Is it possible to talk for hours without saying anything? Or at least without saying anything logical? This is what drives the lectures by Belgian artist Éric Duyckaerts: to get us nowhere. His trade secret: improvise. He talks the way we ski, picking a slope at incredible speed without knowing ahead of time where it might lead.
MAC/VAL, Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Éric Duyckaerts, /idéo, ouvrage publié à l’occasion de l’exposition « /idéo » qui s’est tenue au MAC/VAL du 5 mars au 5 juin 2011, © MAC/VAL, 2011, entretien intitulé « Les mailles du tricot », à partir de la page 56.
« Les mailles du tricot », entretien cité page 61.
Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens, Comment tout peut s’effondrer, Petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes, Éditions du Seuil, Coll. « Anthropocène », Paris, 2015
Y. Cochet, « L’effondrement, catabolique ou catastrophique ? », Institut Momentum, 27 mai 2011.
Comment tout peut s’effondrer, op. cit., p. 261.
The April 27, 2019 edition of the newspaper Libération1 ran the following: “Death of a verbal tightrope walker: the extravagant and moving orator Éric Duyckaerts, artist from Liège known for his improvised conference-performances combining humor, fine arts and the popularization of knowledge, passed away on Saturday at the age of 65.” What better way to get a feel for these conference-performances than by sifting, without too much analysis, through some of the headlines dedicated to them between 1994 and 2007: “A post-philosophical novel”, “Demonstrations”, “Mutationals”, “On the Plurality of Discourses”, “Lacan, Mathematics, Hermès and the Artist”, “Éric Duyckaerts Para-Docte”, “Truths Which Aren’t”. Every title is a unique testament to the artist’s personality, which was both accessible and indiscernible.
His conferences were equally indiscernible, since Duyckaerts’ goal in performing them was to lose the audience in his psychic interlacing—a mesh of curveball, shattered phrases that offered no easy exits. Duyckaerts described his modus operandi by saying this: “You can compare it to downhill skiing: there are several paths, you can choose this or that bump or slope, but you have to do it fast.” “Inside my cranium there are possible bifurcations and I have to decide on the right speed. It’s not always the best one, sometimes you come to a dead-end, so you start over.”
But what are his conferences actually about?
What is Duyckaerts saying?
To better understand him, let’s quote several moments from an interview the artist gave in 2011 to French exhibition curator and art critic Frank Lamy, when he was invited to do a show2 at MAC VAL (Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne).
Lamy took this angle: “Let’s start with this phrase by French writer Joseph Mouton, who summarizes rather well some of the questions one might ask about your pieces: My God, but what is this man actually trying to tell us?”
Duyckaerts: “Where could he really be leading us? We won’t know because I don’t know either. Improvisation is unique in that one thing follows another in ways that surprise even me. As to the many references, anecdotes, different theories and topics that I bring up rather rudimentarily, but whenever possible with exactitude—or with the most precision that is within my feeble power—they are used as conversation starters to show a style of elocution, of persuasion, a style of person: sometimes enthusiastic, passionate about topics that he has explored himself, sometimes a bit blasé or dogmatic.”
To put it briefly: “But what is this man telling us?” The answer is: “We won’t know.” And precisely in suspending this unanswered question, in this gap, is where attitudes, figures, and styles slide in. Language subjects us to logic, but it carefully avoids taking ideas to a place where they might reach a conclusion, and in that sense, there is subtraction.
Duyckaerts relies enormously on language for his pieces. And he’s not alone. American conceptual artist Ian Wilson has spent even more years than him experimenting with what he calls Discussions: performance pieces that also rely on arduous language games. They consist for example of speculating on “the nature of truth”, “the human condition” or even “infinity”—incidentally, Duyckaerts and Wilson were both successful in brilliantly integrating philosophy to their art. Unlike Duyckaerts, who presented his conferences in the shape of films, an approach that may sometime seem indulgent, Ian Wilson always refused to record his Discussions. Naturally an artist turns to language when he has a hard time with objects and feels the need to subtract them from his practice. Let’s hear what Duyckaerts says about this: “When I was in my twenties, I was just starting out as an artist and saw a lot of exhibitions; at one point, it started to make me nauseous. I wrote a text about it: there are too many objects, it’s a gift shop, there’s too much… I thought about art at the time—it was over thirty years ago” in 2011 “—and I told myself: we shouldn’t make any more. It was a moral position, akin to the idea there’s too much pollution. My brother and I like to joke about it a bit. He’s not at all in the art world and he says: ‘You know, when archeologists find all this 2000 years from now, they’ll wonder, what was the use of this? And they’ll reply, ‘it most likely had some religious meaning…3’”
But let’s come back to what is of importance to the Chronicle’s point of view: There are many works of art that bring us nowhere. If the art we make represents our world, we could say that a world going nowhere is not necessarily heading for a wall.
For those who defend “collapsology”, from the Latin collapsus or “falling in one piece”, our society may very well be coming to an end.
In Comment tout peut s’effondrer, Petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes (How Everything May Collapse: A Small Collapsology Manual for the Present Generation4 published by Seuil in 2015, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, doctor of biology and eco-consultant, respectively, write5: “It’s not about the world ending, nor is it about the apocalypse. It also isn’t about a mere crisis that we will pull out of unscathed, or some random catastrophe that we can forget about a few months later, like a tsunami or a terrorist attack. A collapse is the process by which basic needs (water, food, shelter, clothing, energy, etc.) are no longer available (at a reasonable price) to a majority of the population through the governance of law6. So it is clearly an irreversible large-scale process, like the end of the world, yes, except it won’t be over! There is a lot to come, and we will have to live through it, with one thing for certain: We won’t have the resources to know what it will be made of. On the other hand, if our basic needs are affected, it’s easy to imagine that the situation will grow immeasurably catastrophic.
In the postface to Servigne and Stevens’ book, former French Environmental Minister Yves Cochet is justifiably shocked: “Is there any topic more important than what is addressed in this book? No. Is there any topic more ignored than this? No again.7” To which we might add: And art? Will it still have a place in all this? Will it still matter?
THIS WAS: An interest in that which goes nowhere as subtraction.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: © Anaïs Enjalbert