Isabelle Cornaro’s film All We Ever See of Stars (2002-6) draws on photographic archives, and takes a curious text as its starting-point: twelve seconds from the internal monologue of a person who lets an old photograph fall to the ground before gazing up at the stars. Twelve seconds in slow motion, transcribing a stream of consciousness that is seemingly ‘out of time’ – less a ‘stream’, in fact, and more a fragmented montage of individual moments. ‘The photograph is in my hand. It is the photograph of a man and a woman. […] In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It’s already lying there, twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now.’ Flash-backs and flash-forwards intersect and lead on, one from the other, but they are powerless to re-direct the unstoppable flow of time. Cornaro borrows these words from a character known as Dr Manhattan, one of the heroes of Watchmen1, an ambitious comic-book series that defined a genre: the Watchmen are superheros in full regalia, but beset with self-doubt. For them, the need to save the human race is by no means obvious. Dr Manhattan (a nuclear research scientist and victim of a laboratory accident) is the only one gifted with real ‘superpowers’: he can perceive matter and time in minute detail. Despite this he has chosen exile on Mars, leaving behind the images of his past and the affairs of men, to lose himself in the contemplation of matter. His monologue reads like an allegory of a particular kind of relationship to the world, in which distance is central to knowledge, and even the act of self-knowledge. The intimate photograph and the hero’s star-gazing are symptoms of the same disconnect, separating yet linking subject and object. The character’s disaffection (in every sense – he is devoid of affects, and serves no purpose now) refers to a state of suspended perception in which objects – stars, the workings of a clock, a photographic print, rays of light – become a matter of indifference to the person looking at them.
Isabelle Cornaro’s exhibition takes its title from Dr Manhattan’s monologue: ‘I am going to look at the stars. They are so far away. And their light takes so long to reach us… All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.’ The text casts familiar post-card images in a strange new light. Their status as documents from the past matters less than their old-fashioned style. These stiff, awkward, everyday images, and above all their colours – gently faded nuances and irregular contrasts – invite re-evaluation and re-appropriation. Here, the aim is to create more distance between these representations and ourselves, to avoid falling into their trap. For Cornaro, the creation of distance is a central process in her work, focusing on mostly objects and materials rather than existing images. Cornaro’s sculptures, installations and films present a wealth of vases, dishes, compasses, carpets, jewels, tableware and lightbulbs, arranged, modified, reproduced and exhibited in multiple, carefully elaborated ways. Items of jewellery form a cartographic survey (Savannah Surrounding Bangui and the River Utubangui, 2003-2007); old-fashioned ornaments stand as ruins in a classical landscape, its perspective planes defined by rugs (the series Paysages avec Poussin et Témoins oculaires, 2009-14). Objects are arranged as decorations, collected in vitrines, cast and petrified on a tabletop, coated in a single, unifying colour and presented vertically on the wall. We are invited to look, but cannot touch. The individual items become a paradoxical focus of attention: subjected to intense observation, offered for our contemplation yet distanced from us, they become increasingly abstract and unreal. This new perspective distances them and suspends their function and meaning, translating them to the realm of representation, even abstraction.
Indeed, the majority of Cornaro’s works offer nothing directly to the viewer. We are confronted with echoes, symbols, reproductions. And this is of course their essential paradox: the objects are not spirited away – they are very much present, filmed, photographed, exhibited. But it is precisely these ‘staged’ presentations or arrangements that enact their change of status: the work creates the rift between the everyday reality of the elements it incorporates, and their subjective perception. Often, it’s a question of viewpoint, of our distance from what is presented – we may remember that the artist herself is not as close as we might have thought to the objects she manipulates. ‘They […] come from flea markets, which I visit without any pleasure. I […] hate this slightly pornographic relationship to objects, half-sentimental, half-concupiscent’.2 The found objects exhibited in Cornaro’s work are the focus of no such thing, though we are indeed invited to analyse them and to discern relationships and impressions beyond those suggested by taste alone: Isabelle Cornaro arranges and organises the things she collects, the better to see these (inter)relationships. ‘The categories I refer to were empirically defined while observing different objects lying around my studio at the time that I was working on the Poussin landscapes. In the first set of Homonymes (those with the cast objects), I identified three distinct categories of objects: naturalistic objects (even when streamlined), ‘in the shape of’ a duck, a flower, etc.; objects carved with decorative motifs, repeated and stylized; and objects sporting geometrical form – even if impure – that brought to mind an idea of abstraction. In other words, my categories were: Naturalism, Stylization and Abstraction. A fourth cast was then made with what was left over.’3 This taxonomical approach divorces the objects from their function and highlights the relativity of their value: charms mingle with precious objects, ersatz items with unique artisan pieces and authentic antiques. Even money is treated as one representative ‘figure’ among many – tokens, stamps, casings – Cornaro uses of pieces of metal or printed paper to bring forth unexpected resonances (De l’argent filmé de profil et de trois-quarts, 2010). In considering them ‘objectively’ as things rather than as signifiers of value, she suspends our everyday perception: rather than referring to our own likes and dislikes, our attraction to ‘things’ to which we spontaneously affix a ‘value’ – be it sentimental, financial, sacred or whatever – Isabelle Cornaro encourages us to see things on a different scale. ‘I see my work as an attempt to “denaturalize” our relationship to familiar objects, and by extension to art objects. Somehow the point is to reflect on the affective and existential construction that moves us when we deal with objects.’4 Colour and light play an important role here: often, Cornaro uses colour to heighten the self-conscious artificiality of her chosen objects – objects that are both displayed and ‘represented’ in her work. Colour becomes a way of detaching objects from themselves, whether photographed on a richly-coloured background, filmed under coloured lights, coated with pigment, or cast and reproduced in new, uniformly-coloured materials. In Cornaro’s work, colour is a vector of choice for the process of abstraction, which she conceives as both ‘warm’ and ‘cold’. Highlighting the sensual and sensory qualities of a collection of objects using close-ups or effects of transparency translates them to a new state of existence, unrelated to their preconceived value. Elsewhere, the object’s status is transformed by the removal of its natural colour – no longer a unique, contingent example of its kind, it becomes a kind of immutable Platonic form or model.
For Cornaro, colour is not an inherent property. It cannot be a focus for analysis. Rather, it is a shifting quality, a testimony to what the viewer can do with or to the object in question.
This approach to colour is rooted in Cornaro’s manipulation of the viewer’s perception: seen through photographic lenses and film cameras, under coloured lights and filters, the objects in her work acquire new, additional visual qualities. Often, objects are apprehended from a purely optical perspective: captured on film or placed within a landscape, they are not marks in a composition, but distinct phenomena. Saturated colours or glitter imbue them with a distinctive presence. The subtraction of luminosity and colour from the objects portrayed is also a feature both of the artist’s resolutely abstract films, and of the paintings they inspire. The diffusion, projection and reception of rays of light take on a new vitality, beyond mere scientific phenomena.
The ‘critical’ dimension of colour is discussed by theorist Nicole Brenez in an essay on the power of colour in cinema and, in particular, on how colour is foregrounded in experimental films. In one set of examples, colour is obtained by intervening directly on the celluloid film: playing with colour becomes a way of countering the illusion of realism in cinema and highlighting our awareness of the materiality of film, from the celluloid strip to the projection room. Elsewhere, Brenez focuses on the expressive power of experimental films featuring abstract colour: ‘The story of colour in contemporary experimental cinema is a story of abandonment. For the most part, colour has been diluted and detached from its narrative, decorative and above all metaphorical functions, however powerful its symbolic ‘hook’: music, emotion or sensation.’5 For Brenez, the richness of cinematic colour lies not in its role as a compositional element, or a creator of meaning, but in the exploration of its inherent possibilities. As such, her essay highlights cinematographic forms whose essential beauty proceeds from their work with colour as light, and as a material in its own right, dissociated from the representation of objects. In such forms, ‘colour references nothing but its own self; the medium of cinema helps us, above all, to not know “what it is”.’6 Brenez focuses in particular on the ‘dissembling ‘ power of colour: where we would normally consider colour (as opposed to black and white) as a guarantor of the realism or mimetic illusionism specific to cinematic recordings, she insists on its capacity to create diametrically opposite effects. When not harnessed to reinforcing the semblance of reality, colour ‘transforms the screen’: by appearing where it shouldn’t, between transparency and opacity, purity and filth, irradiation and propagation, colour overturns the established representational order: ‘Euphoric dissemblance […] opens the way to the most closely-kept secrets of physical objects and their connections.’7 Bregenz suggests that these new roles for colour in film are no less enjoyable than its traditional functions. The same energising use of colour is seen in Cornaro’s film Amplifications (2014), in which the artist focuses our attention on the inherent sheen, refractory qualities and sparkle of the metals and crystals used in luxury items: the camera homes in on their luminescence and colour, as if to abstract and exponentially increase their optical power. In Premier Rêve d’Oskar Fischinger
(2008), outdated ornaments – glass spheres filled with mingled colours –display a sensual quality on-screen that both belies and transcends their intrinsic value.
Cornaro implies that the impact of colour is all the stronger for being allowed to flourish outwith the physical markers that typically organise its composition. This gushing sense of colour in motion is explicitly conjured in another abstract film, Floues et Colorées (2011): here, the camera lens captures an explosive, rhythmic sequence of spreading pigments, while each new ‘accident’ makes stringent demands on the viewer. The film continues the experimental approach of the artists cited in Nicole Brenez’s article, notably the German Oskar Fischinger, who made a number of abstract films in the 1920s and 30s before working on Disney cartoons. Based on Floues et Colorées, Isabelle Cornaro has also produced Reproductions (2010-2015), a series of paintings conceived as monumental photograms of the film, created by projecting pigments directly onto the wall in the exhibition space. The analogy between film projection and the spraying of colour is extended to the real-life scale of the exhibition space, as a kind of expanded cinema with cosmogonic appeal.
Nonetheless, abstraction – the absence of figuration – is not the sole driver of Isabelle Cornaro’s work: the descriptive forms made possible by film open the way to further experimentation. The many different light bulbs in Film Lampe (2010) refer to the mechanics of film projection, but they are presented above all for their exuberant lines and forms. In Choses (2014), collections of objects are gradually immersed in thick emulsions of bright, bold colour. Here, the accumulated excess of colour tips the ‘things’ over into unreality. This rhetoric of excess and overflow is partly comic, partly repellent, part Surreal and part literal: the mineral stasis of the object is contested by the spreading, organic flux of colour. This ‘circulation’ of coloured material, the complete opposite of effects of light projection and abstraction, alludes to an equally disturbing physical dimension of colour. The observation that in film, ‘blood isn’t blood, it’s red’, is widely attributed to Jean-Luc Godard. The aphorism points both to the fake nature of haemoglobin in films, and to Godard’s own unique depiction of violence in works like Week-End or Pierrot le Fou. Week-End depicts cruelty bordering on the grotesque: traffic jams descend into carnage, holidays end with cannibal feasting. The grand-guignol gore incites the viewer to step back, suspend his or her belief in the story and see beyond the film’s function as fiction and spectacle. This fictional take on reality heightens our awareness of the strange, utterly unnatural character of so much of everyday life. For Gilles Deleuze, Godard’s attention to colour typifies his approach to cinema as a tool for reflecting on everyday life, through the establishment of a ‘table of categories’ – a system of chromatic values that facilitates a critical analysis of the real world – within the film itself.8
More literally, however, Godard’s aphorism refers to the cinema of excess or the extreme in which, by definition, the central aim is the spectacle of spilt blood: horror and (especially) ‘splatter’ films, characterised by their over-the-top approach. This sub-genre is notable for its use of explicit, raw depictions of blood-soaked violence rather than the subtle building of tension, anxiety and fear. Splatter films play provocatively on effects of surprise and panic, together with a disproportionate reliance on the grotesque. The excess of red in such films typifies the use of colour to disrupt the conventional order.
This same dynamic of exaggeration is also found in films that harness colour to quite different imaginative ends. Artificial colour is a device in the rhetoric of alienation, but it has its place in the art of makeup, too, where it may be used to challenge our conventional perception of things. In this context, films made in the Sixties and Seventies by the American artist Jack Smith, or others of the period by Ron Rice or Ken Jacobs, show a remarkably eloquent, erotic use of colour. Jack Smith appears as a particularly ‘colourful’ character, plastered in make-up and wearing deliberately bright, strident colours, and the films themselves make striking use of unreal locations, lighting and colorimetrics.
The insistent use of red in Song for Rent (1968-69), for example, in which Smith appears in drag as one of his alter egos, Rose Courtyard, imbues the film with solemnity and a sense of the ridiculous in equal measure. These films’ careful attention to the creation of a highly-coloured theatricality is reflected in their meticulous choice of accessories, textiles and objects of all kinds, whose presence – sometimes strident and dissonant, sometimes cossetted and luxurious – adds to the sophistication of a world in which fakery and pretence are a source of (visual) pleasure. In this cinema of excessive colour and outrageous make-up, signifiers such as gender are blurred, and roles and values may be re-cast. The very materiality of colour, its viscous vulgarity, take on a truly conceptual dimension: it defines a limit, a pitch of resonance beyond which the distinctions between the perceived value and true nature of things break down. Colour dilates time and reveals new phenomena to the eye.
In one section of a 1993 text on his exhibition The Uncanny – an extraordinary reflection on the celebrated Freudian motif of ‘disturbing strangeness’ – Mike Kelley returns to the often neglected power of colour. For as long as realistic representation remained the central aim of painting, he observed, the signifier (the pigment) and the signified were united by colour. Colour in sculpture, on the other hand, transports the artist’s work into the realm of poor taste, literalism and decoration. Conventional taste adheres to the Classical ideal of monochrome statuary, highlighting the purity of its raw material; we know that polychrome statues were the norm in Antiquity, but the idea is absurd to us nonetheless. The truth is that when sculpture takes mimesis to the verge of living, breathing realism, it risks inciting feelings beyond mere aesthetic contemplation, in the viewer’s eye and mind.
As Kelley states, colour is one of the most ‘loaded’ signifiers in everyday life.9 It denotes age, the passage of time, the spirit of place, that which is specific rather than eternal. Rather than making us believe in the universality of stars, it reminds us that all we can see of them is their shrunk-down, particular, contingent image. Truth is not timeless fact but a social construct, both psychologically and culturally. Colour becomes a critical factor when, while also affirming its sensuality, it appears as an anomaly, a vector for artifice.
Immersed in a colour that is not their own, the overly-familiar objects collected by Isabelle Cornaro are reduced to mere knick-knacks. Their function is abolished, but at the same time they are open to new emotional connections and responses – a demonstration of how, in representational terms, naturalism is not the only valid approach.