A sculptor of the 21st century
Notes on Pierre Labat

Jean-Marc Huitorel

(extract of the catalogue edited by the Contemporary Art Center Le Quartier,
on the exhibition Armez les Toboggans)

In what we see there is that which stands before us and observes us and there is also that which, as a result of our visual and cultural memory, whether emotional or obsessive or both, leads and informs our gaze. A large part of the experience of art, of contemplating it and understanding it, lies in this undeclared conflict, in this hidden confrontation whose protagonists are never clearly revealed. Yet, at the same time, it is in the greater or lesser complexity of these competing elements that the quality of a work of art is to be found.

One may be tempted sometimes to think of Pierre Labat's pieces as installations, but, as he himself insists, they should really be thought of as sculptures. In other words, they are always an addition to the site even when, as is often the case, they appear to be so much a part of the place that contains them that they merge into it or when, which is also often the case, they are designed and created in situ – when the exhibition space operates as his studio. If once again we reopen the old debate about the theatricality of minimalist sculpture, we get the sense that Pierre Labat, fifty years on, is not interested in Michael Fried's jibe about self-consciousness, for the simple reason that scenography, whether conscious or unconscious, is not what he is about. To understand slightly what goes on in his work, we need to turn our attention towards questions of form and materials, of emphasis and autonomy, of perspective and architecture, and also to the beholder's experience and perception.

And it is precisely at this point that questions begin to rain down. What is an abstract sculpture? What is the experience of a sculpture, i.e. its own experience, the experience of the person who designs it and the experience of the person who makes it? What is involved in the dialogue between the sculpture and the place where it is located or where it takes place? What is time in terms of sculpture? What does it mean for an artist under forty years old to make sculptures at a time when the medium undoubtedly occupies centre stage again, particularly in France, (though whether it should be formalist, smart or narrative sculpture remains a question); and at a time, nonetheless, when what attracts most attention is performance. Knowing this, being aware of the questions, if not having answers to them, how can the human body be introduced into the field of sculpture, especially when the sculpture involved is imbued with the notion of specific objects? What kind of abstract sculpture is it that addresses the body? Is it sculpture connected with dance or with space? Would it be sculpture that uses basic shapes and space to summon up the body and to suggest a representation of that particular connection? In the end, it always comes back to the same challenge, which is also something of a dilemma. How do you produce pieces that both evoke and do not evoke the history of art, pieces that are spontaneous and yet conscious of their effect, conscious of expectations and of presuppositions about them? How do you produce a work of quality without seeking to "do it properly" and without wanting to "get it wrong"? What seems to be at work with Pierre Labat, as in various ways also with other artists of his generation (Guillaume Leblon, Katinka Bock, Mélik Ohanian, Minoru Morikawa amongst others) and with some older artists (Jean-Luc Moulène for example or Pedro Cabrita Reis) is careful attention to the world in all its manifestations: current affairs, science, and art. One notes that most of these artists produce sculptures, but not exclusively. Jean-Luc Moulène is famous as a photographer and Guillaume Leblon makes videos. And, what is more, not one of them, not even Pedro Cabrita Reis, has fallen into the trap of formalism and mere technical expertise, and even less become trapped by the dogma of the medium. Although Pierre Labat, at this stage in his work, creates nothing but three-dimensional objects in which form, materials and colour are envisaged just as they are, the space and time he places them in are those of the world and its events, a context where the formalist heritage is constantly subjected to the test of the body, as if performance here took the place of the subconscious in sculpture. We are a long way here, at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century, not just from modernism (with its 'white cube' ideology) but also from post-modernism (with its sometimes naïve, sometimes cynical eclecticism). It is not that all of that has been swept away and ignored, but it is incumbent on our contemporaries to get down to the task in hand, which is to bring the anthropological aspect back into the basic forms. This dimension is consubstantial with art, yet sculpture in particular has tended to leave it temporarily by the wayside. An "interesting form" for Pierre Labat is a form that is "found in the world of physics or in nature, or in mathematics or in the organic or social world". It comes out of the frequent repetition and perception of experiences in very different contexts of life and the micro-experiences of life (like twisting an ice-lolly stick, for example, or folding a metro ticket), as much as out of history.

Dum-dum (2008) is both a wall and an artwork. A wall insofar as it is a vertical surface defining the edge of the room and is white, as well, like the other walls of the room. The work (painted the same colour as the wall, as Claude Rutault would say) seems to be the result of pressure from the wall. Its energy is as imaginary as it is virtual but it seems to have been the cause of a criss-cross incision, whose centre is above the beholder's head, making him or her look up, in a gesture that is more like looking at architecture than sculpture. This pressure from the wall, once one has registered the reversals brought about by Malevich and then by Fontana, is the exact opposite of the sensation of perspective. Incision and cross, it is an archetypical form based on an action that is as deliberate as it is violent, namely an operation. It is no longer possible, faced with a Pierre Labat artwork, to separate questions about its form from his highly committed awareness of the human body and his experience. This is the sense in which one needs to approach the two pieces he created for the exhibition Armer les toboggans (Arm the slides) and which interact there next to works by Robert Breer and Camila Oliveira Fairclough.

L’index des patiences is a wall of breeze-blocks with a hole in it at eye height. This hole seems to have been obtained by patient scratching and rubbing away by hand at the surface and, if it did not seem so well finished, would recall surfaces that have been worn by people's hands touching them, the feet of St Peter in Rome, for example, or the humble statues and fountains in Breton chapels that women used to rub their bellies against to increase their fertility. Visually, it definitely recalls certain pieces by Anish Kapoor (Sister piece of When I am Pregnant, 2005, at the Musée de Nantes, for example), but what comes most naturally to mind is the peepholes in the door of Duchamp's Étant donné … However, there is no beautiful woman here, open and available; there is only, to one’s apparent disappointment, the opposite wall on one side and the entrance to the exhibition on the other, and the perspective of the reception area. For the artist it references as much a sculpture in the Moscow metro (by one Matvey Manizer) of a border guard with his dog, which people stroke every day, as the trackpad on his computer, which is marked by the repeated rubbing of his finger. The wall is incongruently placed in the middle of the room and includes one of the venue's metal pillars. It feels more like a sign referring to architecture rather than architecture itself. It is, in fact, as always with this artist, a sculpture and, what is more, a locus of experienceple, or the digging out of the scopic orifice. But everything also invites you to use it: to put your hand through it, stroke the smooth, though still slightly rough, surface (the texture of skin and, as Duchamp would say, "Do touch"), to look, to create your own view. This wall is not something you bang your head against; it is something that you can get round; perhaps not get through but at the very least see through. An optimistic view of the world, basically.

Eschewing the modern, formalist trend, Pierre Labat gives titles to his works, which is significant. "I think a title is an extra task; it's almost another story". Although the index of the title refers to the finger that has patiently made the hole, it is also the finger that points. The index is the finger of the gaze in its connection to what is real. It is also the index of a book, a matter of research. "Patience" in the title (and in the plural, which is neat since patience comes in so many forms) The patience (car cela reprend la phrase du dessus : “The index…”) (and the plural in the title is neat since patience comes in so many forms) introduces the time factor: the time it took for the work to come into being. It also suggests the card game. Patience: a virtue and a game – the virtue of gaming, the mark of chance. The ghost of Roger Caillois stalks here. He was the subject of a recent curatorial proposal by Karen Tanguy in which Pierre Labat took part.

As with Dum-dum, the wall is the work; which leads me to Fra Angelico. Pierre Labat has often said that his (sculptural) work owes more to painting than to sculpture. So, the wall is the work. In the Convent of San Marco, Fra Angelico painted two Annunciations – one in the north corridor above the staircase leading to the cells, the second in one of the cells, the third cell, to be precise. The subject of that painting is reduced to the bare essentials: Gabriel, Mary and, on the left, in the only outside area, a Dominican friar. All that appears of the architecture of the place are two columns and a robust groined arch. The wall (of the cell) is the wall in the painting, joined to the floor (which is not the floor of the cell). And the wall is the work. For it is in the white of the wall of this painting, joined to the white of the floor, in the incredible density of this space between the archangel and the virgin (which Robert Ryman had in mind, one likes to imagine), that Fra Angelico placed the divine Annunciation; that incredible news blending into the white of the wall. Nothing is forced on the beholder apart from the total freedom of the blank page. Pierre Labat is surely referring to this piece of wall art, not only in L’Index des patiences, but also in many other pieces.

Mr Anderson, the second work on display at Le Quartier, is a room within a room – the third room of the Quimper Centre d'Art. It is an arrangement of concrete reinforcement bars, wedged between floor and ceiling, bending to one side or the other according to their length; vertical when they are the same height as the ceiling. The impression is that these slim metal rods are holding up the false ceiling, which in fact does not cover the whole ceiling surface of the room. The reinforcement bars are arranged near the edges, touching the floor immediately below these high points. In their immaterial way they create a material and very penetrable central space, whose volume feels like the result of both centrifugal and centripetal pressure, like sails billowing from winds blowing from several sides at once. The visitor is at liberty to move around between the rods, entering and leaving the space the artist has made. The assembly manifests both an extreme lightness and a tension that is palpable.

If, as the artist says, L’Index des patiences interrogates the wall from the standpoint of painting, Mr Anderson does so from the standpoint of drawing. The choice of material, as always in Labat's work, produces meaning. Here, the steel reinforcement bars index the beginning and the end of modern and contemporary architecture. They are only visible during construction, and reappear only as a sign of its ruin. Thus Mr Anderson is present in this temporary exhibition room both as a manifestation of its own construction and as the symbol of its approaching demise at the end of the exhibition.

In spite of its spare, minimal appearance, its existential principle underpins problematics and meanings that are at such variance that it is no more than a distant echo of minimalism. What is involved here is human construction, and confrontation with embodied existence. The pressure one senses is not only that of a pure, architectonic principle, it is also that of a body which bends and forces a passage – the force of breath and breathing. And the visitor who walks about inside it clearly perceives the situation; it straddles awareness of the form and the almost animal energy that inhabits it. This is confirmed by the title, Mr Anderson, from the hero of the first Matrix (called Neo in the follow-ups). At the end of the film, Mr Anderson 'absorbs' his attacker and mimes a sort of swelling up, at the end of which it is as if the walls had become elastic, responding to the heady force of his breath. This tension between form and the energy of the body justifies an analogy with choreographic movement. The body bends to the plastic injunctions of movement, between falling and balance. This connection is to also be found in pieces like LFAV (2009), Plataforma Revolver (2011) and Right Here Right Now (2009) which references Muybridge. In her preface to Brian O’Doherty's White Cube (It had to be mentioned! Or did it?), Patricia Falguières quotes Roland Barthes's now famous words from The Death of the Author. "A text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture, […] and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. […] The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." (traduction Stephen Heath)

Rather than unearth for the umpteenth time the question of the 'white cube' and the survival of its orthodoxy, it might be more productive to ask how a young artist at the beginning of the 21st century positions himself, not in relation to the standards of modernism but rather vis-à-vis the urgency he feels to produce work in a wider context. Looking at the pieces Pierre Labat is producing nowadays, one notices that he does not allow himself to be encumbered with theoretical presuppositions and quotations. Quite the reverse; he faces up to concrete problems, as I pointed out at the beginning of this text, and reactivates their obviousness. For example, the question of how a rigorous form, which used formerly to be defined as abstract, can be made to co-exist with a living presence. Or how one can produce sculptures that are not unaware of the performative implications of any present-day occurrence of art. Our view is that it is by taking into account the beholder/spectator/visitor, by recognizing the unlimited freedom that is their due, that the artist manages to set up that locus of dialogue and tension which, far from signalling the death of the author makes him or her one of the active elements in the intimate and vital link that they create with the community. Rather than the death of the author, it is perhaps 'the open work', in Umberto Eco's phrase, that is involved here.

Jean-Marc Huitorel

Été 2012

Translation: Jeremy Harrison