Can an artwork exist beyond its physical dimension? If it isn’t material, can we still consider it art? This is the line of reflection suggested by Édouard Levé in his book Œuvres, which “describes the works an author has thought of but has not produced”. Behind this challenge hides the author’s penchant for “eccentric and over-agitated marginalized people” that artist Robert Filliou so aptly embodied.
In Œuvres1, a book by French writer and artist Édouard Levé published in 2002 by P.O.L, there are several subtractions of interest, for example:
Fragment 354: “Instead of being set on the tabletop, dishes are inlaid.”
Fragment 408: “In a museum, paintings are covered in black paper and sculptures draped in black fabric. Only frames, stands and title cards remain visible.”
Fragment 456: “A one-deciliter jar containing a liter of dehydrated water.”
The meaning behind the Œuvres collection is explained on the very first page: “A book describes the works an author has thought of but has not produced.”
Not produced = subtraction. Here, however, is a not-produced work by Levé that we want to discuss in today’s chronicle:
Fragment 520: “A bullet shoots a hole in a novel. The missing words are found in another copy. A short story called The Hole consists exclusively of these words.”
This procedure reminds us that any and all subtraction “fills elsewhere”, that there is never any pure or complete subtraction, rather a displacement; subtracting from one place means adding somewhere else. It’s mathematical, if not geological (think of tectonic plates that crumble on one side only to re-emerge on another).
Already in “One Less Manifesto”2, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, speaking about Italian theater director Carmelo Bene, writes: “you begin by subtracting, deducting everything that would constitute an element of power, in language and in gestures, in the representation and in the represented. You cannot even say that it is a negative operation because it already enlists and releases positive processes.”
In a recently published article in Libération3, Philippe Lançon reports on the publication of Les forçats, a book by Bruno Gibert that recounts the years he spent with Édouard Levé (published in 2019 by Editions de l’Olivier).
A writer today, Gibert describes multiple dramatized situations involving Levé. Gibert analyzes his friend’s unique personality: “Levé”, he writes in Les forçats, “gladly follows all manner of eccentric and over-agitated marginalized people in the streets, for instance a homeless man with Tourette’s who yells ‘Go jack yourself off with your éclairs!’ at the baker.” Gibert continues, “One day I understood why my friend was so interested in freaks. Someone who never sought conflict, never took a stance that could be considered aggressive, who kept his outer appearance as smooth as possible, suddenly took pleasure in being immersed in the anti-neutral.” Levé nurtured an “absolute taste for the neutral”. In his article, Lançon comes to the conclusion: “Gibert and Levé are players, but they have principles: maintaining distance, cool sarcasm, practically militant reserve when it comes to the world’s complacent excess.”
This begs us to wonder about neutrality, just as we wondered about blandness in another Subtraction Chronicle.
Oh, but maybe that’s redundant. Let’s look deeper into the “freak” aspect, as Bruno Gibert calls it.
To do so, we can consult a specialist on the subject, Patrick Declerck, educated in philosophy, a doctor of anthropology and psychoanalyst. In 1986, Declerck developed his first sessions dedicated entirely to hearing what the homeless population in France had to say. Back then, he conducted nearly 2000 interviews. In his introduction to his book Les naufragés, Avec les clochards de Paris4, Declerck writes, “I followed homeless people in the street, in shelters, at the hospital. I met them when they were drunk, loud or in alcohol-induced coma-like states, haggard from rage and powerlessness.” “I think I was able to provide relief for many of them,” “I know that I healed none”, “I call them bums because I had to give them a name.” Declerck meets Michel5 at Gare du Nord train station in Paris during his first ethnographic study, which he conducted in the streets. “Michel” recounts the author, “was thirty-eight at the time. He was a chain smoker and often smelled like wine, although,” Declerk explains, “I’d never seen him drunk.” “Michel’s life, as he told it, induces a kind of unease,” says Declerck, “that of powerlessly witnessing a drowning man who cannot control his destiny, one he could not fathom, not even for an instant, that it was in his control to design.” “Insidiously, through his wanderings, and administrative improbabilities notwithstanding, he calmly led us to observe something that is, at the very least, terrifying: He misplaced his own son in the great chaos of the world, like one might lose an object or an escaped dog.” And Declerck adds, “In this context, pathology has become such a norm that it appears practically routine, in any case inevitable and traced back to a series of chain events; horror smoothed over by banality makes its way into the mind by this suggested etiology, as if that were simply the way of the world.”
So let’s connect all this to the figure of the artist: “Artists come up with strange ways to earn money, when they make any at all.” This was said by French artist Robert Filliou, famous for “Mona Lisa is on The Stairs”, a piece he made in 1969. In the 1960s, Filliou wrote “Enseigner et apprendre, arts vivants” (“Teaching and learning, performing arts”, published in French only6). The text analyzes the figure of the artist from an economic perspective: “In fact, quite frequently; the freer an artist, the more deprived. Which testifies to a different value system, with applications for the whole of society. Take me, for example, at this very moment (November 1968). For the past two years I’ve been working on this book, with some interruptions. Lately I’ve been working on it regularly. And yet, I have no idea if it will ever be published, furthermore, if it will lead to any remuneration after it’s been published. I cannot pay my rent, but I carry on, and rather happily. Conversely, look at Picasso.7” Later in the text, things frankly start to spoil and grow reminiscent of Declerck’s aforementioned book: “On a rainy gloomy night, while pissing in the toilets at Edgware Road tube station (in London), surrounded by bums, drunks and other night owls, I felt a sudden joy in realizing how much I resembled my companions, that I was a loser, nothing more than a loser, pissing with the simple diligence of a dog. (Some of my more realistic friends speak to me in terms of: complex and vagrant, masochism, psychology of failure)8”
Filliou seeks to transform this observation into “a new value theory”, which will serve as a conclusion for our Subtraction Chronicle today. He writes, “Optimal production, distribution and consumption of goods and services will have been reached once every person is rich enough to live like the poor. Everything else is leisure. By contributing to the creative use of this leisure, the artist becomes a service provider, enabling him to make enough money to live like the poor and take advantage of his own creativity, freedom and independence.9”
THIS WAS: Neutrality as subtraction, being nothing as a subtraction and subtracting somewhere in order to add someplace else.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: © Anaïs Enjalbert