The Sense of Loss by François Michaud


The Sense of Loss

François Michaud

Life is a picture. So everything we see is pictorial. And not only what we see, but also what we touch, smell and eat. Intensity can only be touched, smelled and eaten if we seize life in all this undefinedness – which few people do. Everything is pictorial for the truly living living.

— Frederika Fenollabbate, Baladine, 2010


It was last October that Alexandra Leykauf saw the planned exhibition space for the first time. It’s situated on the bottom level of the Musée d’Art Moderne, two levels below the Avenue du Président Wilson and the main entrance. Between the two is the level that now houses the permanent collection, which in 1937 was provided with a separate entrance looking toward the Pont de l’Alma. No longer used, this entrance is the only one topped by the words “MVSEE DE LA VILLE” in Latin lettering that fits nicely with the building’s modernised classicism. During the International Exposition of 1937, when the new museum was still without a collection, this was the entrance to the Paris Pavilion, located on this level. Moving from room to room, Exposition visitors relived the history of the French capital before being offered, in the form of contemporary achievements, the promise of a radiant future destined to the triumph of “the arts and techniques of modern life”. True, at the time almost nobody had taken any notice of Walter Benjamin’s proclamation of Paris as the “capital of the 19th century”.

         In that other era, now just a little over seventy years behind us, the Avenue de New York had neither its present form nor its present name. Before the War this thoroughfare along the Seine was the Quai de Tokio – the name of the Japanese capital was spelt differently then, too. There’s a story here, located just this side of memory and forgetting (and maybe “of laughter”, to put it Kundera’s way): for today hardly anyone knows what the connection is between the Palais de Tokyo and its distant, indirect origin. Now, as you leave this historically shifting avenue paired with two geographical epochs – a theatre of war followed by a change of polarity: from the conflict in the Pacific to NATO – you find yourself, with only the slightest change of level, in the “Children’s Museum”. The “Children’s Museum Storeroom”, to give it its full title, was “invented” by Christian Boltanski in 1989 and owes part of its name to the fact that at the time the so-called basement it occupied was also the museum’s reserves. Thus a single floor space runs from the Quai de Tokio-New York to this basement that isn’t really a basement where Alexandra Leykauf is going to be showing. For many years the gallery we now call the Salle Noire (“black room”) was known as the “large auditorium”; a strange-sounding name for a space which, despite its curved walls and absolutely flat floor, would serve as the theatre for numerous performances in the many senses of the word.

         All this scene-setting might be pointless, perhaps, were it not that the work of Alexandra Leykauf is based on places with an enduring past. What you might call a public past, like that of the theatres that appear regularly in her oeuvre, or the Aubette in Strasbourg, that combination of dance hall, bar and theatre jointly originated by Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber. These places have served a purpose, but their use has been put on hold, sometimes definitively; the Aubette is a special case, having been demolished and then partially rebuilt. Disuse suits Leykauf, as if it were the source of some singular affinity, one at once highly personal and objective; for others have known and loved – or not loved – these places before her. Prior habitation is not enough, however: when Leykauf chooses a place she prefers it vacant. She tours an abandoned apartment camera in hand, then uses her photos to “reassemble it”, shuffling through her images the way you do through a family album, although less respectfully. Intermingled and overlaid in a seemingly arbitrary way, the images ultimately add up to a place that has never existed, as the artist creates other, no less real images.

         This isn’t voyeurism. Leykauf isn’t rummaging in search of alleged or imaginable secrets from the past: here fantasy lies ahead, not behind. The artist projects dissimilar elements which only merge on the retina of a viewer summoned to contemplate a reality other than that of the everyday: a semblance of reality, clearly visible because photographed, shown almost as trompe l’oeil and superposed on that other reality – the one that is not art. Nothing, however, indicates that what we see is more truly Leykauf’s world than the one into which, following her, we project our own images. For free association is not ruled out here and, whether relating to the origins of psychoanalysis or the history of Modern Art, her work is immersed in the archaeological inventory of what was called, around 1920, the modern spirit. Ruins are everywhere in her work, yet life is never absent. The artist cherishes this period – the Bauhaus, Dada, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau – and makes no secret of the fact. Repeatedly, imperceptibly, she slips back towards those years, returning again and again as if to dismantle something or to reassure herself of the truth of some memory or promise. But Freud has taught us to be wary of screen memories, those misleading recollections of primal scenes masked by the too-visible material world. In Leykauf’s films and “slide shows” everything is assembled then taken apart again. Nothing surprising about her marked taste for modern techniques – the slide, 16mm film – which are already being absorbed into the past of Contemporary Art: these are both media and signs. It’s as if modernity were hooked into them: do what you like with it, its components will endlessly reference the same receptacle of images. You can toss the family album on the floor, scatter the photos, but the pieces of the puzzle remain unchanged. So how to get out of the labyrinth? Leykauf has her Ariadne’s thread in the form of the reel of film: whatever the images imprinted on it, the film is what interconnects and brings order to the host of external sensations each living being is ceaselessly assailed by. These sensations pervade it.

         Sometimes we find ourselves wondering if, one day, the artist wasn’t spooked by the idea of getting lost; or if her way of building her reality with images taken from segments of the outside world isn’t simply the language she uses to describe a more real world which otherwise would resist all attempts at representation.

         She wanted, she says, to turn the Salle Noire inside out, like a glove. An accurate image of the process used: bringing her own images, already made, into a foreign setting; creating others on site – during a second visit in February 2010 – then producing enlargements on the scale of the exhibition space. While at this writing we can only have an incomplete idea of what the installation will be, the artist, on the other hand, is becoming surer and surer: in just a few months the space has stopped being what it was and now belongs to her. In a very short while we’re going to rediscover the Salle Noire, plunge into Alexandra Leykauf’s labyrinth hot on her heels – and quickly come out the other side; for an exhibition has the linearity of a narrative, with its development taking place between two poles, the beginning and the end.


However, to turn the venue inside out like a glove is also to turn it into film. The Moebius strip springs to mind here: that mathematical paradox for which celluloid film is one of the most perfect media; except that the film then becomes sculpture and ceases to bear images – it is image. In the Leykauf oeuvre the stylistic figure implicit in the name “Salle Noire” is elucidated: like the black box that is the camera, it is a closed space receiving images from elsewhere, and just as at the cinema, the images are restored to the viewer in darkened rooms – this too in a kind of testimony to the past. But if I enter the way you enter a labyrinth and everything is turned inside out, I suddenly find myself on the outside, and the interior I was in turns into an exterior, becomes visible, becomes sculpture or building – or picture. This waiting that keeps us on the alert will soon reach its end. Soon we should see. Leykauf’s art may not be voyeuristic, but she knows how to play on others’ desire to see what does not exist or what, through her, comes into existence almost as a habitable world. Every transition, however, is a test, and one does not approach a new world anxiety-free. But if we know how to tackle this world, to ingest in our turn the images the artist has, so to speak, patiently masticated, liquefied and regurgitated in a different form, then, surely, we can begin to enjoy the show. 


— François Michaud, 26 February 2010

English translation: John Tittensor



. In 2009 Alexandra Leykauf took the Aubette as title and subject for two films.

. Ellingstrasse/Spreepark, 2003.

published in:

Alexandra Leykauf, Chateau de Bagatelle 

published by:

Musée d'art Moderne de la ville de Paris, Galerie Martin van Zomeren,
Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010