Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#2 1 Jan 1987

La Femme Absente


Can we imagine a slow fragmentation of faces and gestures, something like the movements of swimmers in heavy water? How should you look someone in the eye, seduce him if you don't know for certain that he's still there? Suppose the entire universe falls victim to cinematographic slow-motion? ...

Since acceleration has become our banal condition, suspense and slow-motion are our current form of tragedy.1)

According to MAX BRUINSMA, JEAN BAUDRILLARD could have written this text especially for MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE.



Slow-motion is almost the trademark of the video installations of MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE: the slowly moving, stacked-up images that speak in a tender rhythm of desire, seduction and death. In ever new constellations, she searches for the boundaries of this ancient game and from the contemplator's point of view she does that initially by condensing the playing into a single slow action: the boxing glove that brushes a face in a dizzying caress, the hen that fights to the death in a slowed-down explosion of colors and feathers, the sword that gleaming softly pierces the heart of the bull - the sword placed with narcissistic precision by the matador.

Slow-motion is something very important for me. You can see far more than usual in an image that has been slowed down. For me, it's like stretching a rubber band, you see far more material. But it's also about what JEAN-LUC GODARD has said: Dans un ralenti, un coup devient une caresse - in slow-motion a blow becomes a caress. Through slow -motion you change the meaning o fa movement. I used slow-motion images of a boxing match in one of my first video installations: Round Around the Ring, from 1981. It was no longer boxing, it was completely erotic, une caresse, the blows seemed like a caress, while one boxer was completely beating up the other. I showed that in close-up and very much slowed down, the dramatically distorted face ... where are people who have compared it with a FRANCIS BACON. That's why the slow-motion is important, you can see that someone is being destroyed before your very eyes, that you see blood and hear the music of ZA RAH LEANDER, also slowed down: Wunderbar, Wunderbar ... and you see that people are fascinated by it: by the repetition, by the slow-motion through which they can explore it.

Que ça Pénètre
Slow-motion was important in A las Cinco de la Tarde (1984) because if you go co a corrida, a bull fight, you never see how the matador's sword goes into the bull. Ie goes CLANG and it's fini. What I also wanted co show in this installation was the moment that the sword penetrates the body of the bull, very slowly. What fascinates me about this kind of image... you can only imagine it mentally but that knife, that sword is fifty centimeters long, que ça pénètre dans un corps ... you feel how slowly but surely it enters. And the matador has just one place he can stab. If he's three centimeters to the one side or two centimeters to the other, then it won't work. That's his art. And you know that if the sword goes in there, alors c'est fini. Because that's just were the heart is. You feel the pain, the distress, on sent ce qui rentre, you feel what is happening inside.

A Las Cinco de la Tarde is about enticement. The one falls under the spell of the other. That relationship interests me. The matador with his red cape is actually the 'woman' in the game, he is the one who waves the skirt like the flamenco dancer. Here you're compelled to see what it's actually all about: enticement, enchantment, le leurre.

Eros, Thanatos
Each time you see moments where an action reaches a point of no return. From there onwards it proceeds according to strict rules like a short-circuited unstoppable process with death or orgasm as the outcome. The two are always present in MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE's video installations always together: Eros and Thanatos. Essentially it's about two extremes that meet, the experience of the sublime moment and, just as timeless the other extreme: the eternity of death.

Can the meaning of a moment be clear in a second GEORGES BATAILLE wonders in The Tears of Eros. The answer: From moment to moment we are only meaningless fragments so long as we do not see these fragments in cohesion. So how could we ever refer CO a complete entirety?2) The smallest unit of time, the second, derives its dimension from the biggest unit of time, eternity. And parallel to that is the most immediate experience of the second, of the transitory, the orgasm, intimately linked with the consciousness of mortality. We know that intense, that desperate violence of the erotic because we are people who live in Death's bleak prospect. (...) But would those who call the climax the little death, be wrong if they saw something of dying in it?3)

Love has no morals, only rules of the game and players who win or lose. This observation is the constant undertone of MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE's video works. Hence her fascination for sport, for the mechanical and monotonous repetition of one exhausting movement, for the egocentric concentration of the dancer or gymnast on his or her own body; auto-eroticism that is not only directed towards self gratification but also ritualizes desire towards union with an other who is not present: La Femme Absente.

Le Jeu de la Séduction
La séduction tue, MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE says halfway through our conversation when I ask her why she is so fascinated with the game of seduction that she time after time exploits new forms, which take shape in extremes. For me, seduction is always something dangerous. Seduction is something that is lethal, that is cold. I think it's always a mental power that you can destroy someone with. The matador seduces the bull and kills him. There are people who've killed themselves through seduction, who've committed suicide. So there's something very dangerous; you must alway s control the game, il faut rester maitre du jeu de la séduction.

Her latest work Les Larmes d'Acier which was so talked about in Kassel, is also about seduction, narcissism, exhaustion and death. And about La Femme Absente to whom all these sacrifices are offered. In enthrallingly beautiful images, LAFONTAINE has men displaying their musculature like sculptures. (LAFONTAINE: After a week of recordings those boys had grown so much that they couldn't button up their shirts anymore). The monotonous repetition of the movements, the panting rhythm of the fitness machines, the ecstatic facial expressions of the actors - everything pervaded a frankly sexual symbolism that culminated in the image where the man shuts his eyes in exhaustion and bites his lip at the moment that MARIA CALLAS effortlessly hits a top C on the soundtrack. The work is perplexing because of the aesthetic perfection of the images and the structure and because of an inescapable beauty which still confronts viewers with the question: although they have allowed themselves to be seduced unresistingly, still they gain no entry to the work that presents itself as a heavy and strutted bastion. Connected with the seductively filmed narcissism of the body cult, it is probably the monolithic and dazzlingly beautiful aspect that has made some people compare Les Larmes d'Acier with the heroic images of LENI RIEFENSTHAL, the Nazi film-maker.


2#2 - La Femme Absente

MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE is rather incensed at the idea: I get very angry If they compare me with LENIE RIEFENSTHAL, That’s why I’ve talked about it on German television. I think that LENIE RIEFENSTHAL is a very good film-maker, une Grande Dame du cinema. But the big difference which people have not understood is that RIEFENSTHAL has taken the Nazi ideology as subject matter and has blown it up for her film and that I made this staging of a fascination, a personal fascination, not of an ideology. And I've shown not only the fascination but also the danger. Because what I wanted to say in that video is that it is also a dangerous situation, sport, that culte du corps, the body as a religious object. Recently I read in a German newspaper about the Gymnastische Jugend Spiele. It said: Endlich sind unsere jungen Deutschen Gymnasten wieder hoch! or words to that effect and again they were all beautzful and blond and strong. The Brussels Twenty Kilometre Race goes past my house here - all those people jogging, you just can't watch them, those grim distorted faces. That's what I also wanted to say: watch out!

Later she told me about the first time she was introduced by someone to a gym club in Boston: The atmosphere there made me feel really dizzy. All the young men I saw there looked the same, they all had the same faces, all with the same macho expression. With those shiny little shorts and loose shirts - very sexy. The atmosphere there was frightful, you felt a tension between those people, a competitiveness and a narcissism - I was scared of those people. It was ... like cloning, they were all clones. That's what makes me scared, that process of just being involved with yourself, with your body... She openly shudders when almost in a whisper she pronounces the word cloning.


2#2 - La Femme Absente

There is little of fear and trembling in the work. In the video, dislocation has made way for the observer's fascination, translated into images that aestheticize what is shown to the extreme, that seduce. Only seduction touches the depths of the soul. There is something stronger than passion: illusion (...) The game's compelling power and cunning (...) that is seduction, that is the form of the illusion, the malicious genius of passion.4) What can be fatal about this kind of strategy is that one no longer sees or wants to see the decay under the dazzling skin.

I don't take seduction as a principle, says LAFONTAINE, I take it as a means, it is my way of showing things. I don't show seduction, I show the process of seduction. If you view it all at the first sight, it's seduction, the fascination for a beautiful body et cetera. But it's all there, the bombardment music, the military associations, when they go through the city with sirens, the strutted casing like a structure that's about to collapse. And the title which directly refers to the bombs in the war. But everyone must see in it what they will. Actually I don't like to make statements about my work, it's there, it's out of my hands, it's open. Only I can't go along with people saying LENI RIEFENSTHAL Nummer Zwei.

In contrast to the criticism is the applause and, for the most part, admiring reactions. Les Larmes d'Acier is the first video work that MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE has been able to sell.

It was bought by my gallery in Munich, by CARL -HEINZ THOMAS. I was really happy about that because it means that it will continue to exist, otherwise it would have been taken apart. I can't store it, so I am happy because I've made installations which no longer exist or are stored far away in depots. I only keep the tape and that also disintegrates. Round Around the Ring //is disintegrating because it was recorded on bad material eight years ago. That's what's frustrating about the non-material, in that sense video is a real disaster for me, it is a frustrating material. But I like to work with it because it's the only way I can be the voyeur of my own phantasms. Looking through the camera is voyeuristic and I view my own fascination which I stage.

Actually, the only material of video is time. Past, present and future. My work always contains this motion. And the moment of materiality is always the moment of constructing the installation, the sculpture. Because the tape does not interest me in itself, technology doesn't interest me. What interests me is the idea, all those scenarios I have in my head. But an idea, c'est rien If you don 't realize it. That is a physical process. Then I have the material in front of me. The men and women I want to work with I consider as material and they must in a certain sense subject themselves to me. They have to make the picture in my head. An incredible amount happens during this process, during the recordings, rage, violence, power, tenderness, friendship ... then seduction enters the game,// la grande séduction.

Matter, material, materiality, time and time again these keywords recur in this conversation with MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE; her activities as an artist pivot on these concepts and their antithesis, time, the transitory. Alongside her video work which she calls the work about the immaterial, LAFONTAINE makes her so called parallel work: series of monochrome panels, flat or with a minimal relief sometimes combined with photos: stills from her videotapes or old photos copied from books.


2#2 - La Femme Absente

It's the counterpart to my video work because otherwise I have the impression that my work never exists. Sure it exists - it's been running three months in Kassel now, half a million people have seen it and that's a lot. But there is no materiality. That's why this book5) is so important for me which documents three video works because then my work's materiality does exist somewhere. That's why I also make panels out of solid wood that are really heavy, I need that, it's a balance. And there's a connection because the work about materiality stems from the work about immateriality. The panels I'm now working on - some of which have already been exhibited - are about limiting situations. That connects with the video installations which are also about limits.

She has an idiosyncratic relationship with the medium of video. Starting as a painter, she made large monochrome canvases of roughly woven textiles for her art school graduation show, which brought her much success. It was a discourse about the art of painting; the canvas not as bearer but as object, color not as reference but as matter. She won every available prize in Belgium and felt as if she had completely exhausted the subject when FLORENT BEX offered her an exhibition in Antwerp's ICC.

I found that I just couldn't show any more monochromes, I'd exhausted the subject they also kept getting bigger, ça perdait son essence. I just didn't feel for it anymore and I thought, now I'll just have to wait until something pops into my head. So I said to FLOR that it couldn't go ahead. I went back once more and he said: why don’t you make a video installation? And I said, what do you mean video? I hardly knew what that was, I didn't have a TV and FLOR gave me a couple of books about AM JU E PAIK and VITO ACCONCI etc. and of coarse it was all Greek to me. And then FLOR said: you should make a f ilm, you should think about it. And I said, sure, bon.

FLOR BEX had a video crew, he had all kinds of video material at the ICC and people, conscientious objectors from the film school, who did their service at ICe. So I think he wanted his crew working. But I really had no idea... That was until I was in Oostend for my work prize and I saw pile drivers. I immediately thought: that's it - la machine celibataire. We'd learnt about that; DUCHAMP and the bachelor machines. So my first installation was with seven monitors vertically and seven horizontally , from wall to wall and from ceiling 10 floor. A long the vertical side you saw that weight entering the cylinder and on the other you saw the piles going down. And it was accompanied by the sound of the pile drivers and the sound of panting. The title was La Batteuse de Palplanches, the pile driver machine but in French, of course, it's more beautiful. From that moment on everyone wanted my video installations. I was selected for the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris - that was in '80 and everyone was going back to painting and l thought I'll start painting again. But the people there said:// Listen LAFONTANE, no paintings, we want a video work. So then I made La Marie Salope, that's a dredging boat, another machine celibataire. It was a big success in Paris and then I got a letter from the CENTRE BEAUBOURG that they wanted to make a solo exhibition of my work. I didn’t know what was happening to me! And they were prepared to produce a video installation. So I made Round around the Ring with those boxers. And so it's continued till now. Because with Documenta I didn 't want to make a video work but HERZOGENRATH and SCHECKENBURGER came and said:// We don't want anything to do with your boards and your sculpture, we'll only take you if you make a video work. So that's the way it had t0 be.

And now I am content with it and I know my own capabilities but for a long time I'v e had the feeling that I'd lost something, I only made video and I was gelling really sick of it. I had lost something and that was working with chose monochromes. I chink that as soon as you deviate from your normal course and you make detours, it 's not good. Now with my parallel work I'm back on course.

At present, there are many side-roads to this course. Because of her growing fame, MARIE-JO LAFONTAlNE has made contact with artists from completely' different areas. For instance, a joint audiovisual project In Richtung einer Concertante Aufführung in collaboration with the German artist VIOLA KRAMER has been proposed for the LUDWIG MUSEUM in Cologne and MARCELLE MEULEMANS, director of the PERSONA THEATRE in Amsterdam, has asked her to design the set for an experimental production of CHEKHOV's The Seagull.

These are excursions whereby you get to know people and where you make a step forward. You get to see new things and that helps in your own survival and in your own work. It's interesting for me to encounter new areas. Not for continuing in but fine as one-off experiments. I do it once but not more of ten because my own work takes priority, my painting and I have to go on with that.

MARIE-JO LAFONTAINE works in very different media. She paints, sculpts, designs, makes video sculptures. One aspect is always prominent in all these media and materials: the sculptural. Whatever she does, LAFONTAlNE is in my eyes primarily a maker of sculptures and even when she is working with media that are more or less flat, there is also the material, the need to make its physical presence palpable, that has relief, a skin.

This association is not immediately obvious in her video work but the installations are always sculptures which take up that space which one often literally has to occupy. Here too, the skin, the stuff, the vulnerable seductive surface are crying out to be touched. You also encounter that fascination for the skin in the form and the finish of the casing that surrounds sometimes twenty monitors.

LAFONTAINE's fascination for the skin can be observed more directly in the parallel work as in a small installation that was shown some time ago in ARNHEM MUNICIPAL MUSEUM. There was a touch of perfection about the work and the set-up. The first impression was that it was cool, detached. But on closer inspection you saw an extremely fine structure under the softly gleaming surface of the monochrome panels. T he paint was not like a smooth color photo but had been applied layer after layer, sanded, painted again and each action had left its mark. The color had become a skin that was caressed, cherished and undoubtedly cursed until it took on the form of the volume it covers.

LAFONTAlNE's sculpture is a volume that only shows its worked surface; from every side the inner remains hidden. You walk around and the images repeat, turn on their axis and shut themselves off again. It can never be taken in a single glance. That is the essence of sculpture, clearly present in the space but enigmatic, tangible but untouchable. I think that MARIE-JO LAFONTAlNE's work is primarily about this: desire for the content of the brilliant covering and about l'absence.

1) Baudrillard, Jean De Fatale Strategieën, Duizend & Een, Amsterdam 1985, p. 28
2) Bataille, Georges, De Tranen van Eros, SUN Nijmegen 1986, p. 204
3) ibidem, p. 37
4) Baudrillard, op. cit. p. 172
Patteeuw, Roland (ED), Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Stichting Kunst en Projecten v.z.w. Zedelgem 1987

If you'd like to quote something: Bruinsma, Max/ "La Femme Absente." //Mediamatic Magazinne vol. 2 # 2 (1987).

Translation: Annie Wright