THREE NATURAL HISTORIES
You have to imagine entering an open-air exhibition in a space open to living things and to the infinite fluidity of natural move- ment. We come face to face with different species in an immersion between kingdoms. This is access opened to living beings in a qualified and set manner, not to gain a hold on what is natural but in contrast to enter a dialogue in awareness with nature itself—as a complex concept. Here, nature is a tangible reality that we can move about in and bring in resonance with other fields: botany, zoopoetry and mineralogy, thus forming three natural histories, three stories, and three unities of works.
At the very beginning of the exhibition on the ground floor of the Musée Ziem, Coupoles (‘cupolas’) are displayed. They were made in 2012 with leaves of Elaeagnus, a genus of small bushy evergreen shrubs. The leaves have one silvery side and remain practically intact in time. Looking at the hemispherical cupolas from above reveals a certain brightness in their hollows. Scattered, they are like cups containing an offering placed on the floor. To describe what hap- pens we talk in terms of familiar materialism fed by a way of appropriating nature at our scale. Visitors can thus interact with the work that itself participates in a much broader approach. The familiar materialism involved operates not on but with living beings. And the artist can thus go into the street or walk through wasteland to find inspiration and substance for plastic transformation.
This is the approach used, remaining atten- tive to the beauties of nature and faithful to the curiosity of untiring botanists. A leaf of Monstera deliciosa collected at the Botanical Garden in Strasbourg became an engraving. All its ribs gained a graphic dimension as this leaf with all its aesthetic complexity became a design stamped on aluminium. For this, the artist worked with a coachbuilder specialised in sheet metal-formwork1. She made the leaf at the scale of the human body using the tools used in metal formwork. For us the plant is also a subject for ceaseless aesthetic astonishment with each rib becoming a plastic, almost eternal incarnation. It is by contact, as understood for the beginnings of photography, that these ribs leave their print on the metal plate. So perhaps the trace of a leaf of Monstera deliciosa should be kept as a relic. Looking at it, I think of botany and in particular of Francis Hallé who has combed primary tropical forests since the 1960s to make an inventory of the species that grow there in a gigantic atlas of families created first using sketches and then extremely precise drawings.
We can mention here a discussion with Hallé in the context of the exhibition ‘Nous les arbres’ (Trees) held in 2019-2020 at the Cartier Foundation. In a short extract he talks about his botanical work as an infinite human science2. He considers that it is cer- tainly not ‘pinning’ species as an entomolo- gist would do but rather living in tune with nature and understanding it closely in order to communicate with it. Here he talks of the distinction to be made between the artist—who can interpret nature and make it his own, for example by forging a bond between a leaf of a tree and an aluminium plate—and the botanist whose duty is sim- ply to respect what he sees to pass on the descriptions to future generations. Botanists also describe species that are becoming extinct. Hallé has worked meticulously for years on this study, continuing an ancient activity. He also reminds us that looking at living beings is a formidable tool and an otherness that is both fundamental for humans but also a foundation for possi- ble communication between human and non-human. He stresses the boundless discretion of trees that ask for nothing and grow according to their own laws. We must adopt this discretion by proposing condi- tions for their survival or by at least making an effort not to harm them. Although bio- diversity is so vast that we will certainly not have the time to discover everything that it has to say—especially at a time when it is under threat—it is still up to us to traverse it without destroying it.
Léa Barbazanges is a botanist in her own way because collection is at the heart of her approach. She thus seeks to draw attention to what grows, lives and surrounds us during our daily lives without us being aware of this. Whether she collects dust from a comet to depict it using oil pastel and dry chalk (in the work Poussière de comète de la mission spatiale Stardust, 2015) or several thousand dandelion seed plumes (3,700 in all!) to make a work with a living volume, she ceaselessly invites us to respect the move- ment of life. And this respect operates from its stellar origins to our most precarious little gardens. The dandelion plumes collected by the artist are attached by achenes, inde- hiscent fruits, i.e. that are able to open to release their seeds. Dandelion achenes have the feature of bearing pappus, the small plume of fibres that we blow on to make our dreams come true. The wind disperses the plumes, which can travel extremely long distances, flying and then multiplying. We talk in terms of dispersion—when a plant species becomes scattered. Might nature have intelligence? The discussion is still open among philosophers and sci- entists, but this intelligence must be qual- ified in plant and not cerebral terms. It is a question of specific life, a form of life that uses its means and fantastic capacities for development.
The major issue here is an artistic form of pollination. This will have resonance for all those who look at the magnificent picture of plumes. By making a hybrid of kingdoms—and by awarding a clearly pic- torial dimension to these dandelions—the artist has developed an art of weaving and makes her harvest a live source for the work. So let’s blow joyfully on these dandelions to change our viewpoint and finally rehabilitate species that have been forgotten or trampled on too many times. It is doubtless essential now to set a scenario for the possible to make thinking change and outline ecology as a study of environ- ments. This artistic ecology also places powerfully into perspective the relation between the beings in these environments. Here, Léa Barbazanges does precisely what Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes and Axelle Grégoire wrote in Terra forma: she opens up ‘this inter-biome zone, an area of life that includes micro-resources hidden in the interstices of daily life 3’.
Insects and animals also have something to say. Flies first of all. In 2005, Léa Barbazanges made Page d’ailes, consisting of wings (ailes) of Calliphora vicina flies. This very common species is also called the bluebottle or blow- fly. These flies arouse disgust because of their meat-loving, necrophilic or scatopha- gous features and brushed away by people’s hands. But the artist makes a reminder: ety- mologically, Calliphora also means ‘bearer of beauty’. She takes some of these insects to make a small picture or a page of writing. Is it a kind of ex-voto or an extremely pre- cious reliquary but nonetheless made from almost nothing? Art is meditative here as the wings were assembled by hand—between each other and side to side during several long months of concentration. This created a dreamlike swarming landscape ‘as if the arrangement of the wings were a reminder of the frontal part of the fly’ observes the artist. Looking at this writing on an A4 page imme- diately leads to thinking of Robert Walser’s ‘microscripts4’ whose typographical signs are so small that they seem practically undeci- pherable by the naked eye. Writing with the invisible then: people the blank page with signs. Make a page of wings and return a degree of flight to the poem.
The minds of Jacques Derrida (L’Animal que donc je suis), Jean-Christophe Bailly (Le Parti pris des animaux) and also Élisabeth de Fontenay (Le Silence des bêtes) show this attention paid to animals interrelating with humans: the human looks at the ani- mal which in turn looks at the human in a reciprocal phenomenology. This is what the philosopher Anne Simon calls ‘zoopoetics5’, that is to say a literary approach based on closer contact between human and social sciences and life sciences, aiming at stressing ‘emphasis on the richness of the interactions between humans, other animals, plants, the atmosphere or minerals and attempting here to break down the Western category of ‘kingdoms’ that are distinct from each other and considered as being ‘natural’6. In imaging zoopoetics for this Page d’ailes, I think immediately of the manner in which Marguerite Duras describes the death of a fly in her book Écrire:
‘It was long. It struggled against death. It lasted for perhaps ten to fifteen minutes and then stopped. Life must have ceased. I stayed to see more. The fly stayed against the wall as I had seen it, as if bonded to it. I was wrong. It was still alive. I stayed to watch it in the hope that it would start to hope, to live. My presence made this death even worse. I knew that and I stayed. To see. To see how death would gradually invade the fly. And also to try to see where this death came from. From outside or from the depth of the wall or from the floor. From what night did it come, from the land or the sky, from the nearby forests or from a still unmentionable nothingness, very close perhaps, to me who tried to trace the trajectories of the fly in the process of entering eternity7.’
This description is so intense that all of us can say that we have never known how to observe the death of a fly: Duras gives no anatomical details but nonetheless seems to understand from inside the physiological phenomena taking place within the tiny body of the insect. She is the horrified mes- senger. What affects her and what affects us when we read this is that the death of the fly is nothing and of no importance for anybody. What is a death that is of no impor- tance? A death that nobody mentions. Page d’ailes awards eternity to the wings of flies that have disappeared. The page becomes a choreographic mass of absent bodies with perfect contours.
From flies, Léa Barbazanges goes to pigs, with an installation made using an assembly of several cauls. A caul is the membrane that encloses the viscera of the animal; it is very fine and transparent with milky notes. Here again, a little like the ribs of a large tropical leaf, the network of veins display magisterial arborescence in a natural layout, perfectly coralline. The work is hung and plays on its lightness, like a moving sail. We no longer see fat but an aquatic, ramified landscape. The artist’s work therefore consists of knowing how to pay attention to minuscule things, to show the minute while making it possi- ble to reveal its natural beauty and formal perfection.
Léa Barbazanges uses the motif to reveal the invisible. We thus understand why she can make concerted use of both pig caul and crystals. Indeed, take the work Cristaux – ennéagone (2010-2020) that formally refers
to the pork caul installation: both share a certain monumentality and bright trans- parency. She made it using calcite crystals. The dimensions chosen were like those of a door— 2.10 metres by 90 centimetres— and for the artist are an invitation to travel. We have to go through this door to enter a world that is both nocturnal and light, a kind of reassuring cave.
If Léa Barbazanges is interested in crystals, it is because they are minerals that obey a special regular and mathematic layout. This is when the artist becomes a crystallographer. The work Ligne de mica—made specially for the exhibition at the Musée Ziem in 2021—is in the form of a line 14 metres long. ‘Mica is very present around us, in nature. It is what can be seen shining in sand or pebbles’ says the artist who plays here on the shimmer- ing colours and their sparkle. The stones are made thin and laid out in sequences that are repetitive but never totally iden- tical. In 2019, Léa Barbazanges had carried out experiments with Sylvain Ravy, a CNRS researcher, for MicaPenrose in which the mica was worked for its brilliance and optical prop- erties but amplified to show a complex motif likely to be marvelled at for its structure. The artist appropriated the undulation of light by breaking it down like a soap bubble.
This trip made up of three natural histories takes us into an encyclopaedia in move- ment—consisting of creative freedom, atten- tion to forms and species and above all their potential. While Léa Barbazanges can find sources of inspiration in the sciences, she is nonetheless a poet, that is to say able to make forms say what they generally keep silent.
Léa Bismuth is an art critic and freelance exhibition curator. She is currently working on a doctorate entitled ‘Ecrire : un passage à l’acte’ (‘Writing: get- ting it out’) at EHESS, Paris. She is also preparing an exhibition devoted to the emancipatory modes of our forms of life.
1. The person was Isaak Rensing of the coach-builders HH Services in Strasbourg.
2. See the online video: Francis Hallé, Web-série Nous les arbres, épisode 1/5, Paris, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63F1se_d9KE.
3. Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes and Axelle Grégoire, Terra forma. Manuel de cartographies potentielles, Paris, Éditions B42, 2019, p. 154.
4. Mention can be made
of the exhibition ‘Robert Walser: Grosse kleine Welt. Grand petit monde’ at Les Beaux-Arts de Paris, 2018- 2019.
5. I refer to the book by Anne Simon published recently: Une bête entre les lignes. Essai de zoopoétique, Marseille, Wildproject, coll. ‘Tête nue’, 2021.
6. Anne Simon, ‘Présentation de la zoopoétique’, Animots. Carnet de zoopoétique, s. d., https://animots.hypotheses.org/ zoopoetique.
7. Marguerite Duras, Écrire, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, coll. « Folio », 1993, p. 39.