Audrey Illouz: Reversible décors

Blue, White, Red, Black — West 2011
In his exhibition Blue, White, Red, Black Nicolas Milhé nails his colours to the mast. Although the work of the artist is openly concerned with symbolic objects of power, these are paired with an aesthetic transposition, enabling him to augment those symbolic layers the better to entrench them behind their contradictions and paradoxes, and to preclude any univocal interpre- tation. Military structures, as well as devices and flags, become the target for a multitude of reinterpretations.

Landscape with a loop-hole
In Meurtrière (Maldives)Embrasure (Maldives) – Milhé plays with a shape derived from medieval fortification architecture and with the scale of the landscape. Embrasures, openings intended for attack and defence, are also connected with sight, for one can see through them without being seen. The embrasure reveals a vertical strip of landscape that changes depending on the defen- sive position of the besieged. Paul Virilio has made ‘the connection between the function of the weapon and that of the eye. (...) the firing split narrows, just as if one were to squint the eyes, the field of vision to that which is essential, the target, with the intention of protecting the internal organ – in this case the human taking aim – but this protection implies an increase of definition. After all, with the technical narrowing of the pupil both the risk of damage to the human organ and the matters of minor relevance of the landscape are excluded. A case of synaesthesia: the protection brings about the keenness, which in turn protects.’(1)

Meurtrière — West 2011
Thus the embrasure in an aesthetic sense acts as a marred veduta, a self- willed part of a subdivided landscape, a reduced field of vision. It becomes even more complicated when the loop-hole is masked by the image of a landscape. Then the image of the gigantic landscape overlaps the fragment of a real landscape. However, the imagined landscape, somewhere between a picture postcard and a desktop background, between a tourist brochure and an image data bank, brings to mind an extremely clichéd model land- scape, a blissful tableau, an artificial and idyllic paradise against the backdrop of a military building element. This collision of different types of depictions opens up entirely new possibilities. Which of the two, the imagined land- scape or the imposed prism, is ready to give attack? Or must the observer score a bull’s eye?
Casemate — West 2011
Another reference to the architecture of warfare in the exhibition is Case- mate, a reversible object that, depending on the point of view of the observer, presents an inside and an outside. If one usually prefers the term bunker to the word casemate, the etymology of the latter is as ambiguous as it is confu- sing. Supposedly derived from ‘madhouse’ (casa ‘house’ and matta ‘mad’) (2), Paul Virilio as etymology mentions ‘fortified house’ (3). Here the building on the scale of an entire body appears to be ‘disturbed’, as survival depends on voluntary confinement. Whichever way you look at it, Nicolas Milhé has designed a schizophrenic work. On the one hand, the visitor discovers a model of another landscape topos: the Swiss mountain, stylized in such a manner that it seems to come straight off one of Herbert Matter’s tourist posters. On the other hand, this mock model proves to be a cross-sectional view, where the mountain has been hollowed out to form a gigantic multi- layered bunker, a state-of-the-art secured arsenal at odds with the image of pacifist Switzerland. The scale of the work, which has the dimensions of a model, emphasizes the gaming aspect, it resembles nothing so much as a theatre of war situated in a Playmobil country gone mad. Both in Meurtrière (Maldives) and in Casemate, stereotypical landscapes and military structures grotesquely form a whole, as if to underline the term ‘political décor’.

Political animal
It is but a small step from the ‘political décor’ to the decorum and its sym- bols, and this is deftly taken by the artist, who unflinchingly manipulates banners and devices. In his installation Blue, White, Red, Black, which he made for this exhibition, he plays with the pre-eminently symbolic nature of the flag and with monochromism. A flag serves as an identifying mark and bears the colours of a certain nation or group. Chance has it that both the Dutch and the French flag have the same colours. But for a few reversals (horizontal versus vertical, red, white and blue versus blue, white and red) they are identical. Although Nicolas Milhé keeps to all the instructions regarding flags, he divides up their colours. This dividing-up of the colours switches off the original identitary function of the flag. All the more as a black flag, which can have a variety of symbolic denotations, has been added. One of these denotations could be that of the ‘black flag, half-mast for hope’, as Léo Ferré put it in his well-known chanson Les Anarchistes. In these times of nationalist voices echoing all over Europe, where ministries of national identity can be set up without any resistance being offered, and where old demons can once more appear to pop out of the box of tricks, the black flag acts as killjoy. The black rectangle against a black background not only switches off colour, it also negates the original function of the ob- ject. Symbolic and formalistic parades overlap.
By referring to the renowned French motto ‘Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité’, Nicolas Milhé brings another republican symbol into play. Les Valeurs (2009) – The Values – resembles a set of curious ‘republican’ family jewels, remnants of a republican ideal of which the member ‘fraternité’ has in the meantime disappeared. The two gold chains, respectively furnished with the word ‘liberté’ and ‘égalité’, amount to a layered entanglement of signs: fashioned of precious materials (gold, silver, zircon) by a goldsmith, the pieces of jewel- lery bear the characteristics of the bombastic aesthetics of hip-hop, gothic hooligan typography and the luxury industry (with John Galliano and Faith leading the way). Welcome to the brutal France of the bling-bling years, where capitalism run amok more and more aims its arrows at the welfare state. This law of the jungle also brings to mind the stuffed hyena adorned with golden teeth (Untitled, 2009), lurking in its glass cage in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris during the exhibition Dynasty. These strange pieces of jewellery demonstrate that it is possible to let different symbols, generally placed in opposition to one another, appear alongside one another, and to combine them anew in a unique aesthetic space.
The work Constellations seems to offer a moment of respite and contempla- tion, but that is merely an illusion. Cartography, as a system of notation founded on conventions that determine the depiction, is fully part of Nicolas Milhé’s expressive vocabulary. The configuration principle works as follows: mirrors represent celestial maps and judas holes stars. The arbitrary nature of the sign is reinterpreted here. Again a complicated scopic arsenal is at work. In the mirror, the observer can view his own stance as a form of mise en abyme, but at the judas hole he finds himself deceived: when he tries to look through it he sees nothing, as the judas hole once again adopts the defensive gaming stance. The observer-watcher is being virtually spied upon. The ‘increase of definition’, which was effected by the embrasure, is now just a delusion and offers only frustration, unless the observer extrica- tes himself from convention and surrenders to the imagination.
To drive something into its opposite, and from that antithesis coax an abundance of meanings, appears to be this artist’s strategy. As surveillance and security installations are approached anew, that ‘increase of keenness’ brings about a kaleidoscopic vision that contaminates the form.

Audrey Illouz, 2011
Respublica — Palais de Tokyo 2011
1. Paul Virilio, Bunkerarchéologie, EditionsGalilée, Paris, 1975 p.59
2. According to the Grand Robert de la Langue Française the origin of the word is unclear; ‘ÉTYM. 1539; possibly from the Italian casamatta, uncertain origin, possibly from casa ‘house’ and matta ‘mad’, or from the Greek kasma, -atos ‘abyss’. P. Guiraud traces the word back to the Middle French matte ‘grass cover’, leading to ‘house covered with grass’.
3. Paul Virilio, Bunker archéologie, Editions : Galilée, Paris, 1975 p.62
Audrey Illouz is an art critic and independent curator based in Paris. She is a regular contributor to Art Press and also collaborates to the art magazines 02, Volume, Frieze online, Flash Art International.