Marc Camille Chaimowicz: Talks about Jean Cocteau, 2003

Article excerpt

After moving from his native Paris as a boy, Marc Camille Chaimowicz spent the remainder of his youth in the somewhat less exciting surroundings of English new-town suburbia, before going on to art school. His family's move, coming as it did in the aftermath of World War II, was felt as a bizarre wrench that continues to inform his work. He now divides his time between London and Dijon. With a deep interest in France's modernist literary legacy yet equally alive to subtle shifts in the terrain of contemporary pop culture, Chaimowicz has, since the early '70s, defied straightforward categorization in his pursuit of the beautiful. The sexually ambivalent sensibility that suffuses his environments, installations, and performances seduces the viewer into reflection and reverie. Visually rich and precisely observed, the objects and images he designs, makes, and gathers from elsewhere propose connections, set up oppositions, and trace narratives in a dense play of puzzle, metaphor, and interpretative possibility.

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As far back as 1976 Chaimowicz paid homage to Jean Cocteau in Fade, performed at London's ACME Gallery. Complex lighting, a faux-Cocteau backdrop, and disappearing figures referenced the French polymath's films, particularly Orpheus (1949). In his current project, Jean Cocteau, installed at the Norwich School of Art and Design's gallery last fall and traveling to Angel Row, Nottingham, in May, Chaimowicz has furnished an imaginary apartment for the poet, filmmaker, and artist, the fortieth anniversary of whose death fell last year. Alongside his own furniture, carpets, ceramics, and sculptural structures, including a double staircase dedicated to the late critic Barbara Reise, Chaimowicz has incorporated period pieces from Breuer and Isokon together with works by Enrico David, Paulina Olowska, Tom of Finland, Cerith Wyn Evans, Warhol, Giacometti, Marie Laurencin, and others, to construct a space that is almost usable yet thoroughly dreamlike.

A year ago Lynda Morris, director of the Norwich Gallery, reminded me that in the '70s I had taken her to one of London's best-kept secrets, a mural commissioned from Cocteau by the French for their Catholic church in London, Notre-Dame-de-France. It's a little miracle, very competent, very assured--Cocteau at his best. The project then slowly emerged through dialogue with Lynda. I'd never before developed such a complex dialectic between my own practice and the appropriation of other people's work in order to construct what is, by default, a kind of portrait. I found the experience liberating. That end wall in my installation, for example, with a Warhol, a Stephen Buckley, and the Giacometti lamps: One can stand back and exclaim with joy as to how fabulous it looks, because one's not burdened by the responsibility of one's own ego.

I accept that in France the jury is still out on Cocteau. His blatant disengagement from the body politic is problematic. He made some mistakes out of naivete, I think. For instance, he supported the work of Arno Breker only because he was, at that point in his own career, reassessing the neoclassical. I think the ambivalence with which Cocteau was regarded had a lot to do with the fact that he came from a very well-to-do background. This would have been socially disadvantageous for someone trying to associate himself with the avant-garde. …