The Gears and the Grain of Sand: A Fable
Writing about an artist’s work means examining both the artist and the work with respect to their period, in a relationship that may be emblematic at times, and at odds with it at others. Martin Le Chevallier works have such a particular fragrance, a tonality so very atypical in today’s art world that viewers accustomed to a more orthodox reference system may feel somewhat taken aback. As to the marks of the period, readers may rest assured: Martin Le Chevallier was born in May 68. When he describes himself as self-taught, it should be taken with a grain of salt. He earned a degree in graphic design from the ESAG in Paris where he studied with Roman Cieslewicz, working subsequently as his assistant for a time, then took classes at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs but left before graduating for a job as a graphic designer. This activity, solo or in collaboration, led him to produce documents as much in the field of art as in business, and this has had a far-reaching influence on his work as an artist. He was also for a number of years one of the art directors at the French daily Libération. He says he became an artist by chance after he met Jean-Charles Massera (1) who invited him to take part in the exhibition Le temps libre : son imaginaire, son aménagement, ses trucs pour s’en sortir (Deauville, France, 1999). The work he proposed, titled Wager 1.0, took the form of a CD-ROM designed on the idea of a computer addressing the employees of some unspecified company. Right from the outset then, a significant part of the world that he was soon to develop was already in place; the world and also the supports to which it is suitably anchored—namely, recent innovations in the field of communications (a CD-ROM, in this case)—but also the vocabulary of management, interactivity in the form of games or videos, etc. One of these games, Vigilance 1.0 (2001), has players catching and denouncing illegal behavior on the part of the characters: not crossing at the crosswalk, for example, or throwing a piece of paper on the sidewalk rather than in the trash. When players report an infraction, their score goes up; but a false report constitutes libel and brings the score down. A game of this type, which can be played at home or in the exhibition space, is one of Martin Le Chevallier’s original contributions to the extension of the field of art.
The Fox and the Stork
Before pursuing our exploration of the world that was to take shape in the 2000s, and in an attempt to understand its specific nature, it may be useful for the reader to know that Martin Le Chevallier came from a family of … well, artists. His grandfather (2) was a master glassmaker. In his workshop, where his son and daughter-in-law, the artist’s parents, joined him, he made stained glass windows for churches, including Notre-Dame de Paris, and for the non-religious architecture of Robert Mallet-Stevens, as well as lamps. A modern artist, close to the avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 30s, his personal taste later led him to become an admirer and practitioner of painting in the manner of the School of Paris whose heyday was in the 1950s. This option, so to speak, evidenced a wariness with regard to the Duchampian position, Dadaism, and all the attitudes that were to produce conceptual art and, more broadly, a significant portion of contemporary art. But then a fox got into the henhouse in the form of a distant family member, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, (3) who raised photography of the everyday to the rank of high art, much to the annoyance of the glassmaking grandfather. The ambivalence characteristic of Lartigue’s world, joining the most charming lightness to the sweet nostalgia of the lost paradise of childhood, is something we will find a century later in Martin Le Chevallier’s work. This dual register is what we will now endeavor to describe. The Le Chevallier family then had chosen its side, and it was in an abrupt and spontaneous manner, the result of the marriage of the fox (School of Paris) to the stork (graphic design), that the young man took to the shores of contemporary art. And while we’re on the subject of ill-matched marriages, I must say I’m inclined to think that the singular beauty of Martin Le Chevallier work is born, it too, from the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.
There have been many attempts, since the sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger book on creativity as labor, (4) to equate artistic and entrepreneurial activity, all too often, and to the point of caricature, with an instrumental intent: art is reduced to an ordinary commodity, subject to the mechanisms of an orthodox liberal economy, and the artist is urged to re-enter the established economic circuit of production and circulation of consumer goods, and abandon the “cultural exception” that was ardently defended by France for a while. With The Audit, Martin Le Chevallier tackles head-on an issue that, though not downright taboo, still causes embarrassment and denial. The voice-off text would be simply hilarious if it weren’t for an odd mix of stupefaction and truth that sends shivers down the spine. It is a text, finally, that demonstrates a quality rare in works today: an exceptional capacity to make use of established modes of expression while keeping to a minimum the humoristic and hence the critical discrepancy. This minute distance leaves open the possibility not so much of a double reading, a standard feature of the ironic approach, as of the freedom of the receiver in face of what Umberto Eco called the opera aperta, or open work.
Martin Le Chevallier’s contribution to the FIAC 2009 was Ocean Shield, a “contextual” performance in the Tuileries Garden. He introduced police patrol boats into the pool where children were peacefully steering toy sailboats. From this intervention, a documentary film remains. Yet it is a photo taken by a passerby blogger (5) that the artist considers renders the spirit of the piece best. “Contextual” is no doubt the key term for Martin Le Chevallier’s artistic concerns, even when he’s drawing subjects from a mythicized past, as we will see. Because it is a matter for him of approaching the reality of the world with a keen eye, uncompromising yet light, almost buoyant, infused with goodwill and poetry, and with humor and discordance as method. On the occasion of the 2009 edition of the “Parcours Saint-Germain-Des-Prés,” a neighborhood cultural event, he proposed to intervene very discretely yet firmly at the very heart of the real. The idea was to turn Café de Flore into a PMU bar (6) simply by having “PMU bar” appear on all the receipts. He wasn’t even given the chance to present the thing to the owner of the bistro. Small gestures, sometimes, undermine the placid appearance of things, the unchanging stability of the status quo. The grains of sand that Martin Le Chevallier slips into the gears of reality constitute a bona fide generic category in his body of work, with disturbances, bugs, and other programed breakdowns acting as both the aim and the method, as we have seen. The fact that many of these projects did not see the light of day for a variety of reasons participates in their subversive nature itself. In 2014, for an exhibition on video games in Israel, he proposed to have a plane towing a banner over the beaches of Tel Aviv with the words “Game over”. The project was not selected. Neither were his two projects for representing France at the Venice Biennale. His 2014 project was to sell the French pavilion (to a rich Gulf state, for instance) and use the money to build a floating art center, flying no national flag. In 2016, he proposed disassembling the French pavilion and using the materials to reinforce the foundations of La Serenissima against the threat of rising waters. Projects in the same spirit include The Failing Student Guide, Zhang-Laffitte, and Bugs, where the artist, by deconstructing situations and effecting very small reversals, manages to upset a phenomenon, a place, or a process, partially or completely.
Games remain one of Martin Le Chevallier’s original contributions to contemporary art practices; interactive videos form the second component thereof. The one and the other precede both the contextual pieces and the film work that now makes up the lion share of his output. In his 2001 Oblomov, loosely adapted from Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel, the character (played by artist Olivier Bardin), a partisan of “I would prefer not to,” finds himself thrown into action only because of the viewer who hits a button by the screen. The same goes for his ambitious medium-length film The Butterfly (2005), where the actor Mathieu Amalric would go on daydreaming with no purpose every time he achieves his ambitions if it weren’t for the viewer again who by clicking becomes an actor or at least a decision-maker in a story that she thereby reactivates, throwing the character into new adventures. Reactivating in the process questions common to both films, and to the games too, which go way beyond the strict protocol set up in these works: What drives people to intervene? What motivating force drives the character as much as the viewer? When and for what reasons does the viewer decide to “make the work,” if only by disturbing it? The specter of responses, which is immense, from Alexandre Le Bienheureux and Pierrot Le Fou to Bartleby by Herman Melville, reflects the amplitude of Martin Le Chevallier’s œuvre, and its ambivalent tonality, between critical perspective and spontaneous fantasy.
In considering what is most contemporary and most personal in the artist’s work, particular attention should be paid to his pronounced taste for storytelling and hence his recurrent use thereof. This propensity for storytelling draws on literature, among other things, and one of his literary sources is Jean Echenoz, a novelist whom he’s spent a lot of time reading. The latter’s very French precision in wording and elegant style, crafted and developed with a clear tonality, verging on detachment, without ever losing anything of the gist of what’s being said, could only appeal to the artist. French too this moralistic stance that Voltaire brought to a pinnacle in his tales and novels. There are echoes of Micromégas, and even more of Candide in many of Martin Le Chevallier’s works, which resonate with this false naiveté that contributes to a reading of the world in which the viewer in the case of the artist and the reader in the case of the writer become full-fledged participants. Martin Le Chevallier’s storytelling talent is exercised to its fullest in his films, but there isn’t a work by him, be it a game or a site-specific installation, that does not rest on the enchantment of the fable. These narratives, which intersect as much globalized space as anthropological time, assume a variety of forms; one of the most telling examples is a project presented at the Domaine Départemental du Dourven (France) (7) in the summer of 2015. Walking down the lane leading to the exhibition gallery, visitors see that most of the pine tree trunks have blue ribbons wrapped around them bearing a first name. The international variety of these marks of identity—Gabriel Juliao, Forsina, Esther, Gao Yue, Faizullah, Hamidou, etc.— sparks curiosity. By the end of the exhibition, the story comes full circle with a video that reveals how each one of these individuals, all migrants, met his or her death trying to get to Europe: each name as a sign of a tragic story. It’s a heavy load to bear, all the more so against this idyllic backdrop, facing one of the most wonderful views of the ocean that one could ever imagine. The tension that resided, until this work, in the slight discrepancy between the gravity of the content and the narrative tone, is grounded here in the contrast between the peaceful beauty of the setting and the violence of what is made visible there. This project seems to mark a departure in his style if not in content, and it heralds an inflection: in the ambivalence between gravity and fantasy, it seems that it is the former that now prevails, even though one can still hear a certain poetry tinged with optimism welling up from the voices played through headphones on the veranda, as if in counterpoint to the chaos of lost names. His last work at the time of this writing, (8) condenses in a form that is both chilling and minimal (and that, as a result, avoids being ponderous) most of the characteristics touched upon in his earlier works. It is a piece that finds a patent echo and conceptual confirmation in the 2013 essay by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, Théorie du drone, (9) even though it was formulated before he read the book. For one thing, there’s the title, Le Faux bourdon, or The Male Bee in English, which is the original definition of the term drone. The installation comprises six large-size images forming a slowly moving landscape, accompanied by a voice-off narrating how a strategy video game veteran, without knowing it, has been “chosen” by an imperial power to conduct real drone strikes.
It is however in his more strictly cinematographic output that the artist’s recourse to narrative is most obvious. He has made a number of what could be described as fiction/concept films, all marked by an inimitable witty, offbeat, and invariably pertinent tone, and featuring, among others, the excellent actor Gaëtan Vourc’h who plays in The 2008 Village (2010), a burlesque fable about the so-called subprime crisis, and Attila’s Garden (2012). The didactic sounding dialogues that compose The 2008 Village seem so understandable that one gets the feeling that globalization and its disastrous effects are intelligible at last. Yet the sum of particular comprehensions does not make for a global comprehension; and this could very well be a good definition for globalization. To speak of economics somewhat in the manner of an economist but not exactly, to produce both lucidity and opacity, or at least uncertainty, and to do so in a rigorous format, this is something only art can do … Another thing that makes this film appealing, like Münster subsequently, is its comic book aesthetic, with its narrative structured in sequences like so many juxtaposed panels. Martin Le Chevallier has not forgotten his teenage dream of becoming a comic book author, after a childhood bathed in the light of Tintin, the only comic books his family allowed him to read, worried as they were that they’d “damage his sight.”
Attila’s Garden, a medium-length film informed by rigorous bibliographic research, questions the notion of abolition and the idea of the clean slate through examples of utopias and totalitarianism, of private property and giving, of heritage and money, of family, children, learning, communities across the ages, great visionaries, etc. One of the references in Attila’s Garden, the cargo cult, was to become the subject of a new work, The Cargo Ship (2013), (10) a story with an anthropological tone that again evokes the question of the ties between Western modernity and indigenous beliefs, against a backdrop of triumphant globalization. The primacy of context, once more.
Martin Le Chevallier’s cinematographic corpus was expanded significantly with the release of Münster (2016). This 48-minute film, (11) an accomplished synthesis of a universe and a style all his own, underscores many of the artist’s concerns and evidences his indisputable mastery of the medium. Münster is about a page in the history of what Catholicism described as heresy, one that is not as well known as the more striking events surrounding the tragic history of the Cathars. In Münster in Westphalia, between February 1534 and June 1535, an attempt was made to establish a sort of theocratic utopia. This radical Reformation revolt, conducted by Anabaptists under the leadership of Jan Matthys and then John of Leiden, figures in Marguerite Yourcenar L’Œuvre au noir (The Abyss). The rebellion preached a form of Communism (before the term existed), the common ownership of property, polygamy, and more. Two debonair soldiers, subject to theatrical conventions, narrate the story with its tragic ending, their “official” exposition counterbalanced by an Anabaptist nailed to a cross. Color and black-and-white, portraiture and landscape alternate in stark scenes composing a fable that takes up questions of official history, the writing of history by the victors, and how to represent history. Here as elsewhere, it proves difficult to resist the conclusion that utopian projects are doomed, that dreams of absolute perfection, with regard to liberty, equality, or fraternity, inevitably lead to totalitarianism. As for the millenarian and apocalyptic accents with which the film resonates, how could they not call to mind the current sanguinary, fanatic revolts against the backdrop of a final confrontation? Münster manages this delicate balance between the deliberate weightiness of the subject matter and this very particular tone, with a humor that is even subtler and more strained, almost to breaking point. Far from the serious spirit and literal, simplistic denunciations with which art abounds in recent years, the film evinces an astonishingly open outlook and a non-authoritarian intelligence that is truly political.
The narrative thrust in Martin Le Chevallier’s work hinges on a double sensory convocation, at once auditory and scopic, not just insofar as cinema presupposes this, but also in the form of spatial mechanisms and installations. His exhibitions nearly always feature a “voice-off” played through speakers or headphones, in relation to the images or independently, delivering a narration. This is the case for The Cargo Ship in particular but also for several elements of The Day They Arrived, discussed above. It’s also the case for The Male Bee. Whereas voice-off texts have punctuated Martin Le Chevallier’s output ever since Bliss, they have now become one of the fundamental wellsprings of his work, to the point that there is every reason to see these carefully crafted texts as serious pieces of writing and Le Chevallier as a writer. Thus, by the agency of language and its rhetoric, the images derive from the text and from the act of listening, as an alternative to the properties of the classical picture, and a tribute to the transformative cinema of the likes of Godard, Straub, Huillet, Akerman, and many others. There is also something in the works of this artist that cannot be reduced to the classic viewing experience opposite a screen or a painting, and that explores in a more ambitious way other modalities with a manifest theoretical and political thrust. The occurrences thereof are varied: from the tower viewer pointed down at a hypermarket, suggesting that this is an archetypical 20th-century landscape, (12) as alluring as it is toxic, to Solipsism (2011), where bleachers are installed in the window of an art gallery (13) and viewers invited to sit and watch the street, thereby becoming viewing objects in turn. This is the case as well for The Ancestors’ Smile (2014), where the eye peeping through a hole in the wall is seen by two Mankaignes warriors, laughing hilariously. Such small holes in the wall and the surprises they reserve for us abound in Martin Le Chevallier output: witness The Didier Daurat School Secrets (2014) and Invaders Welcome (2015), which transforms the voyeuristic impulse into a political vision. Beneath their friendly, playful exterior, these scopic devices trigger a reflection on the foundations of the panoptic world, as described by Michel Foucault, which traps and alienates us and suggests the possibility of its inversion.
Martin Le Chevallier’s body of work is now extensive and varied, just as The Audit recommended. It would be impossible in the context of this article to present each piece and unravel all the threads. But based on the discussion so far, several observations can be made that will serve as a provisional conclusion. Martin Le Chevallier’s frequent incursions into other places and other times both historical and geographic cannot dissemble the fact that for him it is always, without exception, a matter of the present, the here and now. Whether he is working on the investigative mode, real (15) or fictive, by direct, forthright allusion, (15) or using multiple protocols of participation, listening, and viewing, he is always examining the polished appearance of the social, economic, and political mechanisms that hold us in their grip and whose consequences, on our exercise of freedom and our conception of truth, we cannot always perceive. The amiability that he generally uses, superposed on the very contemporary suaveness of these injunctions, produces not so much flat denunciations as mixed feelings, between constrained pleasure and an awareness of the scope of the damage. Finally, if these feelings seems so accurate and operative to us, it’s because they are the result of formal and aesthetic alternatives with the power to reveal the pernicious forms and aesthetics which our period has embraced with deadly delight.
1. They initially met in 1997 when they were both working on a journal in the framework of the “États Généraux de la culture.”