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Mondes inventés, Mondes habités

Mudam Collection

The technical object cannot be dissociated from human history, but the relationship between Man and Technology remains complex. As a synonym of progress, in western eyes, the technical object is at once desired and suspect, arousing by turns hope, wonder, and disillusion. The exhibition Mondes inventés, Mondes habités (“Invented Worlds, Inhabited Worlds”) broaches the issue of technology transcended by artistic genius. It highlights the special relationship of creative people, those “technical poets” who, rather than restricting themselves to the utilitarian aspect, base their research on an understanding of existence and the beauty of machines. So through the works of some twenty artists of different generations and with different outlooks, the exhibition offers glimpses of the capacity for invention and wonder, daring and curiosity, hallmarking the human and artistic adventure.

The exhibition focuses first and foremost on the specific figure of the inventor and the imagination which fuels his research. A whole mythology has in fact developed down the centuries around the artist-cum-inventor, whose guardian figure is indisputably Leonardo da Vinci, an artistic and visionary genius if ever there was, as much an architect and engineer as a painter and musician.

Vincent Ganivet Caténaires, 2009 (détail)
© Photo : Andres Lejona

With the emergence of modern science and motorization, the 19th century left behind a literature studded with demiurge figures, crazy scholars and other daredevils, with an absolute faith in science and its potential. It is these colourful personalities who seem to inspire the filmmaker Jan Švankmajer in his film Leonardo’s Diary and his drawings of unlikely erotic machines, as hilarious as they are disquieting, when the machine appears to hold sway over people and dictate their doings and gestures.

Similar mixed feelings come to the fore in the seemingly outdated photographs of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. These artists present a character fitted with prostheses and other cobbled together exploratory instruments, who has a close, not to say fusional relationship with the world, anxious about the planet’s future challenges. The borderline between the marvellous and the apocalyptic is thin and fragile.

The relationship between the individual and nature is also present in Panamarenko’s work, in particular through his Knikkebeen, a “bipedal” prosthesis, no less, inspired by the camel’s gait. For the artist, the machine can - and must - be the go-between in a harmonious development with our environment.

Panamarenko Raven’s Variable Matrix, 2000
© Photo : Andrés Lejona

Paul Granjon, who exercises much fantasy but is determinedly trivial, makes robots with an anthropological behaviour. He has devised them as gendered and gives them a playground in the form of an arena. They bump into each other, sniff each other, copulate and rest… and swear. Contrasting with them, Paul Laffoley’s complex and fascinating diagrams have an almost mystical character, well removed from anything prosaic. His visions and conceptions of the future world result from a mix of philosophy, esotericism, and technology.

The second part of the show underscores the beauty of experience and the accomplishment of forms resulting from the observation and understanding of physical phenomena or natural forces. Taking existing phenomena into account is thus part and parcel of Roman Signer’s work. Water, earth, fire and air are, in a way, his materials. “I have an almost magical relationship to Nature. [...] The final form of the sculpture emerges of its own accord. This is an aspect that actually runs through all my work - that I do not do everything myself, but give the last word to the natural forces that are involved here” (1), says the artist.

He shares with Panamarenko this art of nature observation and examination. This latter devises and produces all sorts of things that can be regarded as so many extensions of his own body. They propel him across the ground, as well as in air, water and - the ultimate dream - space. This, obviously enough, is the whole beauty of experience - in no way burdened by failure -, the poetry of danger and the risk inherent in all inventions that we are offered by Panamarenko and Roman Signer.

In this same spirit of transcending and going beyond physical restrictions, Chris Burden’s work The Frictionless Sled makes it possible to experiment with the elimination of the force of friction at the root of resistance to motion. His Mexican Bridge, a veritable construction work, is also a demonstration of confidence in the ingenious mind and man’s ability to tame nature. It reflects the artist’s fascination with challenges, those consisting in negotiating obstacles, connecting people and increasing possibilities of displacement.

Because understanding them helps us to free ourselves from them, others prefer to juggle with the laws of physics. In this respect, the works of Vincent Ganivet and Nancy Rubins represent actual feats which defy the rules of statics. Made up of heavy, bulky materials like breeze blocks and pieces of aircraft fuselage, they rise up and develop heightwise. Cocking a snook at gravity, but answering to elementary construction principles, they remain balanced, and mind-bogglingly light.

Nancy Rubins Table and Airplane Parts, 1990
© Photo : Andrés Lejona

The third part extends the boundaries of our world and the perception we may have of it. Here the artists appropriate that part of the dream intrinsic to the discovery and exploration of worlds, but also to the understanding of the living which scientific and technological advances have made possible by making them visible.

The infinite depth of the cosmos, with the shimmering of stars, comes delicately across in Vija Celmins’s hyper-realist and subtle prints. At times, these glittering landscapes rub shoulders with a perspectival drawing by the Italian Quattrocento master Paolo Uccello, whose technical mastery is so amazing that it vies happily with present-day digital tools. Black holes, cosmic constellations and distant planets also form the essence of Björn Dahlem’s sculptures. Fascinated by the latest progress in astrophysics, he comes up with original models imbued with a surrealist poetry. His mysterious sculptures form a dreamlike landscape which he incites us to cross.

The application and spatialization of scientific theories lie precisely at the root of Conrad Shawcross’s research, with his light piece Slow Arc in a Cube IV playing almost hypnotically with two- and three-dimensional planes, giving us the sensation of an endless space in perpetual motion.

Focusing on the question of the living, the works of David Altmejd and Theo Jansen are concerned with properties of transformation and regeneration. In the former’s work titled The Vessel, transparency plays a major part. It permits us to enter the heart of a vitalized world, made up of a tangle of changing organic forms. Theo Jansen’s film, for its part, presents the research of a demiurge that, for more than twenty years, has been successfully striving to give life to his creatures made in a rough-and-ready way with PVC. Henceforth fitted with an almost autonomous operation, these latter move about on the beaches of the North, fuelling themselves with wind.

Björn Dahlem Schwarzes Loch (M-Sphären), 2007
© Photo : Andrés Lejona

The fourth and final part of the exhibition mainly includes artistic representations of worlds organised by human activity. All of Miguel Palma’s research is underpinned by this “universalist” approach, in contrast with specialization. He thus prefers spontaneity and intuition to a knowledge which he deems at times abstruse. “In my work, I think it’s extremely important that people understand the object’s construction process, in a basic almost geological manner.” (2) His work Carbono 14 combines his interest in mechanics and motorized things with a line of thinking about ecosystems. The many geological strata which form them plunge us into the depths of a buried world. As often in his approach, the installation is not without irony and gives glimpses of social criticism.

Isa Melsheimer’s remote approach is also distant when she focuses on a given context. Here, her work directly echoes the configuration of the venue. Her project is part of an already existing space, the spiral staircase, a real piece of bravura in Mudam’s architecture by Ieoh Ming Pei. She is intrigued by the imperious nature of the architectural gesture, and subtly shifts the outlines and boundaries, deeply transforming it and lending it a new poetic charge.

Human activity pierces the seething mass of connections and mesh of networks which inform León Ferrari’s maze-like drawings. The fascination felt when faced with the complexity of urban developments nevertheless quickly gives way to a feeling of suspicion in front of models which leave the individual with not very much freedom. Above all, the graphic tracery work gives glimpses of the beauty and fragility of existence.

This tension crops up, too, in the work of Bodys Isek Kingelez, who projects us into futuristic and utopian African cities, and whose ideas may wind up this exhibition: “The pleasures of this terrestrial world depend on the people who live in it. They have an obligation to deploy all their talents to fashion and refashion it in such a way as to make it more wonderful than ever.” (3)


  • Marie-Noëlle Farcy
    Clément Minighetti

  • David Altmejd
    Bodys Isek Kingelez
    Chris Burden
    Vija Celmins
    Björn Dahlem
    León Ferrari
    Vincent Ganivet
    Paul Granjon
    Theo Jansen
    Paul Laffoley
    Isa Melsheimer
    Miguel Palma
    Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison
    Nancy Rubins
    Conrad Shawcross
    Roman Signer
    Jan Švankmajer