Godard as God?

By Emilie Bickerton

pompidou.jpgCentre Georges Pompidou

A major installation investigated at the Pompidou


It’s hard to keep your concentration for long at the new installation in Beaubourg from Jean-Luc Godard. Even his chosen title encourages your thoughts to splinter off into various directions as you imagine what it might involve: Voyage(s) en utopie: JLG, 1946-2006. À la recherché d’un théorème perdu.

We know it’s not what it was meant to be. That project, Collage(s) de France, archéologie du cinéma d’après JLG broke down in February this year due to ‘financial, technical and artistic difficulties’. This one, opening on May 11, is what Godard resurrected from the scrapped plan with his own funding. The entrance to the exhibition explains this troubled genesis in a plainly-worded sign, though Godard has scored out the ‘financial’ and ‘technical’ bits with black marker pen.

There are three large rooms in all, and the vast space isn’t to be forgotten, these rooms are being temporarily occupied but their natural state is to be bare. This is relevant to the installation’s most general theme: wrestling with what place cinema holds in our lives, what it has meant, how that past is or is not still relevant and what cinema means today. These abstract questions are being put to us through the raw use of space. It’s a phenomenological engagement rather than an intellectual one as we wander through.

The central room is called Yesterday, or as the painted title on the wall tells us, Hier – a voir. The play on a voir (to see, wait and see) and avoir (to have) is optimistically ambiguous in the context of the room. Here we have Godard presenting us with a host of scenes from his favourite films and a collection of images and extracts from his own work that represent some key concepts or ideas, such as ‘métaphore’, ‘montage’, ‘devoir(s)’ and ‘inconsient’. These are displayed on large flat TVs lining the floor, and smaller screens on the walls. The DVD players hooked up to the sets are all visible, some screens still have their advertising sales stickers and there are a dozen or so stacked on top of each other in one corner.

On a false wall dividing two rooms are drilled holes in the MDF exposing the mechanics behind the installation – it’s all resolutely unspectacular. In the centre, as one example of self-conscious space-filling, there are fifty or so potted plants and small trees where, among the foliage, some more TV sets play scenes from old films on a constant cycle. This is it, then, cinephilia: one of the greatest love stories of the Twentieth Century summarised in a single room. It amounts to chaos at first. Each screen draws your attention with moments from classic westerns, singing and dancing in the streets, religious drama, black and white country scenes, but as soon as you stop to watch there’s another noise in the background to compete for your attention – a shrill phone rings, a gun shot, a scream, a car driving off. With so much to see and hear, distraction defines your state. Cinema, Godard is saying, is not the dramatic projection to an unsuspecting audience anymore, we consume it instead in its abundance. But the art has created so much that it is still with us, to be seen, to have. Just the shocks, the singular moments of drama, the first time of expressing this or that – these things have gone.

The screens on the wall are Godard’s assimilation of the cinema around him into his own work. One recent collaboration with his partner, Ann-Marie Mièville, was the rare clip that held people for more than a few moments, sticking their noses to the screen to hear the words. Godard plays perhaps himself, or at least an aged, grumpy man who goes to dinner with his partner. They joke about failing eyesight, and cite Socrates on the matter, before he clumsily spills the water he was trying to dilute his red wine with. They bicker, he sulks, they go home and exchange more tender words in bed. There’s nothing much cinematic about this scene because it’s entitled ‘inconscient’, showing that cinema has as one aspect the simply revelatory over dramatic telling.

voyages-en-utopie-jean-luc-godard.jpgVoyages en Utopie, 1946-2006

In the second room, or Avant Hier – avoir été, the resurrected material from Collage(s) appears. The archaeology of thought is represented by very rudimentary plastic and Perspex boxes, glued together or stuck with masking tape and nailed by protruding screws. The boxes are like dolls houses from the dark side, with ripped scraps of paper inside, or mirrors, some miniature figures and models of cameras and projection reels. Books are nailed to some walls or floors, Schopenhauers’s Le monde comme volonté et comme representation is there in an eclectic collection, along with Bazin’s Qu’est ce que le cinéma and Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

In contrast to Yesterday this is cinema being thought, showing how it plays out in our minds, and especially how we work with the two elements that constitute it: the image and language. Some picture charts flip on their own mechanically and among the scraps of citations, the story of a woman who finds some childhood doodles and scribbles: elle s’apperçut que chacun des texts correspondait exactement à un dessin ou réciproquement pour elle le combat de l’image avec l’ange du texte était achevé. The angel of the text is a fitting description of Godard’s relationship with words and language – he has always loved expression almost for its own sake. In early films especially he filled conversations with the names of great thinkers and writers, ‘Socrates a dit’ or ‘comme l’avait decrit Baudelaire’ even if the subsequent quotation wasn’t theirs. The sonority of citation was Godard’s celebration. But there is something angelic, ephemeral, unattainable. And so come images – ‘clear images for vague ideas’, as he memorably put it.

There’s a greater serenity to this room, compounded by the bed in the corner, dusty and undone, discarded pipes and bits of plaster underneath, and above it three paintings. Odd at first to stand before still images, remarkably restful, but their presence is also disquieting, impossible to ignore for the bold statement it makes, something we all know but wilfully forget: cinema is an impure art, the other art-forms criss-cross it all the time and its movement – the moving image – is made up of stills.

A model train runs through these two rooms, a hole in the wall its short tunnel. Between Yesterday and the Day Before there is always a transmission of sorts, from the archaeology of our thoughts to the golden age of cinema, the former is expressed through the latter. Today (Aujourd’hui – être) however, the third room in the exhibition, is more disassociated with the origins of thought and the traditional methods of image-making as well as image reception. The train doesn’t get through here, it’s the smallest and lightest of the rooms, it smells of fresh paint, feels cosy like a living room and backs on to the streets, clear windows meaning we mingle our contemplation of art with glances from passers-by. It’s like stepping into a domestic space, encouraged by familiar sounds from more flat TV screens, though this time they’re mixed with beds and desks, and only a few are upright – the rest lie on their backs as though the image had capitulated in its role of presenting something and the cinema projector is a distant memory.

The TVs are tuned instead to Eurosport, a cable or porn channel, so the content is totally uncontrolled, unlike the movie loops going on next door. This is modern life, where images saturate and become mostly background noise. Collages of furniture catalogue pictures are scattered around, with a few typical aphorisms: Soyez l’auteur de votre confort, Savoir vivre. The aspiration is to create your own home entertainment system, take the image into the private space along with every other multimedia device. The result is ‘being’, living with the hum of sound and an abundance of visual stimulation, but little of distinction, experimentation or magic exists – it’s the second end of the auratic.

This installation is not an elegy to cinema. After all, what has been, is still a voir, however hard it is to navigate our way through this mass. In the sixties Godard would have put his predictions to film, like he did with La Chinoise (1967) for French Maoism. Today his ability to be prescient, through art, has moved to the gallery. Again he is at war with most around him, obstinate and singular. His spatial representation of today isn’t obviously damning, though it’s neither celebratory. It’s familiar, and by the same token uncanny to see this in a gallery space. ‘Ce qui peut être montré – ne peut être dit’ Godard announces at the entrance. Once shown however, words can and must follow.


Emilie Bickerton writes widely on film and cultural issues.