The art of dueling pianos: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at Arter

Published 04.11.2019 19:56
Updated 04.11.2019 20:05
The art of dueling pianos: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at Arter

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation, on show at Arter, entrances as much as it confounds viewers, with pianos locked in an ongoing, arrhythmic trance. The program notes state there should have been three, but the duo on display were far gone, in an animate universe of delocalized sound

An audience, by definition, refers to the sense of hearing. To be a member of an audience is to invite the auditory in some sense. However, the powers of sight, touch, and spatial awareness, are equally integral to the experience of "offroad, v.2", the latest kinetic, multimedia installation by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Prior to entering the black-on-black hall which hosts the piece, which sees three grand pianos repeatedly drift into one other via a computerised, electromechanical system, the curatorial statement on the entrance wall invites seers to step into the "pianos' territory."

Moving objects occupy territory, expanding and contracting in sporadic confrontation. These dynamics apply to worldly concern, but that does not appear to be the focus for Boursier-Mougenot, whose entirely eccentric work defers to more interior dimensions.

"offroad, v.2" has the effect of comedic relief, loosening the generally confused tension of the abstract, modern art environment. Like a viral video, his installation is irresistibly watchable, but for completely baffling reasons.

Selen Ansen curated the show with the support of the Istanbul French Cultural Institute. Her invitation extends to audience members who may choose to view the mechanized, anarchic clash of antique grands from above, to contemplate their connections.

For Ansen, whose academic background is thoroughly steeped in the French milieu, there is a drift to catch in the art of Boursier-Mougenot. And by bringing him to Turkey, she has also presented the momentum of her curatorial sway.

Ansen first worked with Arter in 2012, as a guest curator inviting the work of Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere. While Turkish is not her mother tongue, her ability to cross the divides that bind Turkey and Francophone Europe are a fundamental asset to Istanbul's culture sector.

"Although the notion of 'roots' is problematic for me, I can also feel how much this city has nourished my perceptive and sensory experience with its cultural and historical diversity and dynamism," she said of Istanbul in an interview with Exhibist editor Anna Zizlsperger.

An ear on the ground

The refreshing palate of "offroad, v.2" is its generous lavishing of empty space. The knock of hardwood resonates through the soundboards of the pianos that whir and rock with uncontrollable, inelegant flux.

A spinning anemometer on Arter's fourth floor terrace is said to interact with the pianos, affixed thanks to the technical contributions of Guilhem de Gramot, a specialist in electro-mechanics, as well as Guilhem Saurel, a robotics engineer from the French LAAS-CNRS laboratory.

Boursier-Mougenot is famed for his contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennial, in which he transformed all precedence for the Neoclassical French Pavilion with his arboreal soundscape based on research into the Italian Mannerist gardens.

Electricity was his muse, but in dialogue with nature. His collaboration with scientists has been a staple in his installations. This approach is patent in his interior investigation through the medium of the otherwise stationary furniture of the acoustic piano.

But as all pianists know, the ambiance is as important as the instrument itself - in some cases more so. For example, in 1975, Keith Jarrett began The Köln Concert fraught over the venue's choice of piano only to perform the best-selling solo album in jazz history.

Unlike the American improviser, Boursier-Mougenot decided, after studying saxophone and violin, that he was not an instrumentalist. He next ventured into theater, set design, and lighting, inspired by the avant-garde dramaturgy of Pascal Rambert.

"offroad, v.2" displays the mind of a failed musician who crept into the backstage of experimental theater with production ideas all of his own. Eerie pulses of string-like reverberation dangle overhead as the black and brown pianos embrace, coalesce and break apart.

The silent, artificial construct echoes with torrents of howling noise, scratchy clicks and lingering pops. An invisible dance of lush choral screeching blows past, as the pianos wrestle, caught in a tangle of their rounded triangular physique.

A resonance of notions

Barbara A. MacAdam, editor of ArtNews, identified Boursier-Mougenot as an "accidental composer" in her 2015 profile. For her research, she observed one of his pieces, which included aviary finches on harpsichord strings and wire hangers fixed with microphones.

For another of his peculiar creations, titled, "harmonichaos 2.1" (2006), he integrated tuners, harmonicas, light bulbs and vacuum cleaners. The enumeration refers to incarnations and offshoots of concepts and attempts. He builds on past works like a metaphysical sculptor.

"offroad, v.2" was shown in its earliest form in 2014 during the les Abattoirs exhibition, one of France's most influential art events. But in that show, he added a drum set, placed in a reflective pool with a cosmic-ray detector to trigger a waterfall's crashing onto it.

The music that ensues throughout the showcasing of his installations, many of which ongoing for over a decade, has been compared to the transcendent wash of tones that issued from such immortalized composers as Erik Satie, or Debussy.

Boursier-Mougenot affirms the ways in which art and science are subject to change, and, in fact, are defined by proofs of argument and contradiction as the very measures by which to advance their methods and findings among collectives of practitioners.

The pianos curated inside Arter's Karbon room are set to continuously gyrate in a ghostly manner until Dec. 15. The architecture, spare to the point of austere, parallels that of a closed grand piano, repurposed into an opaque, solely percussive object.

That blunting of high culture is a fundamental point of departure for contemporary artists like Boursier-Mougenot, also a nominee of the 2010 Marcel Duchamp Award. Arguably, the chief intent is to imbue the mundane world with the radical universality of modern art.

If technology is as pervasive as its pace of development in the postindustrial paradigm, art follows close behind, as a critical observer, poking fun as much as poking alternatives and modes of resistance and invention to offset the impositions of mainstream monoculture.

Or, as Boursier-Mougenot might tempt, there are other ways, "offroad" from the normal order of being, which humanity may utilize through its power to create, unsurpassed in nature, whether consciously for the positive, or mindlessly, and so, catastrophically.

The sound of pianos knocking together is like a Zen koan, reminiscent of John Cage's approach to composition. His teacher Arthur Schoenberg said he had no feeling for harmony, and that he would come up against a wall. "I'll beat my head against that wall," Cage replied.

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