June 2nd - July 16th, 2016
From September 24th until January 22nd 2022
Thursday, November 4th 2021
By Matthieu Jacquet
“Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”
In March 1967, Michel Foucault formulates for the first time the concept of “heterotopia” to indicate, by distinction of the utopias, all the real spaces external and public intermediate and indefinable crossed by the human being, “kinds of places out of all the places” extending from the sacred buildings to the cemeteries by way of the movie theaters. If the French philosopher does not quote then any work to exemplify his subject, his neologism – formed from the Greek terms heteros (other) and topos (space) – could also include the artistic creations of which the public makes the real experience, sensory, spatio-temporal even emotional. For in the course of the respective practices of young French artists Claire Nicolet and Valentin Ranger, whom the Galerie du Jour brings together for two months in a four-handed exhibition, it is indeed hundreds of “other spaces” that we encounter, deployed through various mediums and techniques and surprising forms – not to say confusing.
A graduate of the Estienne school and then of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, Claire Nicolet immediately made space the heart of her graphic and pictorial practice. During her wanderings on foot in the city and the countryside, the artist scans the landscape from the ground to the sky before stopping on details, which will resurface on the sheets of the notebooks she has been keeping for years: identical road signs that line the bend of a road, symmetrical alignments of blinds that structure buildings of the 70s, or the ground paved harmoniously with stones in the center of which sits a rock, like a pagan altar… All gathered in a series appropriately named Topoï, these ultra fine and precise drawings realized – sometimes very spontaneously – with black ink and punctually colored by gouache, sketch fragments of worlds devoid of living beings and explicit narrative frames, opening their spectators to the projection of intimately personal stories. Four years ago, this graphic practice extended from paper to canvas, where the strangeness of these “species of spaces” is supported by the liveliness, the contrast of the colors painted with acrylics and by the size of the formats, which can measure up to more than a meter wide. “The heterotopia has the power to juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several locations that are in themselves incompatible,” said Foucault, citing the public garden as the supreme example of this principle. Central to Claire Nicolet’s work, the garden invites ambiguity into her fantasized landscapes – which some might describe as idyllic – through skillful games of proportion: If the perspective of the asphalt paths or the alignment of the bricks, his favorite motif, seem to respect the fundamental mathematical principles of the real places that inspire them, what about the immense exotic plants with their tenfold size, which overflow from their containers or emerge from the façades, until they completely overhang them? Assembled from pieces of many different spaces, these compositions make their origins all the more difficult to define. While her works evoke to some the paintings of Douanier Rousseau by their fauna, or to others those of Giorgio de Chirico by their deprivation, the young woman plays with the history of art, representing for example with great precision the arches of the famous Annunciation of the convent of San Marco by Fra Angelico on a canvas, now emptied of its two biblical actors.
To the purity, the immobility and the inflexible structure of Claire Nicolet’s works, Valentin Ranger responds with the Dionysian abundance of his own. Where the former depicts with a certain distance and frontality exterior spaces from which the human seems to have disappeared, the latter immerses the spectator in the heart of interior worlds that infiltrate right under the epidermis, where hybrid and colored bodies cohabit, intermingle and even belch in scenes of orgiastic pleasure. Having first studied theater, this current student of the Beaux-Arts de Paris has transposed his sense of staging to his multidisciplinary practice, guided by an ambitious goal: the creation of a multi-media opera, mobilizing drawings, sculptures, 3D videos and even soundtracks, where the physical and the digital, the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, the frozen image and the moving one, would unite to play the jubilant symphony of a fertile world in constant transformation. In the corpus of the prolific artist, who presents here a hundred drawings and ex-votos in aluminum, some pastel-colored ceramics with heart-shaped faces and three films on screens, no element counts more than another – it is precisely from this profusion that emerges all the power of his “other spaces”, which the spectator will have to penetrate in order to feel it by himself. Among the types of heterotopias enumerated by Michel Foucault, the philosopher lingered on those bound “to the time in what it has of more futile, of more temporary, of more precarious, and that on the mode of the festival. (…) of the heterotopias no more eternal, but absolutely chronic.” There is indeed something festive and of at Valentin Ranger, in these colored and saturated drawings of bodies in fusion, or in these crossings to 360° of virtual rooms between Edenic gardens and dance floors, whose anthropomorphic creatures vibrate to the pulsations of an undetermined organism. For all that, these parties without beginning or end have, in the eyes of the artist, nothing futile or ephemeral: by building these dreamlike havens, the young man makes these beings exist in eternity, writing in the course of his works the epic of a community where the marginal and/or invisible populations of our society – sexual or gender minorities, or even HIV-positive people – would live together in harmony.
At first glance, everything opposes the practices of Claire Nicolet and Valentin Ranger. But beyond the apparent divergences, it is their points of convergence, more numerous than they appear, that make this face to face encounter so accurate. The antinomy between the absence of the living being in favor of the landscape in the first, and its abundance in the second, to the point of making its environment pass in the background, are in fact just as fallacious. Discreet, the human being is no less present in the works of Claire Nicolet, whose buildings, windows and door frames were all conceived according to the dimensions of our species, which the invasive vegetation depicted seems to encourage to humility. As for Valentin Ranger’s spaces, they count as much as the bodies in that they plunge the public into his dense imagination, deployed from the surface of the paper to that of the video screen. In their most recent works, moreover, both artists saturate their medium in their own way: despite the impression of emptiness often felt in front of Claire Nicolet’s paintings, for example, it would be very difficult to find a space not covered by the material. Just before citing the garden, Claire Nicolet’s constant obsession, as a type of heterotopia where several spaces can coexist, Michel Foucault gave the other example of theater scenes and their transformative capacity, allowing new spaces to constantly follow one another… just like the various situations simultaneously represented by Valentin Ranger in his material and virtual creations. The exhibition joyfully plays with these underlying dialogues to the point of inviting the young visual artists, both assiduous archivists of their practices, to expose their experiments in the gallery space. Along one wall hang dozens of sketches, words and sentences scribbled on A4 sheets by Valentin Ranger, original stages of his research revealed here for the first time, while on a table are arranged small assemblages in colored volume by Claire Nicolet, a space she will make her workbench during the exhibition.
In sum, the practices of both artists come together in the expression of a dream, each component of which emerges from a personal and collective unconscious. By their immobility and their non-events, the places depicted by Claire Nicolet attract the interest of a spectator, curious to know what hides these familiar frames and partitions. The scopic impulse thus awakened can then be satisfied, not to say shaken, in front of the raw and uninhibited scenes of Valentin Ranger, conductor of a poetic-organic meeting of bodies… to the point that one would like to imagine these visceral interiors shuddering and dripping behind the seemingly hermetic and smooth facades of his colleague. If Michel Foucault had not mentioned any work of art during his 1967 conference, he declared all the same how much certain heterotopias have “for role to create a space of illusion which denounces as more illusory still all the real space, all the places inside which the human life is cloistered.” Where Claire Nicolet wishes that her paintings “soothe the anguish of the tangible world by their zones of silence” and rebalance it thanks to a form of aesthetic harmony, Valentin Ranger seizes, on the contrary, the instability and the chaos of our unequal societies to give back their place to the left-behind, building thus a protean ecosystem based on balances of which the reality deprived us. Such is the common ambition of the “heterotopias” imagined by these two artists: to transform realities sometimes suffocating to generate new regimes of existence, whose aesthetic experience would help, with hope, to better apprehend the afflictions of our contemporary world.
1. Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres”, conference to the Circle of architectural studies, March 14, 1967, published in Architecture, Movement, Continuity, no 5 (1984).