Art as a world practice

By Mickaël Roy
Art critic

“As if experiencing a mirage, or immersed in a representation, we are often faced with a reflection. We see photographs rather than true situations and become forgetful of the present. The screens that permeate our everyday lives, like an exhibition space, are filled with a series of representations.” (Marianne Villière, July 2020)

MIRAGE MIRAGE. Derived from the Latin miror, mirari – “to see and be astonished” – the word “mirage” retains a sense of awe. Just as the title of this exhibition by Marianne Villère is a repetition of the word designating an optical illusion by which distant objects appear inversed, so the title itself also appears to function as a reflexive figure of speech. In that sense it is much like the exhibition itself, the works it comprises and the contemporary world they describe: a world saturated with social, political, physical and cognitive experiences that are both coercive and disarming. The works in this exhibition are likewise reflexive; they resist common sense and leave room for free interpretation, offering repose to the senses and opening zones of disruption and resistance against information.

Marianne Villière’s work is usually performed in the interstices of society. But with MIRAGE MIRAGE, she has created an exhibition of tangible works, each of which addresses a gentle critique – and fosters a subtle yet keen perception – of certain aspects of the world we share. Fragments of that world are imported into the exhibition space, such as: a tendency for external appearances and dangers to obscure what is essential (Chercher un brin, Abri de galerie); our temptation to sink into realms of comfortable pastiche (Sitcom Laugh (installed as part of Salon), Ennui, The spectator is present); the supremacy of the artificial over the natural and the need for environmental consciousness (GPGP Sound, Paradise, Magic Trees, Captures, Météo, Épouvantails, Alouette, gentille alouette, Pollinisation, Planet B); and the specter of permanent surveillance that coexists alongside an invitation to festivities and celebration (Nazar Camera, Disco Drone, Infinity Party, La fête est finie). 

Valse, 2020 (7, 28 min) 
Sound creation with Catherine Elsen


Narcisses, Mirror, 2020. 60 x 60 cm _ photo: Mike Zenari

The era evoked in MIRAGE MIRAGE is one bound by apparatuses and systems – and the objects and events in which they are embodied – that were created by humans to dictate the desires and actions of other humans, all with the goal of capturing and captivating minds, of dispersing our personal subjectivity in a multipolar and disruptive commotion. Economic, political and informational power has the unfortunate ability to cannibalize free will and subjugate it to desires masqueraded as needs that can be satisfied with short-termism and entertainment. And thus the party never stops: narcissism and pleasure can never rest so long as capitalism dominates our attention and stokes the flames of egotism and self-absorption to which so many people today have fallen victim, only to become the collateral damage of consumerism without ever realizing that their passion is a sad one. Forty years after Guy Debord used the Latin palindrome In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni – “We circle in the night and are consumed by fire” – as the title for his 1981 film about contemporary society’s fascination with consumer goods, Villière has engraved the same phrase above a profusion of narcissus flowers on a circular mirror. The phrase’s inclusion adds another layer of commentary on today’s consumerism and hyper-spectacularization, suggesting that individual subjectivity in the 21st century is losing the fight against the standardization of sociocultural practices.

Competition of lies, 2020 (3, 14 min) 
sound creation with Catherine Elsen

Faced with this reality, Villière explores the possibility of forging affordances that often take the guise of humor, or of the very systems she critiques. For example, her Selfie Stick Skirt – a hunter’s belt equipped with an array of selfie sticks – likens the constant quest for the perfect self-image with a manhunt: one that is virtual in nature but nonetheless has an impact on physical postures, subjectivities, the use of public spaces, even social interactions.

La fête est finie, performance, 2020. 40min 
performer : Julien Loizelet / photo: Mike Zenari

la fête est finie

In sum, Villière evokes a world in which our attention is encumbered by objects and images that our production- and consumption-focused society uses to coerce us into adopting the actions and needs that it dictates; these objects and images become technological crutches to our sensory experience. Though Villière’s work both draws on and accumulates within artistic spaces, it has its roots in a form of experimentation that takes the outside world – public space – for its the laboratory. In other words, it occurs at the margins of today’s world, in spaces that would normally be considered infra-aesthetic, but where an exploration of the frictions between life and the real becomes possible. Villière’s creations and actions both occupy and comment on these spaces; they pertain to an experience that is indissociable from the present moment, its contingencies and its trivialities.

Villière employs the space and format of an exhibition – one which displays its contents with authority while at the same time making space for storytelling – with full consciousness of its symbolic power. Meanwhile, she deliberately fills it with composite forms, ready-made and transformed, that question that very authority. This is exemplified in the piece/manifesto Abri de galerie [Gallery Shelter] (2012–2020), which offers a hermetically sealed space for meditation made out of insulating material and large enough to admit one person. The piece’s appeal lies not only in its offer of refuge but also in the brightness of its reflective exterior. It is also a sly dig at the concept of the gallery itself, implying that such spaces can be isolating in addition to being useful places for reflection. 

Captures, objects, 2020. glass, clovers, petals,…, 13 x 6 cm _ photo: Mike Zenari

The exhibition MIRAGE MIRAGE itself acts as a mirror, reflecting to the visitor a sum of material and visual images that are expressed in everyday language and experience. Faced with these images, it is up to us to decipher the essential idea to which they refer as they recapture and direct our attention. In Villière’s work, everyday objects summon an open field of representations: be it a seashell filled with tiny balls of plastic evoking the artificiality of our relationship to nature, a pillow printed with the face of a cult figure of popular cinema in a living room outside time, a series of insects and other organic elements embedded within smartphone screens as if trapped in a commodified wilderness, or a perfidiously festive disco ball attached to a drone – an object worthy of a society obsessed with both surveillance and entertainment. These works form part of a dense layer of signs and have a semantic complexity that resists the cult of simple slogans and unidirectional communication.

In this respect, Villière herself has said that “many of [her] projects attempt to render tangible a world that escapes us: sometimes that means holding a concert of the songs of extinct or endangered birds (Alouette, gentille alouette), or putting a real cloverleaf in the place of an emoji (Captures), or grasping at the elusiveness of living things by hiding a piece of hay in a stack of needles.” In keeping with the incoherent conditions in which we live, Villière thus works to spread messages that appear absurd at first glance and whose etymologies may not immediately capture our attention, like so much else in an era characterized by loss of meaning.

Villière’s work reminds us to escape, to extricate ourselves from the usual forms of representation and face up to alarming realities so that we get to the heart of what is essential, that is, the aspirations shared by all humanity (some of which Villière has collected from anonymous contributors and published in a mock version of the Luxembourgish free daily newspaper L’essentiel ). She invites us to step out of the frame, to break free of the apparatus that limits our representations and postures to reclaim our subjectivity. For example, by not allowing ourselves to linger – not for too long, at least – in the apparently appealing comfort offered by a sofa and coffee table and, instead of that falling into that outmoded trap, venturing outside. By not abdicating our selves, and staying alive.

At the exhibition’s opening, for example, the party was over before its pastiche even began. All that remained was an anonymous man seated under a heap of confetti on the gallery floor who emerged from the pile and exited the room shortly after the doors opened (La fête est finie [The party is over]). Without waiting until the end of the event, he left to follow an uncertain path (Chemin du désir [Desire Path]).

Desire Path, site-specific installation, 2020. Stones, phosphorescent paint, 8 m x 0.50 m.

By occupying the Dominique Lang gallery in Dudelange, Villière is actually pursuing an approach deeply rooted in her practice: making the best of whatever is at hand, turning a given context into an opportunity for interpretation and narrative. MIRAGE MIRAGE presents a snapshot of a mobile artistic practice that will never be truly complete, one in which movement through space is as important as meaning. Villière’s work is always rebeginning as she seeks out the spatial symptoms of our current era in an attempt to decipher it.

And should there come a day when we no longer hold art exhibitions – those mirages that give form to our aesthetic and cultural experience – the art system having been exhausted by the perpetual production of artifacts that no longer fit our world, Villière will nonetheless have avoided the pitfall of making art for art’s sake alone. She is part of a movement that seeks to bring artistic perception into spaces that lie outside art’s domain. Her work sits at the breach, shuns grandiloquence, and instead invites us into closer contact with the world – by making art as it should be made, as a world practice, as an act of humanity.

MR, September 2020

Translation : Margaret Besser