Crystallising the mystery

I

On the day I first visited Vitry-sur-Seine, I had been allured by the high ceilings and abundance of light—which even a pretty thick coat of dust couldn’t dim—in the former industrial warehouse I had turned into my workshop. The advertisement described a spacious expanse, but on arrival my impression was rather of a large, empty rectangle. Empty, not just of furniture, but of meaning. Rather like a canvas intended to be minimalist yet ultimately coming across as unfinished, this space was devoid of atmosphere—it conjured up nothing at all: thoughts, neither of a workplace, nor of a private place nor, even, of a vacant place. This workshop, being empty of substance, could only gain content through the act of painting.

My materials—pots of paint, tools and blank canvases—were delivered shortly after I moved in. Those empty canvases, propped against the walls of these vacant premises, challenged me much as might a Malevitch painting: not so much ‘White on White’ as ‘Empty Painting in Empty Workshop’. In both cases, the impression was identical: within the workshop’s empty space, another empty space was emptying, yet more intensely. Emptiness, squared.

It was urgent to give meaning to this space—to fill it up. Not just to inhabit it, which I undertook from the very first day, but to invest in it spiritually. For my trips to my workshop to mean more than just travel on a suburban train, I needed to approach them rather like some might a trip a church, temple or mosque: make them a quest for meaningfulness.

Inside my helter-skelter workshop, a few habits gradually sank in, enabling me to find my way round. Objects were set out with a meaning and logical order known only to me: the sponges always next to the frames, with the smaller ones on top, and black paint caps on the left of the sink, with white ones on the right, etc. While not obsessional, these habits approximated to a ritual, nurturing, as it were, the birth of a cult made up by artistic creation.

Cult (noun): a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object. I. I. religion. 1. Set of ceremonies and practices regulating the celebration of a cult.

Each one is free to adopt his or her definition of the divine, and thus of the meaning of the word cult, be it religious, artistic, personal, ideological, sexual, etc. Narcissus gets ordained, while Goldmund becomes a sculptor, yet both are in search of the divine, despite having opted for different cults 3Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930). There are admittedly as many cults as there are individuals, but they all provide a passageway from the profane to the divine. The notion of cult, thus, could be aptly represented by a gate: the means by which it connects two universes. Or rather by a set of different gates.

One might perhaps be a great gate in the style found in Central Asian madrassas, where they are meant to reflect the emphasis put on religious cult, culminating at the edifice’s apex.

Another might just as well be one of the rather smaller doorways to the chapels and altars which are in regular use. It could even turn out to be quite tiny, the kind people conceal in the folds of their bedside books, for the purpose of some secret, nocturnal cult.

My assigned doorway opens into a workshop, and my hope is that someday my paintings, upon crossing its threshold, will become fully-fledged works of art. The challenge of creation, for the artist, is turning the trivial into the divine—accomplishing that unfathomable passage from an object that is unremarkable to one that has become a work of art. We all crave for transcendence. And the four walls of this workshop, with its cobwebs and forbidding windows, are the temple from which, I hope, a work of art will one day be born.

II

Three coats of paint in succession are affixed to white linen canvas—white on white. They are still fresh, and small bubbles have formed at the surface. The tiny craters formed when they explode gradually disappear as they even out. When confronted by a blank canvas, bewilderment is never far off. One must start painting and believe miracles are possible.

I am briefly suspended by anxiety, wondering how I will set about the task at hand—a challenge to which habits can no longer provide an answer. I am daily confronted by the peculiar need to establish a connection between the profane and the sublime. Any belief I may have in my ability to transcend is pretty flimsy, even more, perhaps, than religious belief: the latter is often put to a severe test without, however, requiring daily resourcing using a bucket of paint and a canvas.

I actually have no idea how to set about this. Of course I know how I intend to paint: I am governed by a range of mannerisms and habits, by whose bounds I try not to be constrained; I am also guided to some extent by my vision of contemporary art: all of this provides what is commonly called inspiration. Yet such inspiration is of no help in the quest for the divine. It is but a set of methods and ruminations, insufficient for sublimation. Despite knowing perfectly well what I will be painting on any given day, I still wonder how I will set about sublimating.

True inspiration, when it is the backdrop to a masterpiece and carries one, free from routines and procedures, into the realm of unbounded artistic ecstasy, is a form of inverted cult: instead of emanating from our very selves and tending towards to the divine, it comes from elsewhere and falls upon us like a meteor, suddenly providing palpable substance to an inaccessible reality. One then accesses the divine, without even having sought it. Inspiration is a cultless religion.

In the absence of inspiration, when confronted by my canvas whose edges are already beginning to dry out, I seek refuge in habits and in pre-existing knowledge. Then, my painting is based on logical reasoning, and any cult is nothing but a crutch that produces creation, but not transcendence. Despite not knowing what is going to happen, I move on nonetheless. I am toying with mystery. This is because while one waits for the divine to reveal itself, one is confronted by mystery—an antechamber to somewhere else, as it were. This is the mystery inherent to an uncertain ending; the mystery of what takes place between the moment when the paint is applied to the canvas and that when it crosses the cult-driven gate.

While painting, one is often confronted by mystery. Seldom by the divine.

It is in the face of mystery that a cult will work its magic. It does not provide it with an answer, but it gives it real consistency, crystallises and embodies it, in order to strengthen the belief with which we associate it. Each drop of paint I pour on the canvas is the mystery, true and palpable, a tiny fragment of the divine, yet struggling to reveal itself.

III

With my artwork completed, my painting comes to a stop. The paint remains in motion, albeit increasingly slowly, and eventually solidifies. Time is about to take leave of it. I am perhaps about to witness a slow-motion act of photography, the gradual transition from the mobile to the immobile. After wandering back and forth, the viscous matter will eventually fossilise: a reflection of instantaneous life, camping in a time-frame verging on eternity. The painting’s lifeline is already off onto a wildly different tangent. Synchronisation is lost, in order for the separation between its existence and ours to come into being.

It leaves the workshop, crosses the threshold, leaves the world of the profane to enroll in the timeless universe of testimonies. Its existence is extended, even unto eternity. It is in the amnion of time.

For a while I am enthralled by this new time-frame. With my fingers still coated in paint, sponge in hand, I am sucked up by the canvas, all the while gazing at it and getting lost in it. It dies and hardly budges any longer. The divorce is consummated. Am I inside or outside it? Alas, I am well and truly outside, on the wayside, dazed and stunned in the midst of the workshop. An artist’s fantasy: being inside yet, all at once, letting oneself be cast away. Instead, I can barely roam at its surface, without ever drowning in it. The real world is holding my hand, preventing me from foundering; and while they are still beckoning to me, my eyes can barely focus on these contortions, blending into the great storm water of the imaginary 4Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977). and the uncontrollable gushing of ideas to invade the spirit of their own reality.

And more and more thin, the outside, disappears.