In 2001, Isabelle Cornaro recorded her laughter and displayed her arms in a video piece titled Vanité à vif (Quick Vanitas). It was a rare instance of the artist’s own body being present in her work. We see her handle the symbolic, codified objects that make up a still life. In a paradoxical gesture, she brings life to an inanimate genre of painting, cutting it to the quick by decomposing and analyzing its construction. Meanwhile, in her spray paintings called Impressions (2010), Cornaro traveled in the opposition direction, deconstructing a video work to produce a series of still images; for Cinésculptures (2008), she studied the effect of folding and shadows on black and white paper; and for Moulage sur le vif (Videpoches) (Life Casts [Catch All], 2009–2011), she dissected an overall image into as many details as were required to “empty” it. In Vanité à vif, it was the artist who herself “emptied” the depiction—as her arm composed it, her laughter superimposed a critique of the moral philosophy that stems from the canonical vanitas genre of still-life painting.
Although the “act” is as primordial for Cornaro as the “making,” it is rarely underscored—as it is here—through the presence of her body. Only the Songs of Opposite (2008) also feature the artist’s body, although in these video pieces she becomes just a figure, a line in space, a tool for measuring a typically French landscape.1 In Vanité à vif and Songs of Opposite, the artist gets into the act. In her other works, all that remains is the trace of her intervention: just an indication of her action, a mere incarnation of the artist. Her works stem from acts of installing, collecting, casting, photographing, scanning, filming, framing, decomposing, tracing, and so on. These acts decompose depiction, revealing the ways in which the human organization—indeed, domination—of reality (through classical pastoral landscape, formal gardens, figures on coinage, etc.) is manufactured. Such acts efface the human figure—in particular that of the artist—to the benefit of human beholders and various other kingdoms (vegetable, mineral, minimal, inert) that function as “eyewitnesses.”
The series titled Bons à tirer (Blueprints, 2008) is characteristic of Cornaro’s approach, underscoring the creative process. Cross-sections and a color chart stress the process of manufacture, while lines and annotations reflect the artist’s thought processes in selecting, framing, and calculating the arrangement of objects, landscapes, and artworks. Bons à tirer, which is both a study for Le Parc de Sans-Souci (The Grounds of Sans-Souci, 2005) and a sketch that has acquired the status of an autonomous artwork, demonstrates that what interests Cornaro is not so much representation as the process of representation, not making so much as mechanisms for making, not the value of things so much as the value adopted by the things to be represented. In this respect, landscapes, jewels, decorative objects, and the vocabulary of Minimal art—indeed, Cornaro’s sources draw on idioms from wide-ranging historical periods—are tools designed to produce shifts from one regime to another, to explore processes of equivalence and translation, and to quicken—through her very acts—the modalities of artistic representation and reproduction.