Drawing from Alexandra Grant’s collaborative project Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest, 2013
‘If Freud had been asked to name his secret(ive) book,’ wrote Hélène Cixous, ‘he would not have hesitated: it would have beenThe Jungle Book.’ These words are re-written, crowded by many others from Cixous’s 2009 essay ‘Philippines’, on a tree made from papier-mâché in the exhibition space of a former sports centre in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Ouen. There are nine such trees in the room, made of diverse materials, the work of diverse hands, making the space itself into a kind of jungle.
Amongst essays by Thomas Babington Macauley and the Austrian classicist Theodor Gomperz, Freud selected Rudyard Kipling’s book of stories, The Jungle Book (1894), in a list of ten recommended books upon the request of the publisher Hugo Heller in 1906. It was a book he described as ‘a good friend’. Its theme of the feral child is clearly very close to Freud’s concerns in those texts exploring the cases of the ‘Rat Man’ and the ‘Wolf Man’, which have become so central, particularly to recent (post-Deleuzian) Freud reception.
According to Cixous, we all have such treasured books, which need not be great works of literature but remain very personal to us throughout our lives. They form the kernel of all our subsequent reading. For Cixous herself, that book is George du Maurier’sPeter Ibbetson (1891). But Cixous’s own ‘Philippines’ is the kernel from which Alexandra Grant’s present exhibition, called ‘Forêt Inérieure / Interior Forest’, has sprouted. Having grown from a text concerned deeply with dreams, memories and the unconscious, it is perhaps appropriate that all the trees in Grant’s ‘forest’ seem to have developed not from the ground up, but from the ceiling.
Upon entering the exhibition space there is something almost repulsive about the works therein. There is a sort of unkempt ugliness to it – a frightening profusion of thoughts and ideas. The show repels in the way a dark forest might repel those who have always lived in the clearing. But there is little darkness here. The walls are covered in a kaleidoscopic stream of thoughts-as-images, drawn, painted and collaged from photographs, cigarette packets and wallpaper, in every imaginable colour from great wads of day-glo pink to carefully crosshatched greyscale.
Within this splurge certain images recur: keys, crowns, ghosts, trees, animals, landscapes; sometimes very detailed, otherwise hastily scrawled and then scribbled out or drawn over. Amongst the images, there are words, mostly plucked from Cixous’s text, written in many different hands and several different languages. And there are references to numerous other art works, from the comic phantasmagoric style of Raymond Pettibon, to the brightly coloured geometries of mid-20th-century formalism, and, most explicitly, to Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), here rendered in the manner of a newspaper cartoon complete with shocked Victorian onlookers.
Exploring this seemingly endless chain of references, I found myself increasingly drawn into the work. It became something very personal, very intimate, full of small revelations and private jokes. In all its disorder, it became an experience of exploring the ‘secret book’ of someone else’s unconscious. But it is an unconscious collectively written, the result in part of several open public drawing sessions held throughout the lifespan of the exhibition, and the intervention of a number of other invited artists, including Constance Ouvrieu, Tina Linville and Annelie McKenzie. This kind of ‘radical collaboration’ has been an aspect of Grant’s work since her first solo show in 2007 (as, indeed, have the ideas of Cixous). It gives her exhibitions something of the quality of telepathy as discussed by Cixous in Philippines, or of philosophy itself as a series of letters between friends, as discussed by Jacques Derrida.
Derrida’s ghost, as delirious and cartoonish as one of Pac Man’s nemeses, is amongst the images on the wall here, and Derrida is one of several theorists discussed in Cixous’s book. But one philosopher Cixous does not mention in ‘Philippines’, but whose ideas seem nonetheless to haunt Grant’s forest, is Avital Ronell. Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989) sought to replace the notion of an author with the image of an ‘operator’, like a telephone switchboard operator or, as in a line Ronell quotes from a glossary of schizophrenia, ‘A human being with a type of head formation which permits him to explore and influence the mentality of others.’
It is to Ronell’s work that my thoughts turned upon seeing the wax-crayon image of a console, labelled ‘Hub 40000’, on one wall of the exhibition. This white box extrudes a tangle of black wires leading variously to a human finger, an eye, a telephone receiver, a pair of ears, a set of Nintendo control pads and a brain whose spinal column sprouts leaves. From the phone’s earpiece spreads a muddle of words: ‘Hello it’s me / Allo! C’est Moi! / Ta voix entre’. It is with this ‘voice between’ that Grant’s work calls to us; between words and images, art and philosophy, dreams and reality, between, finally, two close friends.
14 November 2013