interdependent sculptures :
Spaceships of Bordeaux /
Vaisseaux De Bordeaux,
Suzanne Treister, with essay by Patrick Gyger
ESSAY BY PATRICK GYGER
SPACESHIPS OF BORDEAUX
There is a world beyond the world.
When he wrote this in 1926, H. P. Lovecraft understood that, whilst they had hitherto been harmless, the sciences would soon reveal our place in the universe: it would be a terrifying position, and an awareness of it would be sufficient to plunge us into bewilderment.
These sciences, which still remain a mystery, appear to be at the heart of Suzanne Treister’s discourse. In the Hexen 2039 project and through the alter ego of Rosalind Brodsky, Treister evokes a vast conspiratorial network, time-travellers and systems made to control our minds. This blend of sorcery and futurism is proclaimed even in the name of the project.
The question of the mysteries that surround us, and of the technological progress enabling us to come closer to understanding them and their hidden functions, is again the main theme in The Spaceships of Bordeaux.
It is thus no surprise that initially this undertaking is mapped out like a cabalistic Tree of Life: after all, this framework traditionally purports to be a mirror of the world. It is this kind of referential, coded mirror that the artist offers us here.
The exploration of our world proposed by the artist unfolds through processes of transformation that seem almost alchemical: materials are distilled and transformed; spaces are altered, re-evaluated.
The spaceship bursting from the river embodies the emergence and sublimation of the shipwrecks resting in the depths and also all of the memories buried with them.
Because extra-or infra-terrestrials, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Vrils, well and truly exist: in works of fiction. Whether they are actually amongst us, taking our physical form or coming down to visit us in their flying saucers, or whether they have captured some humans (or cows) with which to carry out experiments, is clearly another matter.
Treister refines the verisimilitude of her work, going so far as to appropriate fictional material in the most convincing way with the aim of playing with the suspension of the public’s incredulity. The way in which artists create this privileged relationship with their audience is, moreover, one of the foundations of science fiction. But this discourse has never been anything other than fictional. Despite appearances, we are far removed from real conspiracy theories or ufology. The notion of “What If” is used in a voluntarily puzzling but also playful manner; the imagined scenarios always remain conjectural.
Equally essential here is the idea of invasion and of potential occupation. The discovery that the vision of a flying machine directly leads us to make is a trip to the stars and beyond, and goes hand in hand with the behaviour of explorers from the past: they became conquerors. All newly-discovered lands were destined to be conquered: Ray Bradbury’s red planet in his Martian Chronicles (1950), for example, but also our own Earth, targeted by colonists in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). These invaders are nothing other than the echo of Europeans and their imperialist tendencies, and this analogy not only questions our expansionist yearnings, but also opens the way for authors like Ursula K. Le Guin to imagine heroes far-removed from the cliché of the conquering white male.
Bradbury, Wells and Le Guin hold a prominent place in the imagined pantheon of the Grand équatorial observatory in Floirac. Once again, whilst the telescope might be pointed towards the stars, it was actually our own realm that is examined through the diffracting prisms of science fiction.
The library installed there acts as a kind of cabinet of curiosities of the future and offers some clues for interpreting our environment. The works celebrate literary matter as being at the heart of all fiction, as readers of the Anglo-American Cyclopædia know only too well. In the same vein as the sibylline novels of the Renaissance, the golden age of alchemy, as in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, they spread a parallel and sometimes encrypted history in order to evoke the here and now.
Science fiction often portrays the future but clearly does not attempt to predict the world as it might be in years or centuries to come. The relationship established quite early on between technology and science fiction has pushed creators of the genre to seek out technical plausibility, which has led to the false but widely accepted idea that they were looking to evoke the future in order somehow to be able to conceive or even avert it. But unlike futurology, science fiction never forgets that it is still fiction; even if some works have been able to anticipate what was awaiting us to a certain extent (in the field of space, for example), these have above been all intelligent suppositions on the part of particularly inventive minds.
Not only are there a number of domains in which science fiction has imagined a futureless tomorrow (inhabited by flying cars, food in the shape of pills and robotic doubles), it equally has not foreseen some of the major features of our world today, like the omnipresence of computers and information technology.
It was above all in the twentieth century and, perhaps even more strangely, after the Second World War, with the ravages caused by the scientific developments of this period that the “World of Tomorrow” became omnipresent, appearing on the covers of magazines and providing the theme for international fairs, heralding a mythical Year 2000. It was inextricably linked to commercial innovation, serving to sell refuse-shrinkers as much as the slipper-warmers so dear to Boris Vian.
As a result, the futures evoked have very often been those that should most be avoided. In the observatory, utopians and counter-utopians abound: Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess and Doris Lessing. In this library of possible futures, utopia is not just any old Eden or Land of Cockaigne, but a suggested fictional society in some way supposedly better than ours on a certain number of points. It is a political project in a setting governed by the laws of reason, whether to be found on the isolated island that gave its name to the genre in the work of Thomas More or in a well-organised town, as might be the Bordeaux dreamed by some: isolated, uniform constructions, suitable for keeping the unruliness of nature at a distance – and which is, on the contrary, celebrated by the pavilions chosen by Treister. They tend towards perfection and immutability, whence the profound ennui they emanate.
These characteristics, added to the doubts regarding the progress linked to new technology running through Treister’s work, logically leads to dystopias: architecture subordinates citizens who have become nothing more than numbers, putting obedience before identity. In the world as we know it today, made of alternative truths and re-written History, the place given over to these counter-utopias implicitly reminds us that some forces, like love (in 1984 by George Orwell), cannot be controlled, and sometimes even lead to revolution.
For, beyond its entertainment value, science fiction as it is presented here works as a means of highlighting the potential or absurdity that we all carry within us. It is used in a number of books chosen by the artist, by Samuel R. Delany or Pierre Boulle, as a commentary on questions of identity or society, and carries within it a powerful and implicit political intention: in this way it simultaneously engenders caution and inspiration.
In fact, Treister claims the fact of questioning the past whilst at the same time alluding to a possibly brighter future. The place of science and technology is central in this line of thought, hence the homage to Jacques Ellul, who never stopped interrogating the uncontrolled expansion of technology, and who considered that it is machines that make the world. His series of books and those by other commentators on the technological society act as a non-fictional pendant to the observatory.
But, of course, science fiction is not based on science – which might come as a surprise for those who know little about it, which is clearly not Treister’s case. The field is principally concerned with discovery and change, and this evidently includes its relationship with technology, but not just that: the novelty also lies in experiments or different social behaviour for example. Even in works by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke or Stanislaw Lem, who appear to focus on technology, other questions quickly take centre stage: metaphysical questions always accompany deep-rooted mutations.
It is our reality that is at stake here, and science fiction likes to play with this material, going as far as looking for the meaning of the notions of space, time and being. In a manner that is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, Suzanne Treister raises ontological questions, challenging the limits of our perception and reason.
The installation of the “spaceships” on the banks of the Garonne, their relationship with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Bordeaux and the statues of Montesquieu and Montaigne, show that the artist has begun to mark out a territory in order to understand it better through symbolic representation. Just as a game of hopscotch is drawn in the shape of a church and represents the passage between the terrestrial and celestial spheres, and the redemption promised by religion, so Suzanne Treister prepares visitors for an experience that goes far beyond what can be seen at first glance. Firmly anchored in her environment, she continues here her vast map of potential territories and the ever-growing advancement of civilisation. From this point, the artist formulates her project as a new form of hermeneutics able to interpret our world, using a blend of ancient logic and hidden knowledge as subtle symbols that deform our current knowledge.
Pierre Versins wrote, she uses science fiction because “it’s
a universe greater than the known universe” and this then seems
essential in order
Through this she attempts to decipher “the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability” and opens “the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite.” (H. P. Lovecraft, 1921)
She weaves a path between the intimacy of her watercolours and what is made manifest in the books selected, between personal cosmologies and common illusions. Her diagrams make microcosms and macrocosms collide into each other, systems of flux in water policies and clusters of stars visible from a library: previously unknown asterisms.
In the end, there is no literal philosopher’s stone, but for those who know how to decipher these worlds laid out in layers and strata, slotted into each other like a puzzle, transmuted by her vision, a great work nevertheless emerges: a revelation, our place in a world that is astonishing because it is we who have built it.
to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing
that is hidden