Catherine Elkar, Interview (EN)
Catherine Elkar: If you don’t mind, let’s start with the place where the images originated, the site of the Valley of Wonders.
Philippe Durand: There are two valleys near Mont Bégo in the Mercantour Park, north of Nice, the Valley of Wonders and the Valley of Fontanalba, where tens of thousands of engravings have been listed. I’d been wanting to go there for a long time, after fantasizing about that place, seeing it as a kind of open air proto-museum. And I went there in 2014 to see for myself, which is when I started to work on this project. The engravings are 5,000 years old. We can’t really talk in terms of works, but rather of documents, with a shamanistic dimension. There are probably one or more gods of storms and fertility. Mont Bégo is always shrouded in clouds. I just had to go there, discover the site, and document it. The valley was a glacier which melted 10,000 years ago at the end of the ice age, which explains these large straight slabs. The glacier planed the rocks, until they became a smooth as walls.
CE: And the colours of the rocks, this purple, this grey, do they also come from that period?
PhD: You find engravings on a similar type of stone. They are made by impact, by hitting the stones which have an orange surface and which, beneath, have a paler colour; there’s a contrasting effect which increases the readability of the engravings. The history of the engravings is a long one, and is still continuing today. The site was made part of France in 1948. The oldest inscriptions are 5,000 years old; among the graffiti, some date from the Renaissance, others are the work of shepherds in the 19th and 20th centuries; and last of all there are the ones that are very contemporary, even if formally forbidden. Among these latter are Mickey and the Towers of 11 September. The liaison between the original ancient engravings and the depiction of the towers is quite dizzy-making. Some people have flaunted the ban, taken the stone slab as an allegory of the easel picture, acted like the first people in this site, and given the notion of figure its essential character…
CE: In this place, which you say has been preserved because there is no easy access to it, we can see similarities with your interest in a space much closer to us—the urban space. We can understand that what attracted you is this writing on the sidelines, these fragments which occupy a site in a slightly surreptitious way.
PhD: Right, much of my work deals with the public place, they way it is occupied, and interactions which may take place in it, human and otherwise, incidentally, because they result from the combination between human, vegetable and mineral, the development of these states, and the way things turn into “ruins”. In the Valley of Wonders, we are in another public place, obviously not urban, but staked out, marked, and transmitted from one person to the next. The graffiti traverse time. Which reminds me of a book, which I appreciate a great deal, which includes a survey of the Latin inscriptions featuring on the houses in Pompeii prior to Vesuvius’s eruption.1 They are absolutely fantastic. And they illustrate a lesser history which becomes part of the greater history. The experiment in the Valley of Wonders is also a space for dreaming, for trying to interpret images which have great power and stay in the memory for a long time: animal and fantasized forms like the man with zigzag arms, and deities; attempts to touch the very essence of things, productions, and creative processes. The backdrop for this project is a way of thinking about what the museum is, about what art is today, and what it might be, a sort of utopia in the offing. Re-winding 5,000 years backwards to ask oneself the question about what that might be today. And our project, in Rennes and in Sète, is the collage of those two things.
CE: With regard to the double show you’re getting ready for, what are you envisaging in terms of the “re-creation” of the site in the exhibition space? Isn’t there a paradox in representing a place that has dodged “Disneylandization” by using inflatable structures, meaning a vocabulary that belongs to the fairground and outdoor games?
PhD: I’m very interested in the arrangements and systems of popular and vernacular cultures, taken in the broad sense—from the gas station to the fairground.
We’ve had Lascaux 2, the Chauvet cave which has just opened. From a technical viewpoint, these reconstruction projects (an entire cave with the engravings) are technical performances. I’ve already worked with inflatable structures, I’ve made a few inflatable streams. Which are a kind of oxymoron. This technique made it possible to render the stream’s “speed”, to transcribe the water with transparency. Here the project of the show is based on the actual structure of the Valley of Wonders, which is a rocky chaos. One or two inflatables evoke rocks in a much larger landscape, the size of which is given by a large wall photo. This image contains the project of the show. The photographic work I do in the public place results in altering our perception of it, in an aesthetics of the fragment, a classic perspective, close, let’s say, to Baudelaire, and Benjamin, to put it in a nutshell. For the Valley of Wonders it’s a bit the same thing, except that the time differential is extreme, in the meantime everything has happened. Jesus was born…
CE: To give the place back its scale, in perforce much smaller exhibition spaces, you combine several technical methods, some of which you’ve been using for many years.
PhD: Yes, in the large gallery at the FRAC Bretagne, there are video projections of the films, based on super-8 films made on the spot, and the inflatable structures placed on the floor. The proposition is an immersion, not in the manner of Lascaux 2, which is a perfect facsimile, but in a fantasized vein, in a daydream, a meditative space about time, and the value of things. In the end, filming the engravings is as nonsensical as making inflatable streams: the engravings have been there for 5,000 years and I film them as a sequence shot; the only thing that moves is the wind in the twigs, which themselves create images. I’ve been there four times, and I’ve been able to observe the interaction between the engravings and the elements. I’ve become aware that the engravers took water into account, for example. When it rains, pockets of water remain in the cracks, and these particular elements are incorporated in their engravings.
The installation includes a base of classic photographs, of medium size, and then its adaptation, its shift from two to three dimensions with the inflatable, and even with a possible use value of the inflatable which would be to be able to take up a position where you can view the different video projections.
CE: The interaction between the different means used will create a particular atmosphere heightened by the acoustic dimension of the films.
PhD: I’m going to use super-8 projector sound which will help to neutralize the sound of the bellows.
I’m thinking once again about the film that Jean-Daniel Pollet made in Greece about a temple lost in the mountains, which is absolutely incredible. The mountain acts like a filter which makes it possible to give things back their density. There’s the journey, the access, and the sensation of being isolated from the world. You’re cut off from anything that refers you to today except those lines in the sky, the trails left by airplanes.
CE: A rare experience, although very close to Paris, which makes this attempt at reconstruction in the exhibition space a challenge.
PhD: This “so close to Paris” question has to be related to that of exoticism… , I am still looking for the title of Pollet’s film which can be seen on the Internet, it’s Bassae2…, “The temple is perched 3,700 feet up in the Arcadian mountains in the heart of the Peloponnese”. This is a reference that has come gradually with the project. I recently watched it as well as Werner Herzog’s wonderful film about the Chauvet cave which is called The Cave of Lost Dreams… He is absolutely brilliant when he talks with researchers who say that after a while they stop going to the place because it becomes too powerful for them.
CE: It’s a very beautiful title.
PhD: And to get back to what you were saying about the issues of exhibition and exhibition structures, the inflatable, beyond its slightly playful, low-tech look, intervenes like a non-authoritarian form, to talk about these matters. A way of addressing the public, even the public that never goes to exhibitions, there is a direct side. There is a contrast between the structure of the films and the inflatable structures. The inflatable structures are quite playful. The films are very stiff, and propose a meditation, a sort of hallucination of figures who will rise and remain in individual memories. Between the photographs, the films and the inflatables, there are different time-frames of perception.
CE: It’s also a way of conjuring up the people who made these engravings, high priests, shamans, shepherds, pilgrims, simple people, but people who needed to mark the site by their passage in order to say “I was here”. [laughter].
PhD: There’s also the boredom and loneliness of people who are forced to stay there, be they shepherds, or Italian soldiers, because at that time the border with France was there. And I think that 5,000 years ago this question existed because, for example, the journey from the Rhône valley took several weeks… so one imagines that people set off in the month of May, arrived at the site when the snows were melting, and remained for several days, eating marmots… [laughter]. All these shapes of knives, in the end, … they are the object of prehistoric man, his Smartphone.
CE: A vital tool for life.
PhD: Used both as representation, but also as orientation, arrows which point to the landscape and give directions.
CE: What else might we say about the project?
PhD: What also interests me is making the firns and the engravings equivalent. After spending the whole of last year in the mountains, snow has become a great obsession. Those negative forms which remain, like when the tide has gone out… can be related to the figures that one finds on rocks. I like this relationship and once again this question of speed with the snow disappearing very fast.
1 Titulorumgraphioexaratorum qui in CIL vol. V collectisunt Imagines/Antonio Varone, éditions L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, 2012.
2 Jean-Daniel Pollet, Bassae, 1964, 9 minute documentary, 35 mm, colour.
3 Werner Herzog, La Grotte des rêves perdus, 2010, 90 minute documentary, 35 mm, colour.