonne, Le monde infernal et maternel de la terre profonde, Une brise fraîche et légère and Das Fähnchen are very dissimilar in formal terms, but they all relate somehow to potentiality. Each of them conveys that human aspiration to reach beyond ourselves. The philosophy of the absurd features in your artistic practice as a response to the world order. Individuals struggle to break out of the confines imposed by their environment. Your works testify to a dilemma between the promise of liberty and the inertia that sets in once an objective has been achieved.

AD: Ever since one of my earliest projects, I’ve been interested in the impossibility of decisions. It was a performance in a public space, where I stood in silence for several hours without betraying any specific emotion on my face and without adopting any kind of pose that might disclose an intention. There is no law forbidding people to remain immobile in a public space. Nor is there one allowing it. It is a social ambiguity. Normally, when you come to a crossroads, you have to carry straight on or else turn right or left. Any situation is a bundle of choices and assumes a positioning. However, not making a choice is not the same thing as not adopting a position in the simplest sense, i.e. the most political sense. The performance took place on Alexanderplatz in Berlin. People’s reactions varied widely. I was in a strange position. By not moving I became an object. The people around me talked about me in the third person. That put me in a very interesting position as an observer, as if I was invisible. After a few hours an ambulance turned up, and the paramedics came to assess the situation for themselves. They concluded that I was not in any danger and so they left me alone. I was ready to see the experience through to the end, even if it meant being carried off to a hospital ward or a prison cell. Immobility is a choice too; it is not the same thing as inaction.

T-MC: With your performance on Alexanderplatz, you didn’t have to find an emergency exit from what you had in mind, because you got a response from the setting. When there is interaction, the other responds. Isn’t it the same with this exhibition?

AD: Yes, the two emergency exits from the exhibition seemed to me to resonate directly with Beckett’s text, especially the one that involves using a ladder to reach the outside. Using the space to structure the story is a device employed by stage directors, especially in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition, like with Grotowski, for example. In a normal situation, if no problem arises, I wouldn’t use the emergency exit. If, on the other hand, I encounter a problem, I can take the emergency exit. The dialectical inversion of that would be to use it when there is no danger. The particular light in the exhibition space will invite a subversive use of those emergency exits. Nevertheless, once the quest has been accomplished, what is left? What can we hope for? Every labyrinth is a quest, but once the quest is over, what do you do? Impossibility is not a problem, but a condition.

T-MC: When you talk of the quest and the labyrinth, which you base on the exhibition space and the conditions it creates, you are also raising an important aspect of your work: the textual dimension. The narrative or philosophical text is often a door to reading your objects, by opening up a dialogue with the work of another artist.

»Nevertheless, once the quest has been accomplished, what is left? What can we hope for? Every labyrinth is a quest, but once the quest is over, what do you do? Impossibility is not a problem, but a condition.«Aliénor Dauchez

AD: I am both an artist and a stage director, but the sheer variety of media and situations forces us to look beyond those two terms. I connect with theater and exhibiting because my practice always depends on the conditions I meet. Ultimately the question is to try and overcome the framework, whatever it is.

The way Jean-Paul Sartre describes it, every situation requires us to think before making a decision. The immobility I was talking about in the performance on Alexanderplatz can refer to the impossibility of deciding, and hence how the self is confined within the self, or how others are confined outside the self. We are all confined in our own way. Recognizing this confinement should trigger a dynamic to resolve the quest together. Social rules are not the enemy of the individual, as situationism suggests, but our friends. Total freedom, on the other hand, would engender chaos, because without boundaries freedoms would clash. Experience is choice. The impossibility of choice can only be resolved by the collective, and for that we need a system of rules. There are rules, and they are designed to function in a closed circle (as in Beckett). Breaking the rule means breaking with society and hence with ourselves. Is that an objective, or is it an error?

T-MC: The exhibition is also a place where actions or gestures are repeated. It builds on the recurrence of movement. Repetition can be reassuring, because it inscribes time within its own continuity. How does one break the order of time?

AD: Smashing the glass in the sculpture, like in the object Une brise fraîche et légère, or heading for the emergency exit suggest that possibility includes the potential to break the cycle. But breaking the cycle means ending time and, with it, life. The quest is wonderful because it is still about potential, but infinity implies a permanent cut-off point, and each time we return to the same things. Breaking the cycle is a chance to contemplate breaking out of the quest. A full glass, for example, is at once both container and content. We humans are finite beings with infinite desires. If the content of the glass overflows, the situation breaks up. Desires can be expressed, but they exceed our abilities, so we are doomed to even more frustration. We struggle to achieve and surpass our desires, but the clash between our body and time thwarts fulfilment. The beauty of failure and of impossibility is a response to our condition.

Showing the fall, the breakage, the rupture is like marking the waypoints. Trying to structure time is telling a story rather than explaining. So with this exhibition I invite people to encounter narrative forms that are about the hidden structure of the narrative rather than the narrative itself – in other words, what we do when we choose to tell stories, even without knowing how they end…