Robert Cahen

"Francoise en memoire", Robert Cahen, 2007

Robert Cahen: Passage, Harris Museum, Preston

Robert Cahen has been working with video since the early1970’s, and although his work has occasionally been broadcast in the UK, surprisingly he has never previously exhibited in this country. This timely exhibition of Cahen’s installations at the Harris Museum, demonstrates the significance and power of this important French artist.

As a young man Cahen studied with Pierre Schaeffer, the renowned initiator of “Musique Concrete”. This formative experience profoundly affected Cahen’s approach to electronic and digital imagery: “Schaeffer taught me to edit sounds, to listen to a sound in itself, to know how to grasp what’s in a sound independently of its original concept….that helped me to realise that you can look at an image without looking at what it originally signifies.”  1 Drawing on this early training Cahen shapes and manipulates the video image to transform objective exterior appearances into interior, more subjective spaces.

All of the works on show are installations- mostly single screen large-scale projections that maintain a careful balance between the immersive power of cinema and an intimate, electronic fluidity. This quality has been enhanced by the careful placement of the works within the three adjoining gallery spaces given over to the exhibition. Confronted with a line of monitors mounted on a high shelf in the central space, visitors gain an immediate impression of a carefully orchestrated and visually powerful perspective. “Paysages/Passage (Landscapes/Passage)” (2005) displays an array of semi-abstracted, electronically transformed landscape across the bank of screens. Shot from the window of a moving train, these colourised and overlaid sequences (at times reminiscent of images produced by the Vasulkas) are interlaced between the multiple screens to create a mesmerising rhythmic evocation of travel.  This experience is heightened by Michel Chion’s hypnotic soundtrack, which pervades the gallery, providing a contemplative and compatible acoustic backdrop.

This theme of travel is important, perhaps crucial to an understanding of Cahen’s work, both in terms of the source material for his imagery and in his attitude to working with that material. For Cahen, travel is “a way of changing places, of passing from one state to another….of not considering something as finite, but of seeking the infinite side of reality, the side where everything continues…” 2 The video images that Cahen selects are often fragments from remote or particular places and locations. In the two companion pieces  “Le Cercle (The Circle)” and “Paysages d’hiver (Winter Landscapes)”, both 2005, Cahen presents us with slowly unfolding panoramas of the frozen arctic, the bleak beauty and cold blues of the sky and sea merging and overlapping, suddenly pierced for example, by the vibrant red of a solitary boat. Anonymous human figures or a hovering bird of prey are occasionally silhouetted against the sky, as are the unearthly and mysterious towers of scientific instruments. These two works offer us a key to Cahen’s fascination with time and place, and his ability to draw out what he has called “circumspect time”, using slow motion and the shifting and enhancement of colour as a philosophical and emotional tactic. The power of Cahen’s work lies in his ability to use video as a medium which is distinct from photography, film or music, but which draws on the experience of each of them to create something unique and particular.

With the exception of “Paysages/Passage”, all of the installations in this exhibition are silent, for Cahen chooses to address us directly through his fluid and choreographed video montage. His electronic manipulations of time, colour and image framing can be understood as part of a tendency that Gilles Deleuze identified in which cinema could be perceived to evolve from a liquid into a gaseous state, re-visiting Dziga Vertov’s cine-eye (by way of Brakhage and Michael Snow) where “everything is at the service of variation and interaction: slow or high speed shots, superimposition, fragmentation, deceleration, micro-shooting.” 3

The powerful portrait of “Francoise en Memoire (In Memory of Francoise)” (2007) visually dominates the exhibition. It is a silent testament to a mysterious octogenarian who seems to acknowledge the gaze of the visitor only to lose interest and return to her reverie and internal dialogue. The large suspended screen that contains and reflects the image of Francoise is transparent and set away from the gallery wall. Thus it can be viewed from either side, and prompts the viewer to engage with the image more deeply and to become aware of a series of single words and short phrases projected onto the wooden floor in front of the suspended portrait. These computer-generated texts- “chaise”, “l’autre”, “un arbre”, “mon enfant”, for example, rotate in virtual space, appearing to float on the surface of the floor, submerging and re-emerging as they move across the space. This work is both deeply personal to the artist (it is the image of his elder sister, now suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease, and gradually losing her memory) and powerfully engaging for the spectator, touched by the scale, emotional force and careful orchestration of the images and texts.

“Suaire (Shroud)” (1997) at the opposite end of the gallery both mirrors and counterpoints “Francois en Memoire”. Also projected onto a large suspended screen, the viewer is encouraged to approach and engage with the image and circumvent the centrally placed circular bed of white gravel. Hung like a cloth above this surface, the screen reflects a series of high-key images of human faces that emerge sequentially through a haze of mist. Cahen has devised a contemporary “Veil of Veronica,” using digital video processing techniques to produce a contemplative secular work, prompting the visitor to pause and reflect on their own perceptive impressions and thought processes and to willingly enter into a space of suspended and reflective time.

This exhibition of Robert Cahen’s work at the Harris Museum is the result of a careful and sympathetic collaboration between the artist and the curatorial team. The balanced selection of works, the consideration of the sound and its impact and influence and the employment of simple but effective methods of spatial organisation provide the viewer with both the space and the opportunity to encounter and engage with this extraordinary and compelling work.

Chris Meigh-Andrews

1 Lisch, Sandra, the Sight of Time, Edizioni ETS, Pisa, 1997 p. 14

2 Lischi,,  p. 44.

3 Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1, The Movement Image, Athlone Press, London, 1992, p. 80.

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