In the Lands of Serendip, Didier Semin, 1998
December 1998 – January 1999
In the Lands of Serendip
English – the language or the mentality – offers a word which does not exist in French: “serendipity”. At least, it did not exist till now…But Jean Jacques, the author of L’Imprévu ou la science des objets trouvés (“The Unexpected Or The Science of Found Objects”) suggests a neologism: sérendipité. I can’t say I’m a fan, because of a ghost of word behind the word, betrayed by assonance: serin dépité, (meaning “put-out canary”). That unfortunate bird on its perch might discredit an idea, which should, on the contrary, be taken with utter seriousness. It was extruded by Horace Walpole from a tale entitled The Three Princes of Serendip and it designates, amongst scientists, a natural propensity of major discoveries, which is to occur by chance. Entirely by chance. Not one of the significant innovations of this century or the last – X-rays, penicillin, Teflon, to mention three unequally valuable ones – arose out of anything except an untidy laboratory, enhanced by unpredictable circumstances and careless handling. The sharpness of our minds, our aptitude for abstraction and deduction were not factors.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to consider Nobel-Prize winners as three-card-trick players. A fortunate accident requires a witness of choice. It is not given to any old passer-by or on showing one’s ticket. Accident requires welcome, flattery (not to excess), the erection of modest altars. This is what researchers do. The main thing is to be up to recognizing fortunate accidents as they occur. Serendipity means discovering something different to what one had set out to find, America for instance. It does not mean discovering without prior research. Claude de Soria, you see now where I am headed, is highly proficient in the art of taming chance, which is an artistic faculty as well as a scientific one. One has to feel, on occasion at least, if chance is not some cousin of hers and one notices, in her very courtesy that seems somehow absent-mindedly benevolent, a certain affinity with the hidden elements in this world. The series of singular objects she is showing is the fruit of a characteristic alliance with the unexpected. It is the product of an unlikely operation and of an idea, which on the face of it might seem absurd: not wanting to turn down a charity that was asking with some insistence that she should offer up a canvas for a benefit sale, even though she had been practising for many years an art-form very far-removed from oil painting, she decided that she would make the thing is she most interested in and which she has been showing us (raw or piled into blades) since 1974, work on stretched canvas. I mean poured cement.
Anyone else might have explained, politely refused, perhaps splattered something on the canvas and signed it for good conscience. But it did not escape Claude de Soria’s guardian angel that this bizarre request might be a whispering of chance. Acquiring a fine square of primed linen canvas and spreading it carefully on a workbench, she dutifully applied a coat of Fondu Lafarge, a brown cement of good quality usually involved in the building of bridges and not works of art, and covered the result in a sheet of polyurethane.
One of the virtues of her art is the great modesty of her processes and materials involved: her sculptures, if it is right to use that term, often come with the lustre of Japanese pots and the same muted colours, not the brightness of gold or porcelain, but the – in truth more durable and more precious – sheen of tables polished by generations guests or fork handles that have served to till years and years of vegetable garden soil. The cement she uses is not mixed, it is rather cooked: moulded in a plastic leaf, dried, unmoulded according to a recipe devised (by chance) one day and infinitely repeated with subtle variations. To anyone harbouring a clichéd idea of the artist wrestling with material until it expresses a vision, an inner torment that he is desperate to communicate to the universe itself, Claude de Soria will seem an unambitious lab technician or a plasterer. But artists need not resemble the cliché. Or to await certificates registering them as artists, as Jean Dubuffet might have said. De Soria, who was taught by Leger but only mentions this by chance and in passing (it would be hard to identify artistic influences or contemporary styles in her work).
Nothing was premeditated. The cement on canvas was intended for a kindly soul, ill-versed in contemporary art and would probably have remained an exception in her career, an amiable fantasy. When she unwrapped the object in the morning, without particular impatience, she recognized the double six she had unwittingly thrown the night before. The weave of the linen had let in air during the drying process, air that was unwanted and not invited to the party. Trapped in the polyurethane sheet, huddled into pockets, tunnels and myriad ramifications, it had oxidised the cement in places into a darker hue. The effect was a mottling, a marbling like those precious stones that Roger Caillois describes, better than anyone: in this cement, by the intervention of a friendly hand, seemed within a few hours to have resurrected the talent and imagination shown by minerals over geological time, a timescale so long and so different to our own that we are wont to regard it as unmoving. We are easily given to marvelling that rock should sometimes resemble the simplest manifestations of art and to seeing in it a shape, the figure of a man or a city. It is meet that we should wonder in return that the manifestations of art should nearly graze the genius of stone.
I can hear them protest. You can’t, they will say, claim that the product of artistic intent and the product of erosion are of the same nature. But I can. Exactly that: the same nature. It is only by arrogant habit that we assume that our deliberate deeds are more worthy than those of the nature that surrounds us. Or to be more precise that we categorise these two things differently. Culture may be, as Caillois again says, is probably just a term devised by men to describe their own nature. Nature and culture are only to be opposed in the name of an illusory freedom attributed to the one and not the other – we do not know much, for instance, of the freedom with which cement may or may not decorate itself with patterns as it dries. Once the die is thrown, nothing is there to stop us from experimenting, from testing and varying our testing, from engaging with chance once again, which often proves generous. The appearance of cement paving, so subtly designed at the surface by a moment spent in close proximity with a canvas whose design was defined by a charity, might be improved by, on another occasion, removing the plaque from its support to show it on its own: all that needed to be done was to dispose of the canvas, unless, as previously with Claude de Soria, when her cement work was poured on plastic, the imprint left by the cement should turn out, it too, to be worthy of interest. By carefully dissociating these two elements, in a second experiment, it became obvious, not only that the imprint on canvas compared favourably, in terms of artistic interest, with the stone that had left it there; and that it constituted, even, something not dissimilar to painting on canvas, an unexpected tribute by silica and gypsum, as handled by Claude de Soria, to another great lover of materials and imprints, Jean Dubuffet. A third trial on a sheet of paper was less, or perhaps too, conclusive: the cement engaged in so close a union with Canson paper that the thought of breaking them apart proved impossible. Claude de Soria obtained plaques lined with a layer of delicate white cotton-like paper, that suggested superimposition and the consequence was again astonishing. Piled up like pebbles or biscuits, these objects made a mockery of the usual exterior signs of art: stands, frames, settings, all the labels used to mean that things should know their place. To slip unnoticed past the decipherers of labels is a great virtue, as is not pretending that one is made for high and noble tasks. Claude de Soria’s cement is well-versed in the art of slipping by unnoticed.
Chinese painters used to sign stones. The Far East is better at equating, inside a home for instance, spontaneous arrangements of nature and the products of nature constrained by the hand of an artist or craftsman: such and such bit of rock, such and such a root are placed, just like that, beside an engraving or a calligraphy on a roll of paper. In the West, some, but not all in the West, not those who made cabinets of curios nor André Breton looking for agate along the banks of rivers, end up believing that there is a qualitative leap between the fact of gathering stones, usually thought of as an inoffensive pensioner’s hobby, and the act of representing the same stones in paint or the act of chiselling at them to make sculptures, the latter being thought of as great art. In reality, the two types of activity are two versions of the same obsession and equally respectable: Claude de Soria stands subtly between the two. She is sufficiently watchful and precise in her observing to have noticed that a product of ordinary industrial processes, cement, is a most delicate material (a gentle lava capable of shifting without fuss or hullabaloo from liquid to solid state). And sufficiently deferential to the laws of Serendip to respect the material’s own know-how. To have made friends of it.
Curator, Museum of Modern Art