Aurelien Froment: ‘Of Shadow of Ideas’ at NCAD Gallery

A few notes written to accompany Aurelien Froment’s current exhibition at NCAD Gallery.

http://www.ncad.ie/gallery-event/view/aurelien-froment

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Of Shadow Of Ideas: Four Essay Fragments.

1.

One of the standard — and so hackneyed — ways in which a response to an exhibition can begin is with the throat-clearing line ‘When I first entered the gallery ….’ The first-person voice sets up a recognizable, stabilizing perspective: a position from which to begin a preliminary survey. But this clichéd opening statement also hints at a coming narrative of critical progression: as if, following these first impressions, there will be further realizations, deeper understanding, maybe even a decisive repudiation of an initial take.  One part of this progression may be the discovery of what is fundamental to the exhibition and what, within the visual field engaged or created by the exhibiting artist, can be considered as merely incidental. Such conclusions may be determined by historical convention (we find meaning in the places we expect to find it) or by personal inclination (seeing something that connects with something we already value) or by other less predictable factors.  Sometimes, though — often in a case where we are confronted by especially confounding or compelling combinations of images — there is the strong sense that any one take on the exhibition will not satisfy, and that the work requires from us repeat encounters and even continually revised assumptions. Writing about an extended research period spent viewing two paintings by Poussin in the Getty Institute, Los Angeles, T.J. Clark records that “astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again; aspect after aspect of the picture seems to surface, what is salient and what incidental alter bewilderingly from day to day, the larger order of the depiction breaks up, recrystallizes, fragments again, persists like an afterimage”[1]. This effortful but unforced altering of priorities — this ‘bewildering’ process of noticing new details, new visual connections, from new points of view — is a way of gradually animating static images. It’s a way of seeing single images change, again and again, depending on the company that they keep; a way of seeing them differently within their world — and so too, then, of seeing the wider world differently. It is a way of seeing that, perhaps, we experience all too rarely.

2.

On Monday 29th February, 2016, as Aurelien Froment was hanging the exhibition Of Shadow of Ideas  — an elliptical title that seems to name an indistinct part of something we can’t see the whole of — I watched him, through the glass door of the NCAD gallery, talking with a group of MA Art in the Contemporary World students. The exhibition had — in part — been conceived and developed through such conversation. A series of MA seminars, offering a sense of expanded vision around some signal modern and contemporary art works, had culminated in this moment of careful selection and presentation. Observing from a distance, it was intriguing to see an exhibition emerging out of many parts and points of view. As the class participants shared perspectives on the exhibition as it came into being, they stood among the hanging glass panels that form the show’s distinctive display system. These partially see-through panes feature combinations of montaged photographs that can either be seen from the ‘front’ or ‘back’ of each suspended frame. There is no single, privileged position from which to view these vertical, double-sided image-vitrines; and each combination of images becomes part of wider, shifting combinations of images as we change position in the gallery. Planned collaboratively, conversationally, through the work of the MA classes, these image-groups — composed, in total, of around ninety individual pictures — relate to particular ongoing artistic research projects that have been undertaken by Froment. These are investigations into the idiosyncrative cultural perspectives of three creatively singular figures: the extraordinary ‘outsider’ architect (and postman by day) Ferdinand Cheval; pioneering educational thinker Frederick Fröbel; and experimental architect and urban planner Paolo Soleri.  Froment has sought to celebrate and study these artists’ viewpoints from his own unique artistic position in the present. Each, in their own, way, conceived of visions of the world that were somewhat at an angle to accepted reality. Each, whether from personal obsession or more publically inclined motivations, proposed unorthodox ways of piecing the world together: conceiving of alternative visions of progress — projections, even, of another, better world. Frenchman Cheval worked entirely on his own, using all available spare time, to construct a highly individual ‘Palais idéal’: a huge, intricate structure assembled from found stones — rocks collected on his daily walks that were accumulated and shaped into a personal castle at his home in Hauterives, France, over a period of thirty-three years. German pedagogue Fröbel produced, among his many educational innovations, materials for children’s play that consisted of basic, geometric building blocks: simple forms that allowed learning to occur through playful, gradual processes of assembling.   Italian architect Soleri dedicated many years to the development of ‘Arcosanti’: a town and community in Arizona, USA, where new, environmentally sensitive modes of interaction between people and place were understood as central to the process of building, eventually, an alternative type of city. Clustering and unpredictably assorting images that, sometimes obliquely, document aspects of these remarkable artists’ achievements, Froment and students from the MA Art in the Contemporary World have allowed these curious histories to appear together in a manner that facilitates further, alternative perspectives. And seeing the agreed, organized, but decisively ‘unstable’ selection of images relating to Cheval, Fröbel and Soleri — catching corner-of-the-eye correspondences and associations between separate images and between neighbouring panes of supporting glass —  allows us to wonder, from our own specific but unfixed perspective, how do these pictures relate? Which visual information here is the most important information? What might I be missing as I move from one point of view to another? What happens to these images — these divergent histories — as they coincide, and as they appear and disappear?

3.

Reflecting on Froment’s means of newly combining images, newly positioning manifold visual documents relating to the lives and careers of Cheval, Fröbel and Soleri — this context-specific re-ordering of images that continue to preoccupy him — my mind is sent back to a short text that I wrote in January 2013 about one of his earlier exhibitions. In this piece I emphasised the educational dimension of Froment’s practice, concentrating on his deliberately, but mischievously, ‘instructional’ style. His work, I mused at the time, involved a process of showing-and-telling on numerous, ostensibly unconnected, subjects. His film works (of which there are many) can adopt styles similar to how-to guides or offbeat educational documentaries. Rabbits (2009), for instance, is a close-up practical demonstration of how to tie eight distinct nautical knots — the stages of each nifty technique captured in an accompanying kid-friendly rhyme (such as: “Build a well, a rabbit comes out of the hole, circles around the tree, and jumps back into the hole.”). Such works are Froment’s idiosyncratic variants of the ‘information film’ — and they could easily convince as summarizing visual essays on esoteric topics, condensed guides that might credibly serve as resources in a teaching context. His work involves studiously controlled compositions that point to communicative clarity as a prized virtue. But again (as I reflected at the time) the influence of figures such as Fröbel — who has had a recurring and profound influence on Froment’s methods and interests — also points to the value of play as an educational priority.Froment’s skill (as I wrote before) is in ‘staging’ expert knowledge in ways that seem recognizable, trustworthy and historically grounded — while at the same time introducing acute instabilities into these established situations of presentation and reception. In his work — including this newly conceived combination of photographic material at NCAD gallery — a carefully nuanced style of authoritative presentation is allowed to incorporate an essential degree of doubt.

4.

In the publication accompanying a group exhibition that she curated in 2005, Tacita Dean recalls finding a box of Christmas decorations in a Berlin antique shop. Contained within this box was a gold star, one that precisely corresponded to the appearance of a little artwork she knew by the German painter and sculptor Thomas Scheibitz. The design of this star, she subsequently discovered, was well known in Germany — making Scheibitz’s sculpture more culturally specific than Dean had realized. This star is known as a Fröbelstern, after its inventor Friedrich Fröbel — and, as Dean notes, Scheibitz had “made his star exactly as Fröbel instructed, from four strips of equal length material … folded together.”[2] Within this found, antique-box assortment, then, were accidental connections to an admired artist-peer, and to an historically important educational pioneer. The serendipitous connection opened up for Dean new perspectives, new points of imaginative association. She links a memorial to Fröbel in Bad Blankenburg, Germany — three simple concrete shapes in the style of his famed educational toys; a monument that we also see in photographs featured in Froment’s installation at NCAD Gallery — to idioms of modernist sculpture and then, further, to the “unmistakable building blocks of some of Paul Nash’s imagery: shapes from childhood — pure form in the invention of play.” Dean’s associative thinking here has a similar lateral dynamism — and a related, searching interest in re-organising historical material  — to that found in Froment’s picture montages. Introducing Ferdinand Cheval, Frederick Fröbel and Paolo Soleri to each other and to us, Froment asks, like Dean, for us to consider new ways of composing and positioning historical research, just as he also urges — and seeks — new ways of paying attention.

March 2016

 

[1] T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.5.

[2] Tacita Dean, An Aside: Works Selected By Tacita Dean (London: Hayward gallery, 2005).

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