In thinking about his project for the exhibition for musée Soulages
in 2014, Claude Lévêque chose this passage from a novel by Austrian author Peter Handke as a lead or powerful starter. The Great Fall takes the form of a haunting initiation story in which the banality of the action (storyline) rivals its sense of mystery. Handke, we know, has worked on his language to take it to the very brink of reality. The efficient simplicity with which words here combine with images is not to be underestimated. Awoken from his sleep one morning by a powerful thunderclap, an actor leaves a womans house and walks through a dense forest and a large clearing. He wants to reach the capital and meet this woman. On the way he encounters people who warn him, hail him, and speak to him. No one walks with him. The actor abandons his initial intention of doing a film. All this until the great fall, the mysterious and elegantly masked endpoint. Like an unwitting vagabond, the actor leaves everything behind. It is less a matter of bareness than of banality. The actor in The Great Fall embodies the common man. Like many of Peter Handke books, this onesweeps us into a geographic drifting and a rehashing of specific moments. The diversity of landscapes becomes the fertile ground of consciousness and the self, and participates in the slow layering of poetic sentiments and essential facts. In the construction of his visual output, at once distant and close to his autobiography, Claude Lévêque was destined one day to meet up with Peter Handke who uses languages to graft the imaginary onto the real.
In preparing the Rodez project, Claude Lévêque explored the city and its environs, visiting its monuments, both modest and prestigious, and soaking up its spirit (the cathedral, Artaud, the Middle Ages, etc.) He found the exhibition space sanitised and colourless compared to some of the more time-weathered places where his work has been shown, like the Louvre, the French pavilion in Venice, and the Laval pool, for instance. He felt free as a result. The study of this huge high-ceilinged space a White Cube and its given realities gave rise to the design of the final device. Lévêque decided from the start to cast the space in darkness and reconfigure the interior, which he made smaller using two walls that converge from either side to a vanishing point in the distance, like a funnel. We now enter by way of a low-framed passage under a long lintel to view a 25-meter deep perspective in a lighting that can be described as both precise and diffuse. The two walls are painted black and their summit is broken like a jagged ridgeline. Hidden behind them are warm orangey neon lights that throw a misty light on the ceiling. Visible on their surface are blue neon lights forming a pattern of variable vibrating lines, designed by Romaric Etienne. Indeed, it is common practice for Claude Lévêque to have people close to him his mother, Elie Morin, and others participate in the creative process, notably when it comes to the neon texts. Finally, a rubbery black cladding closes the space. There is no limit between the floor and the vertical plane, itself crowned by this orangey halo, a radiant sky over an unreal of illusion. A whole.This immersion in a disorienting world is a unique sensorial experience: when you enter the space you find yourself isolated in a nocturnal light, oddly surrounded by bluish wavelike motions; your steps are somewhat slowed by a material on the floor that feels unfamiliar. The endpoint of the perspective eludes the eye but it can be physically sensed. Le bleu de lil bears similarities with Grand sommeil (mac/val 2006), with its magical and monumental character, the sky that opens up, a ceiling that vanishes
It differs though by the economy of means and the minimalist rigour that marks Lévêque work in recent years and invests it with a more universal, less violent thrust. Any violence that may still be present here is existential. Nothing in the Rodez experience exempts you from fear. More or less pronounced, it slips into these devices.
Claude Lévêque has repeatedly said that viewing his in situ devices requires only a few seconds. He eschews the spectacular and its duration (contrary to art, in his opinion), the better to create a sense of stupefaction.
Claude Lévêque takes many photographs, gathering images at the sites of his projects. These pictures allow him to associate future ideas and conceptions. They are not so much notes or souvenirs as outliers or interpretive chain links. At the musée Fenaille, he admired the 16th century Virgin of the Annunciation, a sculpture that probably came from the convent of the Annunciade sisters2. The archangel Gabriel has disappeared from the scene. The Virgin kneels at a prie-dieu, hands crossed; blond hair frames her face, her eyes are pale blue. The Virgins face is superimposed on a nearly monochrome ground. This imperceptible albeit biting strangeness upsets the accuracy of the reproduction. For Lévêque, the blue of the eye refers to an abysmal vision, a lethal punctum. And this despite the beauty or even with it. Isnt it said that the last thing we see before dying is a blue haze washing our cells? Much has been said in religious and mythical texts about this event. Even computer users havepicked up the image as the name of a fatal error in the operating system: The Blue Screen of Death (BSoD).The blue of the eye resurrects a falsely innocent and tame colour, the colour of paradise but also of some Last Judgments (Orvieto Cathedral,Luca Signorelli). Its a material colour, a confused colour, a barbarian colour, in sum an eschatological colour. The Italian primitives, Giotto and Cimabue, created pitiless, impossible blues to express divine space struggling at the time to separate life and death. All you have to do is visit the Lower Basilica of San Francesco dAssisi or the Scrovegni chapel in Padua to see so for yourself. There blue reigns supreme, unreal and solid at the same time. It postpones the science of perspective that will attach the real to the real. The bluish lights in some of Lévêque devices seem to be related to these states of perception. The neon writings from the early works, efficient and direct, have yielded to a science of occupying space and to lighting that has shifted from a tool to a vehicle.
In 1935, Georges Bataille wrote Le bleu du ciel (The Blue of Noon), a mind-blowing political and erotic narrative set against the backdrop of the impending Spanish Civil War. In it the streams of dream and reality never separate, as the end of the world and erotic dangers loom into sight. The beach was deserted. I undressed in the car and, without lying down on the sand, ran straight into the water. I stopped swimming and looked at the blue sky. 3 Almost blue, this blue that pulls in the direction of drama. An excited blue, in all its ambiguities.
The question of plot arises. Is there a story with a beginning, middle, and end? Not exactly. Claude Lévêques work always stands on the margin. He doesnt try to prove or teach anything. He offers sensations, avoids overly direct connections and repetitions. What he picks up in his everyday life serves directly or indirectly in his works, often some time later. Weve seen Le bleu de lil as a speculation on felt space, as the lagoon of unrest, in the heart of a subtly assembled environment that impresses, in the primary sense of the term. In Handkes novel, fear is always a means of acquiring knowledge: a sign of facts and things that will emerge or disappear. This tension in Lévêques work can be seen in the attention he brings to things that can shift from one direction to another. Even though the artist does set out to create a story, its very likely that the visitor will, just as viewers see icons of boredom and solitude in Edward Hoppers paintings although there was no narrative intent on his part.
Yet an invisible threat does connect the musée Fenaille to the musée Soulages in one sense. In Fenaille, a piece of driftwood is struck by lighting, imprisoned in a bolt of neon. Is this the inaugural thunderclap? Between the two museums, in an old vitrine in the centre of Rodez, two phrases in neon, Le mur aveugle (The Blind Wall) and Le long couloir (The Long Corridor), mark a narrowing, an obligatory pathway. Finally, we come to the large exhibition space in the musée Soulages and the immersion in a world at once threatening and meditative, filled with frailties, fears, uncertainties.
Peter Handke asserted that everything he wrote was walked beforehand: Walk so far until you tell details apart, so far until the vanishing lines show up in the confusion; so slowly until the world belongs to you again, so slowly that it becomes clear how it does not belong to you. 4