“What interests me the most is not the gesture, but the becoming of the gesture.” Anri Sala

Portrait Anri Sala
Close © Jutta Benzenberg
October 10, 2022

“What interests me the most is not the gesture, but the becoming of the gesture.” Anri Sala

To conclude the exhibition entitled Une seconde d'éternité, Anri Sala takes over several spaces in the Bourse de Commerce with some of his iconic pieces.
Discover Anri Sala's interview.

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12 mn
By Anri Sala,

The soundtracks to your Pathétique Symphony, Quartet for the End of Time—are rather sombre, are they not?

What is sombre is the history they evoke. Sometimes this can be history on a broader level, or instead a very specific point and time in history. 1395 Days without Red brings to life the Siege of Sarajevo. A woman, played by Maribel Verdu, crosses the city, and what was then called Sniper Alley, to attend a rehearsal of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, which had continued to operate, rehearse, and give concerts throughout the Siege, the longest in modern history. The wider perspective is the geopolitical situation that impacts people’s lives. The smaller perspective tells the story of one person, in this case, the woman. Through her, through her breathing, this individual story is imprinted in the piece of music, particularly the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony by disrupting its “tempos”. Her breathing trembles from the emotion and danger, from running, from the intake of breath, and this even affects the humming of the musician who repeats the tune in her head as she moves through the city. All of a sudden, we discover a new Sonata Pathétique, impregnated by the “Tempos” of the current epoch.

For Time No Longer, part of the inspiration comes from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. More precisely from The Abyss of the Birds, rearranged for two instruments, the clarinet (the original instrument) and saxophone. The saxophone is a reference to the tragic story of Ronald McNair, who was one of the first African-American astronauts but also an excellent saxophonist. McNair planned to make the first professional recording of a musical instrument in space during a Space Shuttle Challenger mission. Unfortunately, that project was never realized: McNair was part of the crew who was on board the shuttle when it disintegrated shortly after take-off on 28 January 1986… In Time No Longer, there is an interval between two voices, as in 1395 Days without Red where there is one between the character and the orchestra: both are continuously synchronous and asynchronous in relation to the situation, in this city, in the face of danger. In Time No Longer, the clarinet and saxophone accompany each other, without producing a “duet”. Rather, they are each other’s ghost or shadow. There is also the idea of being held captive. When Messiaen composed this piece, he was a French soldier taken prisoner by the Germans. He wrote this quartet in captivity, for four instruments, one for each of his three fellow prisoners, with the piano part for himself. It was the profile of his fellow prisoners that led to the choice of instruments. This piece is undoubtedly the most famous ever composed in such a context. In a way, McNair was also captive to a deployment situation and an extreme scientific mission, but also to a condition of very great fragility. His intention to record this piece in space could not be realized. It is as if this intention has remained in limbo, somewhere between earth and heaven, in a man-made purgatory. Time No Longer draws from this spectral presence and this suspended, captive intention.

Your musical inspiration is very eclectic, ranging from The Clash to Tchaikovsky. What unites all these sounds and what are you looking for with sound?

What I am interested in is the way in which sound can be infused with reality, the way in which these pieces that have existed for a long time, masterpieces representing their eras, although their character is often avant-garde, can then be imbued with, or altered by subsequent historical events. For Ravel Ravel, for example, I wanted to create a space “between” that arises from the distinction between two simultaneous performances of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and resides in the interval between their respective tempos. This produces a landscape of growing and shrinking intervals, syncopations, moments that were not written by Ravel, but made possible by his writing. This is the potential of the Concerto, which I have imagined, and beginning with this intuition, I offer a reinterpretation of the piece, as if I were accompanying it towards its future, or towards our present. Along the way, certain musical phenomena arise, allowing people to listen to and feel forms of music that are much later than Ravel’s Concerto: for example, certain slightly jazzy moments or swaying syncopations reminiscent of Steve Reich’s compositions. I consider music as a body: a fossil, closed, to be appreciated as it is, but also as a living organism that breathes and can open up, allowing us to feel things that do not belong to the past, but are very much in the present.

“What I am interested in is the way in which sound can be infused with reality.”

What is your personal relationship to music? You shift, deregulate, and adapt musical pieces in your work. Is this a way of composing?

My relationship with music has been established throughout my work. It’s about composing with time, rearranging perception through a dissection of music. The latter makes it possible to rearticulate time with space, to produce new perspectives, to shift the relationship we have with images a little, to avoid producing symmetrical geographies, and to find other ways of approaching or walking through a room, a projection, or a film.

Why do you film hands and gestures so much?

I have often been interested in the impetus that results in the gesture, in the possibility of capturing what precedes it. As, for example, in Long Sorrow (2005), the film featuring the free jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who improvises, as he dangles outside the window of an apartment on the eighteenth floor of an apartment block in Berlin. We barely see the saxophone, but we can feel his breathing, the effort of his cheeks, the frowning of his eyebrows, we can see the notes emerge. What interests me the most is not the gesture, but the becoming of the gesture. This also stems from the complicated relationship I have with language, and with speech as a form of communication. My first film was called Intervista (1998), and here language plays an important role. It was this first realization that alerted me to language and its opacity. From this reserve undoubtedly comes my interest in music: it is a much more implicit and transparent form of communication. By distancing myself from the word language, I instead approached the gesture, and what it announces: an elbow that becomes a bow stroke, a breath that becomes a hum, rather than just a mere bow stroke or a hum. 

“What interests me the most is not the gesture, but the becoming of the gesture.”

What is the meaning of Nocturnes (1999)? What did you seek to reveal with the juxtaposition between these two characters, between fiction and reality, in the film?

Nocturnes comes immediately after Intervista; it follows the trail of something that I couldn’t have named at the time but that, since then, with distance, I can formulate: intervals. If in Intervista the interval revealed itself between my mother and my country as it was in the past and my mother and the country as it is in the present, in Nocturnes this interval is established between the two characters who are between reality and fiction precisely because they have allowed fiction into reality. This is what interested me here. How beyond such worlds, whether real or fictional, the story of one could resonate with the life of the other…

What status do you accord to your work?

I always call them “pieces”. In the end, it all depends on how they correspond with a space or an exhibition. The way I integrate my pieces into a solo exhibition is very different from the way they are shown in a group exhibition, seen through the eyes of a curator. My works are a little like objects that develop over time. For those materialized through video I work in an organic way on the nature of the loops, that is to say that the films turn on a loop like the rotating turntable in Time No Longer. By presenting my works in a given space, my aim is to produce a feeling of weightlessness, by playing with the suspensions or variations between the films and visitors. This creates attractions, and instead of rejections, I would say a “discharge” both between the films, and also between the films and visitors.

You talk about a “non-visual perspective” in relation to your work. What do you mean by this?

What fascinates me is what hearing allows us to see. I have developed certain exhibition trajectories where the visitor crosses the space and where the films come towards the visitor, announced by sounds coming from afar. As these narratives develop and they traverse the entire exhibition space, visitors are invited to either stroll with the consecutive waves produced by the excerpts of images, or to witness their projections from a fixed position. 
This idea reminds me of the acrobatic choreography of the keyboard keys in Take Over. In this installation, the viewer sees, on two different screens, a piano playing by itself and a pianist. This is a disklavier piano capable of playing notes and using the pedals without a human operator. The piano can memorize a piece played by a pianist and replay it identically. Take Over establishes the interval or gap between the playing instrument and the playing man, while also taking as its subject the shared and parallel history of two famous tunes: The Internationale and La Marseillaise. At the beginning of the film, the entire piano keyboard plays a cluster of sounds. This cluster in the making is the melody, which as we suspect, recurs much later in the film. This cluster of notes becomes the melody. Here, there is almost a sculptural approach that captures the full potential of the soundscape. Little by little, from this cluster, the notes drop off until the melody is revealed. The way in which this composition takes its time, stretches out between the gestures of the musician, the human, and the phrasing of the instrument, or rather, we could say the machine is a way of navigating, sculpting, and bringing out notes in the same way as one brings out a form until something and a link appear. Moreover, the words of The Internationale of 1871 were initially set to the tune of La Marseillaise, until its own original music was composed in 1888. This musical link reveals a symbolic affinity for yesteryear. From the beginning, both anthems underwent major shifts in their political connotations: from revolution, restoration, socialism and resistance, to additional associations with colonization and oppression in the second half of the 20th century. To this day, their meanings remain in flux, as both songs continue to be re-appropriated.

For you, what does the theme “A Second of Eternity” evoke?

This title reminds me of an approach, a thought, which postulates that the past, present, and future do not necessarily follow each other. One may be the “ritornello” of the other. In politics, we speak of cycles of repetition, of tragedies that become farces, whereas in music when a melody is repeated, we are aware that we have already heard this tune, but we are also aware that we are no longer at the same place as we were when we first heard it, or at least no longer in the same place in our heads. We have drifted from rational chronol-ogies. This “second of eternity” reminds me more of a second of becoming.

What is the relationship between sound and time?

The question is rather what is the relationship between sound and the present moment. For example, neuroscience has shown that the present moment in music is much longer than the present moment in speech or language. With language, our brain is able to differenciate almost instantaneously between something we have just heard, something we are in the process of hearing, and something we are anticipating (like the end of a sentence, for example). In music, this can last for up to seven or eight seconds. In other words, we stay in a continuum of the present moment. Music has this potential to prolong the “here and now”, where all senses are vigilant: alert, they collaborate differently, contradict each other, and surprise us… Sound and music are like the rails of time, an architecture of time: music composes time, and allows it to unfold in space. Sound pushes us to perceive the passage of time when we tend to no longer feel it, or quite the opposite, it enables us to forget the passage of time when we tend to be too aware of it.

“Music has this potential to prolong the “here and now”, where all senses are vigilant: alert, they collaborate differently, contradict each other, and surprise us…”

What relationship would you like to create between the public and your works, such as Time No Longer for example, shown here in France for the first time?

It’s a question of scale, a way of sculpting the experience we have of something. The scale chosen has a physical effect. For the presentation of Time No Longer at the Bourse de Commerce, the relationship to the scale of the Rotunda is crucial. The circular shape of the building, of the cylinder within the building, of the dome, all of these circles welcome the shape of the vinyl, the rotation of the turntable which continues to return in a loop. I think that this will produce an experience for the visitor, something that grips the stomach, where we feel variations in gravity. This is undoubtedly the first part of the body where you feel a loss of gravity and balance. I would like this to produce a landscape, a zone, a geography where the rules are reshuffled... Through Time No Longer, I hope that the visitor will feel the presence of their body in space differently, somewhere between the vinyl floating in front of them and the dome floating above. 

Watching and listening to this vinyl, seeing the turntable turn, the needle landing, lifting up again… All this occurs within the orbit of the Rotunda, in a dialogue with the panorama painted around it, and transforms the experience of the work. In this very singular space, here more than elsewhere, there is a relationship to landscape and geography: the representation of the world painted in this Rotunda is a very dated image, and very clearly conveys the idea of exploration and exploitation. This is the same relationship that we have today with space, or the cosmos: a curiosity that is that of exploration, very quickly associated with the desire to exploit it. For Time No Longer, we remain only in a relationship to the landscape because the film leaves geography early on, with the sunrise at the beginning, and returns to it at the very end, with the sunset. These are the only times that we see the earth’s horizon.

How did you approach the series of the twenty-four display cases around the Rotunda?

This question of geography and the presence of the large painted pan-orama in the Rotunda leads us to my series of works developed for the display cases: Untitled [Maps/Species] (2018-2022) consisting of diptychs wherein a dialogue is fostered between the 17th and 18th century engravings and my drawings in layers of ink and pastels. This series is inscribed in the obsession with description that then prevailed, an intense curiosity for the world and forms of life, a period combining a lively curiosity with an equally lively predation—an inherent attribute of colonialism. In these engravings, the species described yield to the exercise of “description”, in what is known as the frame of reference. This is a way of comparing newly encountered species found during voyages of discovery and conquest. In order to represent a species inside a frame, it was sometimes necessary to bend it, often going beyond the anatomical possibilities of the species represented. Alongside these engravings, I applied the same technique to maps of countries and territories. I placed these geographies, these geographical and geopolitical entities, into a frame too. Bending these territories reveals a sense of tension, in any case, a fiction of tension. Elsewhere, the straight lines inherited from the colonial past, separating African countries or certain states in the United States for example, bend, echoing the large painting on the dome where the whole world bends or submits to this representation, or frame. This produces a mise en abyme in the exhibition, an “exhibition within the exhibition”. The display cases, like aquariums or cabinets of curiosities, seem to belong to another space, another time: that of the Bourse de Commerce when it was first built, that of a world that was explored and exploited.

Any advice for the visitor?

The visitor must be able to approach the works without necessarily knowing everything, allowing themselves to be carried away, open and willing to experience moments of loss of daily gravity. It is a form of release. They must give experience time to build. These works are not there to be seen as content, but rather to cultivate within visitors this potential for an interval or shift. I think that if these works manage to do this, if they encourage us not to be “on the beat” all the time, in permanent synchronization with what we are given to see or hear, then that would already be something. If I had to give any advice, it would be this: cultivate this relationship of syncope within oneself.