The World of Christian Lapie


Lire aussi / Related : L'esprit des lieux

Following the lead of the philosopher Tom Nagel wondering what it is like to be a bat and what makes a bat's world, we asked ourselves what it means to be in the world of Christian Lapie. Having undertaken a series of interviews with Christian Lapie, at his request, to explore the processes of his creative activity, we presented our analysis to Alexandre Viros, who added his thoughts to ours.

It all begins with blocked energy. Christian Lapie is called upon by a person or a group of people that commissions a piece to deal with a problem of identity-which may or may not be apparent-and that designates a space for him to work in. "In every case, I have to say that the situation is the same not because I seek to work in the same circumstances, but because people project their ideas onto me. They are people who know my work and who suppose that I will find a solution." The notion of the commissioner of the work of art is important, and should be distinguished from that of the straightforward client. A client asks the artist to produce a work, without participating in the creative process. For Christian Lapie, the commissioner plays an active role in the creative process. Christian Lapie sets out on a journey with the commissioner, accompanying him to explore the actual problem the commissioner wants to examine. It is not an intrusive process, with Christian Lapie trying to get the commissioner to say something he does not wish to. The idea is to guide the commissioner by a roundabout route, to help him find out by himself what it is he feels the need to share. As Christian Lapie says: "I talk with the commissioners, the conversation is muffled, subdued, rarely direct, but I'm totally involved. My role is that of a developer of photography. I reveal what seems to me to be the heart of the matter, the permanence of man in the face of events-great events, great myths."
During a stay in Brazil (1992), Christian Lapie told us he had sensed a capacity for communion with the human race, holistically, globally, with a sense of universality that the earlier form of his art was inadequate to convey. The result was the transformation of his art and a desire to reactivate the feeling of belonging.

This prefigured one of the key moments of Christian Lapie's creative process, where he really constructs the matrix of the work: the moment of investigation. Note the paradox. For Lapie, "what is important is not so much to illustrate a historian's point of view." He has to demonstrate how, today, a certain perception of the past induces people to live in community with each other. Christian Lapie occupies the space of memory, not history. He sets out to explore the memory of place: "For example, I systematically go and visit graveyards; you learn a lot of things there." Christian always broaches the subject of the commission by the sharpest point. For example, "for the Sulzburg tragedy, the tragedy of the Jewish community, I had a proposition in mind, I had to take it to the limit, I had given my word. For me, that is the most serious part of my work." Or again, for a different project currently underway: "I have been invited to work on a path in Ardèche. I looked around the place and went for a walk with the commissioners. Having seen the lay of the land, I decided to plan a piece that would cover the land separating two communities, as a physical evocation of an ancestral problem dividing the two communities." This exploration called for negotiations with the commissioner, and through him with his environment. In this way, Christian Lapie gave the commissioner responsibility for the subject in question and allowed him to make it his own. By taking an interest in the commissioner's surroundings and the way he interacted with his community, the space of the work progressively took shape. Christian Lapie then presented the project as a series of sketches. Everything was set for the commissioner to begin clearing the way for the work to begin on the commissioned piece, calling on his powers of persuasion to assuage any lingering doubts. During a series of discussions, sometimes problematic, with divergent interests and sometimes old gripes confronting each other, Christian Lapie managed, by a roundabout route, to open the door to a contamination of the artistic by the political and vice versa, with art ousting authority. He demonstrated that what seemed impossible is now a feasible project, and the feasible has become vital.
But one question, essential in our opinion, remains unanswered. What domain does Christian Lapie belong to? Does he base his work on human existence, and is this existence individual, or social from the outset? Is his work political?

Once he and the commissioner have finished looking round the latter's surroundings, Christian Lapie chooses to place his figures in the spot where it will be hardest to avoid seeing them. His idea is to oblige the community to look at the work: "the work has to be placed in the spot where it causes the most inconvenience," he says. In Cameroon, the Mayor of Ngaoundéré understood that the group of figures had to be placed in the town center. Christian Lapie suggested expanding the limits initially fixed for the project to make its presence more striking. He did not hesitate to take up a space seventeen kilometers in length. The groups of figures then created a space that took the form of a path from one group to the next. Thus the groups echoed each other: "The space between the figures becomes the object," as Christian Lapie points out. The bond between the groups and the path between them and their surroundings become the most important aspect of the work. It is true that one figure on its own would not define a space. The bond arises through how people live round the figures; in Cameroon, they take photographs of each other; in the town park in Forbach, they go for picnics. The spatiality of the group of figures mimics the groups of people. Christian Lapie describes their isomorphism as follows: "I am not interested in what they say individually, but rather in the echo that resonates between them. The space, the void between them, is in fact an impalpable cement." The space of the bond is more important than the space of the site. The echo of the works mirrors the echo of mankind.
Where the trees come from is another important point for Christian Lapie: "If the trees come from nearby, the piece will be more powerful. They belong to the site, to the people, they are theirs." In Sulzburg, "the trees had witnessed it all."

Each work is also a journey in time. Christian Lapie's oeuvre is rooted in the earth, but also in a length of time. Its presence is implanted in everyday life, day and night. Christian Lapie insists that the work should be visible at all times, and that it develops over the year: "Swings in the weather and in people's moods mean the work is seen in a different light, which can be unsettling or reassuring." Since they result from the accumulation of different projections of the members of the community where the piece is installed, Christian Lapie's works transmit an echo to everyone who comes into contact with them. In our opinion, the works achieve a sort of completion in emotion-a strong, ambivalent emotion, associating the joy of knowing what unites men and a disappointed awareness of all that separates them.

The final stage of the journey is one of liberation: "My satisfaction comes from having created a moment of unexpected, mystical beauty. It is a short moment in life offered up, free, available, there to be grasped." Remember that it is important for Christian not to be a historian; indeed, it is important for him to avoid the pitfalls of official history. It is tempting here to set history against memory. History would be the corpus of texts describing how events occur. Let's challenge it with memory, a human faculty which can be tested and which demands the effort of a struggle against forgetfulness. It is also divided into fragments, probably modified by the present, and sometimes untruthful, but nonetheless it indicates the dynamic relationship linking contemporary life to the past.
In Sulzburg, Christian Lapie refused to make his work a simple memorial. For him, it was out of the question for the work to become a permanent fixture or to fulfil the role of a monument. We can go even further and say that the transformation of the work into a memorial would be in contradiction with the effect Christian Lapie wanted to produce, the effect of an awakening of memory. But in a way, this effect attained its peak when the work was removed from Sulzburg, once the partners had tried to keep the work a while longer, taking up a form of negotiation once more-another month, another three months, and so on. What would a memorial in Sulzburg have represented? A sort of prosthesis for the memory, an ersatz work, which might have been touching enough but which would certainly have been a new archive. Christian managed to avoid this danger by removing the piece, suggesting that it was time for it to stop. In removing his installation from Sulzburg, Christian Lapie made the suffering his own.
Even more paradoxically for a work of art, his work and its "production" are designed to be means to an end-in this case, the means to awaken memory and bring fresh life to a community. Leaving the work in Sulzburg would have meant the piece would have become an end in itself, to claim that what mattered most were these black, mysterious characters hewn from tree trunks and placed in the heart of nature. The idea of an ephemeral installation also evokes the notion of a deficiency, of gaps and breaches left open in the process of remembrance. Yet the desire for ephemerality and the absolute refusal to lie about the transitory nature of an event to promote remembrance have their cost. One of the questions we have been asking ourselves is linked to the question of the duration and the validity of the effect of memory produced by these installations in situ, inscribed as they are within a specific time frame.

At the end of the journey, we have also found there to be a tragic aspect to Christian Lapie's oeuvre. The idea is deliberately to create both memories and the condition of forgetting, just as Sisyphus climbed the mountain only to see the rock he was condemned to push roll back down the slope under its own weight. His works are tragic, because the process of creation offers no real solution. Christian Lapie would either have to agree to root his work in history, to immerse it, to make it more durable, in which case he would find himself back in the special consecrated space which he rejects, considering it a betrayal of the true nature of memory; alternatively, he can imitate the effort of memory, like in Sulzburg, by reactivating memory before deliberately and painfully halting the process, thereby condemning himself to oblivion at the same time. One of the possible answers to this tragic choice is based on the value of the "small instant" when partners and visitors experience their memories. He wants these moments to be graspable. Torn from the continuity of both legend and history, the works are designed to be ephemeral, as if their true nature lay in their obliteration. Everything indicates that to be active, the works need to present themselves as disappearing in the very moment when they appear. Is their tragic nature not therefore cancelled out by an excess of tragedy?
To journey even further into the world of Christian Lapie, we asked Alexandre Viros to play a game for us, by recreating Christian Lapie's creative process using his imagination. Alexandre Viros shared with us his inner experience and the answering echo that this "simulation" calls forth in him when he thinks of the artist's work: "As invited, I took part in an interview that aimed to simulate a process identical to the one Christian Lapie follows to create his works. They began by asking me to choose a situation in which I was personally involved, one that was familiar yet blocked, a subject that we all share. Rather like something Nathalie Sarraute sometimes describes-I later found out Christian Lapie is familiar with her books-the idea was rather to go and find one of those elements, to identify what Nathalie Sarraute calls "tropisms," the micro-movements that life swarms with. I had to let them live a little more than I would normally allow them to, to reveal them, to play with them, and especially, without naming them, to understand where and when they occur. So here are the five stages I followed: identifying the "blockage," understanding the situation, bringing the situation into play by placing an object somewhere where it would be unavoidable within the space of the situation, identifying my emotion, and, taking this emotion as a starting point, freeing myself by reconsidering my relationship with those present. This last stage, the "liberation," is simple and slightly disappointing, like the truth.
Paying attention to myself, I learn that an unexamined life would not be worth living. I have the impression that the "disappointing" nature of the liberation is a vital element. It seems to me that it can usefully be compared to a daily hygiene routine. The idea is rather to find an existential equivalent to the care we lavish on ourselves daily to carry on living. Maybe it would be appropriate to talk of existential hygiene. It seems apposite to start a new form of vital exercise to deal with whatever is bothering us. The object that I have made unavoidable brings me back to life, to my life, to one of the situations that constitutes my life. It brings me back to the micro-community of people that plays a more or less erratic role in the situation I am trying to deal with. Everything that happens reveals the nature of the blockage to me more and more, better and better. What is the nature of this revelation? I have to take the measure of the situation where the blockage occurs, to remind those who have to live in this situation that something in it is causing a problem, and that they are part of it. It is a question of bearing witness implicitly, that something exists in this place, between us, and that even if I became involved in the adventure unintentionally, I, singularly, will be the one to propose that we remember that we are, after all, taking part in something that is shared."

Patrick Mathieu Consultant, Patrick Mathieu Conseil
Hélène Valentin Exhibition curator, Expert in contemporary art
Alexandre Viros Researcher and lecturer in philosophy, Université Paris I

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