Jacques Lizène

Sculptural installation : 6000 glass balls on the floor, 1970

mixed media : 6000 glass balls, closed circuit television, theatrical projectors. Photo : Christine Clinckx, Muhka Antwerp, 2009



by Guy Scarpetta


In French 'to do’ means also ‘to shit’. Example : Let’s not strain our talent, We’ll DO nothing elegantly. Aragon, Treatise on Style, 1928.


In 1970 the then twenty-three-year-old Belgian artist decides to undergo sterilisation by vasectomy that is cutting and tying deferent ducts. With this, as he says, “I decidedly cut off the play of generations”. It’s an odd individual, calling himself a “minor master from Liège” or a “mediocre artist”, jeering at everything and at him, deliberately predisposed to farce and being someone “pitiful”. In later period he would call this operation an “internal sculpture”, obviously invisible (art has passed not only to life, but also to the interruption of its transmission). There’s no emphatic pose in it; vasectomy would become the theme of a stupefying song from his “pathetic music-hall” (otherwise amusing). Also in his numerous performances he presents a parodic and even too metaphoric version of that operation (taking out from the fly a cucumber or another vegetable of cylindrical shape and cutting it fervently in front of him with euphoric elation). He feels embarrassed with nothing; this gesture, even though a braggadocio, is radical and irreversible, and to a certain extent metaphysical. If the world is strange, grotesque, mediocre, bizarre and pitiful, there’s nothing better to do than to exaggerate. If art sinks in confusion and pretentious dullness, you can outdo in jeering at its collapse. If humanity is defeated and corrupted, not only opposing creation to procreation is at stake, showing their fundamental discord (what corresponds to a minimum of lucidity), but deprivation of all belief in human nature: in result, there’s no need of participation in reproduction of the species, since nothing indicates this would be desirable (apart from the blind biological force, codified by all religions). In Jacques Lizène a secret courage of this gesture of uncompromising and irrevocable negation can be felt.


Immediately a question arises: can we take Lizène’s claims of mediocrity of his doings, of practicing an art ‘without talent’, annexing territories of ‘no importance’ and tending towards ‘dullness’ at face value? If we accept this as a sneering at the ‘noble’ and sublimed art, full of emphasis and pathos, then to a certain extent the answer is obviously positive. More than at the side of iconoclasts (like Duchamp), who were rejecting aesthetical principle (and ‘retinal’, too), Lizène would rather be situated at the side of those who were blasting art out of inside (Picabia, Magritte from his ‘cow’ period, Kippenberger) by means of a mixture of cynicism, utter disregard, and the powerful need of sabotage. However, we can also notice that in Lizène art ‘returns’ to a certain extent, even if in another place. The recent retrospection of his output presented in Antwerp allows to decipher this place: thank to the impressive coherence of his way, thanks to the monstrous accumulation of formal inventions which rhythmically appear in this way, thanks to subjectivism that escapes all standards and totally directed towards ruin or catastrophe, which is constantly reactivated by the author, and also thanks to the paradoxical charm with which his installations, objects, performances, and manipulations are permeated, we are at a very centre of the most deliberate chaos. This place is probably not very distant from the consistent negation mentioned above, which is a secret central point around which everything other revolves constantly.


The fool circulates, moves, writers on about anything, laughs his head off, drinks himself blind, walks all night in the streets, dozes an hour or two, then after a quick wash he start again to play, messing, fooling and clowning around, celebrates meetings with friends (having many, reliable), telling jokes every minute, presenting a farce every quarter, theorising on the side, never claiming or lacks anything, then again drinks and seems to take nothing serious, except for the vary lack of seriousness. He is in turns ironical, delighted, enthusiastic, lousy or genial, shocking or delicate (notably when throws himself in tango or paso doble), precise or sluggish, attentive, miserable, trivial, elegant, extravagant, continuously making jokes out of everything, and being stubborn to a certain extent. His works, we feel it clearly, are only a series of actions. Made freely, as if he hadn’t ‘take’ anything (hence his praise of failure and defeat). For example painting the motive of a brick wall with his own excrements, he systematically controls his diet in order to get a desired colour or even shade. Filming a largest number possible of human faces (absurd and by definition infinite task). Showing as many “attempts at smiling” on his face in every age as possible. Making a crowd of “null sculptures” (assembling not uniform elements that are highly improbable to meet), or “null architecture” (the less expressive building, the better for him). Piling pictures, where we can see only their backs of frames (these are his “Posters”). Cutting pieces of furniture and assembling their fragments in a way that assures their collapse. Hanging especially tilted pictures (selected in a more or less accidental way) in order to evoke an impression of rubble (“Fallen looks”). Including clouds of smoke in his sculptural installations and treating them as a “sculptural” element. Painting a zebra in the street, which are zigzagged and fissured in the middle, where two unclear human figures clash, painted in a “neo-mural” style. Writing uncanny songs, purposefully foolish, idiot and full of rubbish (“a banana isn’t a pineapple”), but kept in an impeccable rhythm and interpreting them in the punk style, and organising with them whole “pathetic music-halls”. Claiming that everything can be put on wheels and thus exhibited. Proposing special “places of honour” during his exhibitions, and asking colleagues to hang their pictures in them. Crossing trees at variance with the nature (for example a spruce crossed with a palm tree), conceiving hybrid pieces of furniture (a partly Louis XV, partly Bauhaus chair), extending the principle of hybrid construction onto all sculptures and paintings (“genetic” or “syncretic” art), resulting in a kind of general upset of natural and cultural forms to which we are accustomed. Composing parts of different faces together (in this way some particularly improper mixtures can be attained, for example a cross-portraits of Freud-Hitler or Proust-Kafka, or clashing a “black” mask with a “white” face, what was a favourite type of composition for Man Ray). Inventing titles of books to be written on a similar principle, based on word reversal of existing titles (Decomposition of Outline, Young Girls in the Shadow of Flowers), or in result of “syncretisation” of two titles of existing novels (In Search for the End of the Night, Travel to Lost Time)…



And also: including a recording of barking dogs in one of his installations and replying it outside (what caused that all the dogs of the quarter came running near, becoming an important (and wagging) part of the exhibition). Claiming that Picasso – who is said to paint everything – had never painted an aircraft, and consequential drawing planes in Picasso style, with a relevant dose of awkwardness (“mediocrity”) in order not to mistake the author. Disturbing (with the hybrid method again) all classifications of decorative art (what brought a kind of “neo deco”, parodicly built on the model of postmodernist trends, neo-pop or neo-geo). Using a whirling concrete mixer during a concert, filled with clashing balls, what was giving a hell of rhythmic noise (in one of his spectacles, Kantor used quite a similar trick; it’s rather improbable that Lizène could be aware of this; “an objective accident”…). Investigating the limits of the “perceived” and the “not perceived” (for example two photographs of a watch, where the hands show the same hour, even if the pictures were taken on different days) – as if a continuation of Duchamp speculations on the “infra-thin”. Putting on fake noses to all kinds of portraits. Organising an exhibition at a gallery plunged into complete (but smelling) darkness. Or else: filming a group of friends playing at train as the children do, with all those onomatopoeic sounds like puff-puff – and claiming that here we are with the remake of one of the first films in the history of cinema titled Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Filming what’s usually omitted or disregarded by film industry: for example an infinite travelling with the camera on the walls or pavements or passers-by legs. Using voids in perception – like in Body Edges, where an image of a young naked girl is deprived of the centre, what causes frustration with the lack of that everything what usually attracts our sight (face, breasts, belly, sex), referring us to imagination. Attempts at disguising the camera (as if it were a dog again) and giving orders to it like to a dog: “halt, lay, serve” – to get an image resulting from such a disguise. Filming himself during the play with the frame defined by the camera, with the use of numerous foolish gags like sudden appearing or vanishing from the view, escaping “supervision” or “forcing” the body to match the frame (huddling as the camera comes closer, narrowing the plan). Attempting at playing music “backwards”, systematically reversing the notes of great scores (for example Mozart), but strictly respecting all other parameters of music (as far as the composer could be easily recognisable if we are attentive) – and even doubling this facetiae by placing the performer on the cover of the piano instead in front of the keyboard, thus making as if a reversed keyboard for him. Or else: drilling out a hole in a plank or cardboard, hiding behind it, showing his member through the hole, tying it with a string on the front side and pulling it in all directions and to all rhythms – a “sex marionette” whose uncoordinated jumps are commented with a foolish and simultaneously excited voice, as if it were a little dog again… Is all that closed in the area of braggadocio, gag, mockery or farce, never exceeding this category? Surely yes – however it seduces us with the abundance (and richness) of imagination which this mockery can evoke; the more that each such action includes all kinds of repetitions, variants and remakes. So here we deal, as Georges Bataille would say, with a “burlesque and inconsistent animation” which is opposed to the sphere of order, mind, authority and everything what’s “harmonious and regulated”. As if the world of art (with its values) were turned away here, subjected to the process of systematic (and unbelievably growing) upsetting – never ceding the field to pathos or romanticism of artificial nihilism. Surely Lizène is a “respecting nothing” artist, but who, thanks to accenting his “perfect childishness” (again Bataille’s formulation) can be situated at the antipodes of more and more popular (not only within the domain of art) attitudes such as conformist revolt and formatted harmless impudence.


Both Barthes and Baudrillard claim that certain subversive or revolutionary slogans, especially from the sphere of activity of artistic avant-gardes, undergo crystallisation, even if completely different than expected. For example certain slogans proposed by Russian futurist writers (text factory, collective writing, etc.) ideally characterise today’s practices of rewriting in big press business; Dadaists calling to ”burn libraries” had found the terrible echo in Germany of the thirties; and the “inversion” proposed by situationists feeds the worst banalities of the language of journalism. This refers also to certain extent to Duchamp’s saying, often quoted by Lizène, that “the idea of judging should be invalidated”. It was a provocative formulation, evidently justified in the face of the tyranny of standards, good taste and hierarchies imposed by conceptions of regular and standard art (including also the “Duchampian academism” which is widely promoted in the majority of artistic schools). And let’s see what happens today: “judging” becomes more and more efficiently rejected. The rapidly growing number of “artistic productions” has probably exceeded its critical mass yet, abandoning aesthetical principles. We can see a gradual replacement of criticism (taking into consideration discussions, clashes of views, assessments, criteria and arguments) by pure and simple promotional activity: almost all art reviews and magazines have become a kind of undifferentiated catalogues, where we could look for at least the traces of justified criticism and argumentation of the evaluations in vain (a peak achievement in the area of omitting criticism are “discussions on contemporary art” broadcasted by Radio France Culture). Therefore in Lizène’s referring to Duchamp are certain nuances which are worth differentiating. On the one hand, here we have the escape from imposed hierarchies and appropriation of “mediocrity” which is a depreciated and despised area today. On the other hand, however, it’s clear that Lizène constructs his own hierarchy, own preferences and own system of values (even though negative ones), just like each authentic artist (for example when he claims that for him Man Ray is more important than Duchamp). So, when he speaks about one of his realisations that “everybody can do like that…”, he doesn’t forget to add “…but the place is already occupied”. It’s a proof that judging according to criteria (invention, originality) is important for him, and that we shouldn’t abandon it.


Lizène is clearly connected with the trends of modernity from Dadaism (trying to include poetry in life) up to situationism (criticising art as a “separate” activity that “substitutes “creating situations”). What’s the most important for him, it’s the ability of “turning his life into a work of art”, without falling into any fetishism of the work. Therefore he doesn’t refrain from assimilation of such attitude in the circle of certain dandyism, represented by a constellation of selected artists (including Jarry, Cravan, and Picabia). Lizène doesn’t hesitate to use the term “art of attitude”; this was the reason why he was in close relation with someone like Harald Szeeman, curator of the famous exhibition When attitudes become a form (1969). In fact, knowing him a bit, we can see that he is an “artist” twenty four hours a day, and not only working on a given piece, installation, performance or video film: the work is a proof, something what remains, a trace which obviously shouldn’t be depreciated (Lizène is a maniac of careful archiving of his achievements and precise documenting of his exhibits), which subordinates everything to a general and steady “attitude”, according to which one’s life can be seen as a “work of art” (no easing up, no concessions in favour of banality). Therefore it’s a kind of dandyism, where we should precise that if a simple dandyism aims at standing out (in the double meaning of this word), Lizène cultivates it, balancing on the edge of triviality and failure, or of what he calls “outskirts of art” or “suburb of art”; this could be a kind of negative dandyism, deprived of charm and delicacy, and freed from idealism (in this he is a complete opposition to a “player” like Picabia). Otherwise, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of his formula that “art of attitude is a prolongation of the product”. In other words, if a work of art (a product) is what remains, then the state of spirit connected with it, and even the aesthetical prejudices which govern it, influence life and accepted attitude. It’s not to replace life with creation, but quite simply to live in the same way as to create (with the same intensity and casualness). * Painting with own excrements if for Lizène “treating himself as a specific tube of paint”.


No doubt this radical principle of self-sufficient economy is one of the forms of general practice of recycling. Lizène doesn’t stop to give everything to recycling; he does so both with works of others – which acquires and exhibits (sometimes reversing them or including into a collection of “flotsam” by the very way of hanging), giving to all kinds of crossing, hybridisation, “genetic” grafting – and with his own realisations, still in new versions, corrections, variations, transpositions and adaptations (“remakes”). This tendency towards recycling allows to consider Jacques Lizène the most ecological amongst our artists, who is aware of exhausting cultural resources, in effect of what he modifies his art (and life); who sees that today’s art is submitted to the regime of overproduction, what changes – if it can be said so – its “climate”; and who also encourages to practise the true aesthetical decay in the situation, where so many others still do believe in progress.1 * In Lizène we can find certain secondary motives which are as if repeated in various works, what gives purposefully an effect of echo returning from distance or underground relations. These are sometimes plastic signs (silhouettes, always with clearly defined sex; “neo-mural” drawings), sometimes physical elements (a “storm of hair”, which can pass from a drawing into a live performance, a “clown” gesture, which goes from sex through the entire body in a toothless smile), sometimes repeated accenting of the attitude (sarcastic nasal laugh emphasizing the number of realisations or actions) or often exclamations like (“again work, in fact!” “again ineffectual!”). These motives have no symbolical value in practice (contrary to Wagnerian leitmotivs), if we don’t count the image building by the author through giving characteristic features to his works. Nevertheless, their function consists first of all in building a network of correlations and developed vocabulary, through appearance in due moments in the area of various actions (drawing, performance, installation, video): an apparently incoherent or aleatory work is, in reality, very skilfully orchestrated.


There is a video, where Lizène appears in the context of Belgian art, promoting contemporary artists in an almost anthological way. For sure he doesn’t do it to prove any reason connected with identity, ideology of rooting or a doubtful mythology ascribing genius loci to any Belgian places, but he shows what makes him connected with certain specific state of spirit in this country. Some songs by Brel are for his a part of this folklore (even – what happens most frequently – when he parodies them strongly). Of course, carnival masks of James Ensor are not alien to him, and we can also assume that the apple substituting the face (in the famous picture of Magritte) is for him a kind of “genetic sculpture” that appeared before its time. But first of all this video speaks about his close relationships with Belgian surrealists and neo surrealists (Broodthaers, Mariën), or even, what’s even more clear, with their counterpart in literature, especially Dadaists (I think here about Clément Pansaers, author of Pan Pan at the Negro Nude’s Ass) and surrealists (from Nougé to Scutenaire). Probably from these relations results purposeful including brutality to the vey core of his art – from what French surrealists, usually much more “noble”, always tried to be distanced (with the noble exception of Benjamin Péret). What’s especially “Belgian” in Lizène, according to me, is the search for peculiarity and as much inappropriate effects as possible, as well going beyond all logic and mind, affirmation of rubbish and omnipresent giggle.


I think about Cravan, who had a way of saying that “soon only artists will be in the streets, and a man will be few and far between”. It appears as if this prophecy were already fulfilled, and that the last “man” (the one you can meet sometime in the streets or certain bars of Liège) took the shape of a radical anti-artist, who in all circumstances tries to blow out the religion of art, making it in a systematic, funny and always inspiring way.


One day the fool was invited along with other artists taking part, like him, at an exhibition, to Marion Meyer’s. The apartment was all hanged with Man Ray’s works (pictures, paintings, objects), what cheered him up in the state of total happiness, almost an ecstasy. Around midnight, when guests already left, he decided to go to sleep under the table, wishing “not to disturb”… We had much trouble trying to get him out of there. And since the night was still not ended (with him nights NEVER end), he found himself at my place. In the loft I live there’s a bar, what seemed to be a comfort after this banishment from Eden, so he sat on the high stool and started to drink, repeating orders as if it were a TRUE bar, continuously haranguing, preaching new theory every five minutes, and in a certain moment declared that for him the most important creator of modernity is Man Ray rather than Duchamp (I suppose he said it quite seriously). After this he ordered to put on a record of Léo Ferré, started to sing in unison Like in Ostend and didn’t want to listen anything else till the morning… I declare that I don’t remember how that night ended… On next day his only words of commentary were: “it was marvellous!”.


The category of ‘genetic sculptures” uses the double principle of collage and montage – like in numerous canonical works of modern artists (most of all in Max Ernst, but also Eisenstein, Heartfield, Erró, Rauschenberg, Godard, Jorn, etc…). Like for all of them, the point for Lizène is in a clash between two heterogeneous elements (belonging to quite different categories), sufficiently distant to create an effect of contrast or impropriety (by joining what, according to logics, would never join), nevertheless justified and harmonious (because the clash is to make an impression of obviousness). What differs Lizène from them, however, is the fact that the effect of surprise or enchantment is never deprived of a dose of burlesque (only a few collages by Erró are like that) resulting from exceeding accepted hierarchies and classifications. Such is the case of a “montage” of a primitive sculpture with a classical one; hybrids of two or more faces (Freud-Hitler, Proust-Kafka, Lizène-Picasso); attaching a feminine look to the bust of marquise de Sade by Man Ray; adding farce elements (fake nose) to portraits; creating paradoxical objects (guitar-pickaxe, guitar with two fingerboards); joining halves of chairs or sofas made in contrasting styles; inventing “dualist” plants contradicting natural laws (spruce turning into a palm tree or a right angle tree trunk): we feel that such variations can be innumerable. What makes Lizène someone unique in this repertoire, however, is the fact that he realizes all this in all techniques and languages he uses: collages, ready-mades, drawings, objects (appearing in parallel with these drawings), video (techniques of incrustation bring miracles here), turning sculptures over, street actions (comical performance consisting in stopping the passers-by and comparing their face with the fragments of other face, what transforms them , in fact, in living “genetic sculptures”), and even inventions of symbols (his famous Belgian flag, maybe not fully ironic, made by joining a half of the Flemish lion with a half of the Walloon rooster …).


Because of the same reason Jacques Lizène’ s videos are not an autonomous category, since they cannot be separated from other aspects of his creation. As a matter of fact, we can single out three ways of making videos by Lizène. Firstly, the “documentary” videos, where he explains or comments his own or other’s works (here the word is the more important element, even though we shouldn’t neglect his irreplaceable mimics, laugh, gesticulation or look, which sometimes speak something different that the presented disquisition, or at least allow to relativize it). Next, films in which he is satisfied with filming (or ordering to film) a given action, realisation of a spectacle of “poor music-hall”: it’s a category of video understood as a trace, reflection, or granting a particle of eternity (or at least longer lasting) to what initially was to last briefly, only in the very moment of birth. And, in the end, films, where he exploits the specificity of video as medium, multiplying incrustations, shattering codes and conventions of the kind, playing with framing, inventing unknown forms of montage, and transforming the camera into a living being: in the case of the latter, the video is one of the registers of his art, and not only its simple recording. Between these three categories there can be certain porosities, zones of contamination or interaction – no doubts, however, that Lizène is a fully independent originator in this area: it is so, because video disturbs the limits between art and life, and between representation and direct action, and between works “made by the artist to survive” and those which imply his physical participation (and normally should vanish with him) – and he knows how to draw advantages from these disturbances.


One other day the fool appears at my country home in Provence after an exhibition which I organised at a small local gallery for fifteen artists. Almost all the artists came, as well and some other guests (especially writers) who regularly visit these ritual holiday events. Lizène discovers that there’s a bar and naturally installs himself there. He starts to converse, accenting his expressions with a vivid joggling of his both hands; a listener goes away after a while, but another one takes his place, and then another else – so Lizène continues his speech as if it were always the same person, not noticing the change of those to whom he speaks (with a voice less and less audible with the number of emptied glasses). Suddenly he declares that he “is going for a walk”, leaves the house, after a few hundred meters turns towards a backstreet, then again towards another one, so in the end he finds himself in front of a building with enlightened ground floor (the only, it seems, such building so late at night). Taking it for a still open local café, comes in among strongly wine drinking and smoking guests, directing towards a bar, leans his elbows on it – and doesn’t notice at all that he simply returned to my place… At the bar there is a girl, quite casually dressed, whom he takes for a hostess or a whore, who came to drink the last glass after her stunts – and he doesn’t completely understand why she suddenly starts to sob… Certain shame remained in him clearly (what didn’t disturb him to laugh at it). When much later he was telling me about that event one night in Antwerp, he insisted to call a witness to confirm his words (poor Philippe Mayaux, called out after midnight, confirmed all the details, adding even the identity of the victim of that mistake). Anyway, it was the only case I saw Jacques Lizène showing a kind of remorse.


Even though most often on the principle of braggadocio, burlesque or parody, Lizène is connected with this stream of modernity which postulates that art should stop to “separate” from everyday life (as Guy Debord called it). Therefore he proposes performances or real actions rather than theatrical presentations; objects or installations rather then pictorial presentations; video-performances rather than film presentations. Nevertheless, he is not indifferent towards another stream of modernity (or rather post-modernity) which, in turn, postulates that an artist shouldn’t ignore but should rather take into consideration the fact that we live the era of “reproductions” which, in fact, monopolized everything, flooding us with all kinds of images, transmitted and propagated with earlier unknown possibilities and technological means, causing that the artistic output of all eras and civilisations is accessible for everybody at any time. The way in which Lizène reacts for the tension between these two apparently contradictory aesthetical approaches is very significant. He simply ironically processes the infinite resources of images into “performances” and “art of attitude”. It means that he draws from this unlimited repertoire, operating with exaggeration, outdoing others in propositions, spreading purposeful confusion between real works of art and the multiplication of their reproductions (this reminds me of Godard’s Carabineers, who believed that they had won all the miracles of the world, while, in fact, they only won their images presented on post-cards). Hence the idea of “virtual collection” in Lizène, as if he wanted to take literally what Malraux called “museum of imagination” (which, as we remember, concerned quite a different thing): basing on this principle, he includes in his “collection” all works that suit him, appropriating them, and using them as a material for his own manipulations, sometimes even offering their exhibiting or reselling – acting as if he would really have them… A complete farce, extreme facetiae, where nothing forbids to think that it could cede the place for new real artworks – but which indicates first of all that for him there’s no better riposte to the extension of simulacra than multiplying the existing ones and building others; it is as if a strategy of managing virtuality with a method of inventing a hyper-virtuality with a laugh.

New York – Paris, October 2009

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