A work of art need not be monumental, brightly colored, or placed for all eternity in the middle of a traffic circle in order to be public. It may find its place on the cover of an album, on television, or on a little island at the heart of a verdant park in Burgundy. It can give rise to derivations on another scale and in some other material, or be massively reproduced and appear at the click of a web page, the way a sculpture takes us by surprise on a street corner. It can become a place of high traffic pilgrimage, generating tens of thousands of digital images that anonymously swell the banks of information held in data centers, or it may fall into oblivion in some rarely visited spot.
We may, today, define a work as public insofar as it occupies the world, whether materially or as information. The classical opposition between private and public space thus no longer suffices to account for the way in which works offer themselves to the beholder. It is now necessary to distinguish the duration and mode of appearance, degrees of publicness and circulation. And this is a game at which Xavier Veilhan has shown himself particularly adept. He masterfully titrates the visibility of his works, either pushing their stealth to the point of disappearance (The Horse is entirely dissolved in its environment, Shadow Moonvisible from a single position) ⎯ or else fully embraces the constraints of the hyper-touristic sites that major museums have become, and of which the Chateau de Versailles is merely the most spectacular avatar. In this particular context, the assertive simplicity of his sculptural language, combined with a vocabulary straight out of classical statuary (human and equestrian portraits, funereal gisants, figurines...) acts as a promise of accessibility.
The photogenic quality of Xavier Veilhan's work has already been amply commented on. Today, however, it informs us of something that transcends the modern phenomena of mass tourism and the increasing mediatization of art or its incorporation within the industry of culture: it indicates the appearance of a new mode of existence for sculpture, and still further, a revolution in what we mean by the term "matter."
To put it differently, when we say that his sculpture is photogenic, this is perhaps no longer merely because it generates two-dimensional visual manifestations that are simultaneously numerous and faithful, but also perhaps, due to a capacity of images to circulate much more freely than matter. Veilhan's works get around. Sometimes literally, like the Carosse or Rhinocéros, which are, you might say, on tour. Sometimes this movement takes place through documentary manifestations of a photographic sort. But even Le Lion, Les Habitants, Le Monstre, or Jean-Marcseem to suggest to the viewer who stands before their unmoving matter that they might well escape the singularity of their localities.
Of all the artist's oeuvre, it may be Le Gisant, exhibited at Versailles in 2009, that most brilliantly allegorizes this veritable ontological revolution. The sculpture, which represents the famous astronaut Youri Gagarine, creates a historical bridge between the thousand year old Christian tradition of the gisant (recumbent tomb sculpture), or more specifically, the entrails gisant (the entrails, after removal from the body of a monarch, were buried in a separate tomb), and one of the greatest scientific and technical accomplishments of the modern era: space travel. In Le Gisant, not only does the surface of the sculpture bear witness to computer modeling, but the flesh itself. Violet and faceted, this flesh is of a new kind and an era to come: that of a fusion of bits and atoms, thinking objects and printers able to produce living, organic matter (remember that the gisant figure, as opposed to the transi, is alive). Everything comes together: the touristic quality of the site and the mass reproduction of Versailles by its thick crowds of visitors evoke an ideal of circulation that is echoed by the materiality of a body already constituted by coded information, programmed to be circulated in space, or online, unendingly; and, like an image, to appear on demand, everywhere simultaneously.
Perhaps this is why, as I tried to recall the different places where I had encountered public sculpture by Xavier Veilhan, I was haunted by nagging memories of Zone, a poem by Apollinaire in which an accumulation of spatial indications across the synthetic progression of the poem structures an illusion of the poetic figure's ubiquity.
"Now you walk in Paris all alone amidst the crowd [...]
Now you are on the shores of the Mediterranean [...]
You are in the garden of an inn not far from Prague [...]
Here you are in Marseille surrounded by watermelons [...]
Here you are in Coblence, at the hôtel du Géant [...]
Here you are in Rome, under a Japanese medlar [...]
Here you are in Amsterdam with a girl you find beautiful and who is ugly [...]
You are in Paris before the examining magistrate [...]
You are at night in a great restaurant [...]
You are walking towards Auteuil you want to go home on foot. [...]"
In the same manner, I might write: now you are on the fourth floor of the Centre Pompidou. You are on the island at Pougues-les-Eaux. You are in Paris in front of the Hôtel de Ville, but you cannot enter. It is Nuit Blanche; the crowd blocks your way. You are at la Bastide on the right bank of the Garonne River. You are in Lyon, at the Cité Internationale, wandering amongst the Habitants. You are at the market square in Tours. Now you've arrived in Strasbourg. You are at home, listening to Air. Years have passed. You are in the courtyard of the château de Versailles. Here you are at the Place de la République, in Metz. Now you are walking towards the Northeast corner of 53rd Street in New York.
Apollinaire, the high priest of a techno-poetic modernity whose foundations are often called upon to explain the work of Xavier Veilhan, devoted an entire novella, "Touching at a Distance," to the topic of ubiquity. In it, the baron of Ormesan invents a device that can transmit not only images, but bodily presence. This invention extends, in the arena of fiction, possibilities created by technical developments contemporary with Apollinaire, the radio broadcast in particular. It explores the technological fantasy of tele-presence, of matter that might circulate in the ether as fluidly as information, thus escaping all singularity of position. It is a dream that appeared with the dawn of modernity; today, enriched with the technological capacities of our time, it haunts the thoughts of Le Gisant, and all of Xavier Veilhan's statuary.
Visit the Website: http://www.veilhan.com