“Could a few stenographers (…) reproduce, for fun, the everyday mechanisms of domination and power in order to mock and undermine them? Could they rebel, a few decades late? Is a fable of retrofiction possible?” 1
The term “retrofiction”, overused in places, is employed by Lili Reynaud-Dewar to describe a genuine artistic project, that of contributing to a critical re-reading of the world and its history by means of the production of fictions, objects and symbolic discourses that attempt to upset established, printed narratives. Like a David attacking the Goliath of ageold accounts shaped by a Western and largely male vision, Lili Reynaud-Dewar strives to empower carefully selected figures, in settings that she constructs in an obsessional way, conscious that contexts, “those things that stare us in the face, without any depth” 2 , allow the ultimate insight into the individuals that inhabit them. Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s work seems, therefore, to be constructing places “where it is possible to move” 3, such as the cage in the exhibition, made of fragile bamboo and of bars so weak that it does not even require a door. Thus an imaginary reality is offered, where the choice of being enslaved seems to be voluntary, or suggested.
Begun in 2009, “Power structures, rituals and sexuality among European stenographers” is made up of several parts, still in progress, which have resulted in the works displayed in the exhibition. Here, we discover several women: anonymous ones whom we know only by their agile and efficient hands, and those whom we can immediately identify: Mary Knox, a performer venerated by the artist, who met her in a Glasgow nightclub in 2001, and the artist’s own mother. So it is that this vast project takes as a starting point the figure of the artist’s mother, whose profession was that of stenographer [shorthand typist]. The unusual alliance, in these fables, between the most trivial autobiography and a meditation on cycles and repetition, which the artist has now pushed to its most ambitious phase, allows light to be shone on some crucial aspects of Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s work. First and foremost is a literal and ever-stronger overlapping between art and life, but one that is carefully orchestrated: for Lili Reynaud-Dewar is a control freak who never leaves anything to chance, and who insists that things only happen if they have been authorised by her. Second is the highlighting of the relationship between power and dependence, bred by the close relationship with her numerous collaborators, the artist having herself admitted that she aspires to live and think in conformity with the theater company.4 Finally, with a kind of brazenness, she insists very, very strongly that things are done and that the power of art over life occurs in an effective manner, with a sweeping conceptual intelligence, counter to (or supported by) intuition. Essentially characterised by an emotional detachment where her work is concerned (because art is work too), Lili Reynaud-Dewar uses her mother as a symbol of the original matrix, allowing her, in a magisterial way, to literally reconcile an essentialism she is reluctant to (is there anything more essentialist than the reality of genetics?) and the permeability of the identities and roles to which she aspires. She thereby confounds any critic who might see, in her prolific use of signs of identification radically foreign to her, merely the manifestation of an opportunism matched by a fluency in the handling of this “business of the symbolic” 5 of contemporary art.
She thus builds the basis of a complex meditation on the very notion of origin.
Once this conceptual tour de force has been established, all is said: the sensuality of the colours laid onto the skin of these two women of dissonant beauty; the men’s clothing that combines Western styles with exoticism; the harshness of the frames against the sensuality of the primary colours, the tenderness of the gestures and rituals associated with the cold elegance of machines and mirrors. Whether her detractors like it or not, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s quasi-pictorial style is detectable in her way of combining modern and exotic references with a history of art that she praises, whilst paradoxically challenging it violently. And so we allow ourselves to slip into the intoxication of matrix, rite and décor. We may meditate on the stenographic signs scattered around the exhibition as if they were the ruins of some vanished civilisation, in which the prerequisites of power were perhaps very different, more considerate, and fairer, like the cages that we can simply slip into so as to enjoy, at last, domination that is voluntary. Or not: for Lili Reynaud-Dewar always allows doubt to linger over the outcome of the “retrofictions” that result: if things can be re-enacted, they could also turn out worse.
1 Words spoken by the artist during the performance “ANTITEATER”,
created for her exhibition at the FRAC Champagne Ardenne last
December, during which she humorously laid bare all the sources that
feed her work.
4 “ANTITEATER” has been borrowed from the theatre company founded
by Fassbinder at the end of the 1970s.
5 I have borrowed this phrase from the artist Matthieu Clainchard.