Anathemata - Talk with Exhibition Curators Pierre-Alexandre Mateos and Charles Teyssou
Antonin Artaud, Martin Bladh, Pierre Guyotat, Paul-Alexandre Islas, David Jones, Sarah Kane, James Richards, Karolina Urbaniak
Curated by Pierre-Alexandre Mateos and Charles Teyssou
Anathemata is a display that interrogates the tradition of epic poetry within a tetrad of 20th century avant-garde artists; David Jones, Antonin Artaud, Sarah Kane and Pierre Guyotat. These four artists are presented alongside contemporary artists Martin Bladh, Paul-Alexandre Islas, James Richards and Karolina Urbaniak through a display of manuscripts, drawings and videos.
The exhibition title is borrowed from David Jones’s eponymous poem published in 1952. A British poet and artist of Welsh descent, Jones is considered a leading figure within modernist poetry along with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. His poem, The Anathemata, investigates the importance of mythology within the history of humanity from a modernist perspective. Written in the aftermath of the Second World War and interweaving Welsh and English late medieval sources, it defends the importance of epic narratives, fables and myths against the desacralising effect of modernism. Considered Jones’ seminal work, The Anathemata narrates the thought processes of a cambrophile over the span of roughly seven seconds at an English Catholic Mass. Using Old, Middle and Early-Modern English, Welsh, and Latin, The Anathemata questions the importance of past mythology within human history - from the Iron Age in Cornwall and Tudor London to Penda's Mercia and the Welsh "Otherworld" - in a highly allusive and nonlinear fashion. In this text, Jones also stresses the importance of the artist as an inventor and bearer of myths.
Antonin Artaud is a French artist considered one of the major figures of early 20th century avant-garde. His texts revolve around transcendence, mysticism, drugs, and extreme corporeal experiment. Like Jones, a large part of Artaud’s writing practice challenged and gathered different languages (French, Latin, Arabic), myths and temporalities (from Ancient Greek to Aztec and Early Christian civilisations). Both were concerned with the idea of the impending apocalypse. In his Letters from Ireland which he wrote while in exile in Dublin, he details an imagined forthcoming apocalypse, and plans his own role within it as « the revealed one ». Also on display are several of his magic spells, intended to curse his enemies and to protect his friends from Paris' forthcoming incineration and the Antichrist's appearance at the Deux Magots café, an important meeting point for artists and writers in Paris in the post-war era. Artaud’s depictions of the human body as dismembered, surrounded by flying nails, translated the agonies of his physical as well as psychical life. Indeed, between June 1943 and 1944, Artaud was subjected several times to electroshock therapy in Rodez (France). Cast aside from his community and finishing his life in an asylum, Artaud was in a sense the subject of an anathemata. In Artaud’s work, the body experiences a form of disfiguration, it is "outside the figure of being". Caught between life and death, the visible and the invisible, it is ultimately traced by the lines of forces drawn from the electromagnetic spectrum.
Pierre Guyotat was a preeminent French artist who died in 2020. Like David Jones, he was a poet interested in the epic format, the fragmentation of words, and the use of heterogeneous languages from various historical periods and geographies. Similarly to Jones, he was a soldier. He was enlisted in the Algerian war, an experience that inspired him to write Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers. Written in 1967, this book was censored and, in a way, anathematised. Composed of seven songs, it can be perceived as a cataclysmic incantation. Moreover, he is maybe one of the last mythical figures of the French literary scene that could be affiliated with poets such as the Marquis de Sade, Arthur Rimbaud or Artaud. Guyotat works with a mutant language, inhabited by bodies, animals and ghosts. He incorporates and carries in each of his works the cursed part of humanity. His visions are dazzling, the body triturated, wounded, exalted, entangled, seen in its convulsive materiality. Words and bodies function as apparitions in constant metamorphosis.
Sarah Kane is a renowned British dramaturge whose radical conception of theater has been compared to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. While her plays examine human atrocities such as cannibalism, sexual violence and war abjections, her mise en scène is devoid of any affectation. Her subjects are stripped to the bone, laid bare like a cadaver. Her first play, Blasted, which opened at the Royal Court Theater Upstairs on 12th January 1995, presents a brutal vision of war-torn society through a series of violent acts. The title could also echo the avant-garde poetry magazine founded by Wyndham Lewis, Blast, which presented ideas about art that are close to those of Sarah Kane: injecting reality directly into people’s heart. Like David Jones, she considered history as a palimpsest of myths and rituals that could be found in one of the most popular epic spectacles of her time, football. She saw in the matches played by Manchester United the representation of a myth in which the Gods fought for possession of the sun.
Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak are artists, photographers, multimedia players and founders of the publishing house Infinity Land Press. Along with Stephen Barber, they have participated in the dissemination of authors such as Antonin Artaud within the British cultural scene through their work as publishers. Established in 2013, Infinity Land Press is self-described as a “realm deeply steeped in pathological obsessions, extreme desires, and private aesthetic visions”. For the exhibition, they will notably present On The New Revelations of Being, a video based on Antonin Artaud’s apocalyptic manifesto from 1937. It envisions the end of the world and the death of God through a series of cataclysmic occurrences of Artaudian cruelty.
Artist James Richards is known for working across moving image, sound and installation. A newly commissioned work, Phrasing, based on precedent research and developed through 80 slides, is exhibited for the first time as part of the display. Cutting and recombining images from various sources such as radiographies, comics, and medieval engraving, he digs into what could be called a modern epic. His use of X-Rays acts as an inner search, an opening of bodies and objects, an effraction of envelopes that deals with the secret of interiority. In that sense, his quest finds echoes in the introspective voices of Jones, Artaud, Guyotat and Kane and becomes a receptacle for the tumults and hubbubs of the world.
Finally, Paul-Alexandre Islas, is an artist, musician and Artaud’s reader who notably questions the violent dimension of art, its personal cost and the legitimacy of the people who allow themselves to practice it. Similarly to Artaud, Islas doesn’t have superstition about the already written poetry. If poetry is already written, let it be destroyed.
From Jones' lecture of Arthurian legends to Islas’ contemporary incantations, the exhibition Anathemata tries through myths, violence, desire, war, and the superhuman devotions that are found in the works presented, to bring forth a spectacle capable of stirring up the forces that are boiling within them.
Photo: Martin Bladh, After Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson, 1636, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
The Moondance Foundation