GIJON.- Noches eléctricas [Electric Nights] takes its name from Les nuits électriques, a short film directed by Eugène Deslaw in 1928, in which he focused on city lights at nighttime, sequencing street lamps, neon signs and shop windows of Paris, Berlin and Prague almost as if it were a fireworks show. Similarly to fireworks, film is an intermittent ephemeral projection of light in the darkness.
Through a selection of works from the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou, this exhibition, borrowing the visual recourses of pyrotechnics, wishes to demonstrate the continuity between spectacles of fire and the art of the moving image: flowers, stars, rain, fire, storms, fountains, volcanoes...
The exhibition begins with a series of classical French etchings representing fireworks, as well as a group of photographs by authors like Brassaï, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Dora Maar, and a major selection of experimental films which introduce contemporary works by by Brion Gysin, Ange Leccia, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono among others.
Presented in open plan and conceived, both, as a parcours and as entertainment, rather than like a classical exhibition, the show follows the principle of fireworks, alternating installations with projections. The moving images are presented on screens in different sizes and formats hanging at varying heights in the space. The principle of horizontal vision is thus altered and we experience the exhibition as if we were at a fireworks show: looking at the sky.
Noches eléctricas [Electric Nights] offers a reflection on moving images that the curator Philippe-Alain Michaud, initially embarked on in the exhibition Le mouvement des images [The Movement of Images], designed for the Centre Pompidou in 2006 and shown at other museums since then. Museums have long included films and videos in their collections, considering them to be essential forms of artistic expression. The Musée National dArt Moderne- Centre Pompidou has one of the best collections of moving images of any art institution in the world. This exhibition offers the opportunity to discover the wealth and diversity of this collection, which has been gradually growing since the Centre Pompidou opened in 1977.
Designed to be experienced as a journey but also a spectacle, Noches Eléctricas presents experimental films, scientific films and contemporary artworks, as well as some classic photographs and two antique engravings as a kind of preamble to the project. The following dialogue between Philippe-Alain Michaud and Benjamin Weil is
intended to offer visitors an overview of the exhibition, and a look back at its origins.
Benjamin Weil: Four years ago you conceived the exhibition Le movement des images, which revisited 20th century art from the point of view of the invention of cinema and its effects on perception, on the way we think and how we look at images. Now you have created Noches eléctricas, which invites us to look at moving images from the point of view of pyrotechnics. It seems like a logical continuation. Images have certainly taken on an even greater role in our lives since 2006 we are increasingly invaded by moving images, like those that reach us on our phones, and the other screens in our connected lives. There is thus a profusion of images, which, moreover,
are infinitely reproducible: a never-ending firework! I was also greatly taken by the fact that, in your selections, moving images are not simply an ingredient in this huge "pyrotechnic" spectacle. Instead, the semantic shift also takes place in the realm of representation, given that numerous images in the exhibition are in themselves explosions of all kinds
Philippe-Alain Michaud: The exhibition Le mouvement des images was based on the idea that cinema was not actually born in the late 19th century out of the convergence of a series of technical parameters (high-speed emulsions, intermittent motion, a flexible transparent medium, perforation...), and that this conjunction did not mark the birth of cinema, but the start of the technical application of a way of thinking images, based on movement rather than immobility. The idea of this exhibition was to show that, in the course of the 20th century, the characteristics of film succession (of frames), projection, editing, plot have spread to what we think of as the static arts. It set out to show, for instance, that Frank Stellas painting is based on the effects of succession and movement of the surface of the canvas as a result of the movement of the gaze; that Constantin Brancusis sculpture integrates the effects of thrown shadows that is, of projection into the definition of form; that Max Ernsts collages reproduce the dynamic mechanism of cinematic montage in the static space of the sheet; and that in Robert Longos Men in the Cities series, we find narrative or figurative elements from film noir, transferred to the language of drawing. From the point of view of this meaning, Noches eléctricas could certainly fit into the continuity of Le mouvement des images: leaving aside the technical aspect of the birth of cinema, film, as one of the extensions of fire shows, emerges as a mechanism for the ephemeral, intermittent, discontinuous projection of light in the darkness. We could thus say that film was not invented in the late 19th century, but in China two millennia earlier. The films, which are the heart of the exhibition (although drawings, photographs and installations are also included, to emphasise that we can no longer define film simply on the basis of its technical specificity), are either animations or actual filmed footage that represent phenomena of flickering, blazing, explosions and eruptions, or, in other words, make reference to the usual themes of fireworks shows. The films show the image of film itself: once visitors have seen Noches eléctricas they may perhaps begin to see film as a form of pyrotechnics, a succession of appearances and disappearances of figures of light that may take on narrative form. In the Classical Age, fireworks shows would last around 90 minutes (like an action film), and told a story: usually a story of war and chaos that inevitably ended with the victory of the sovereign.
BW: Although I was aware of the formal progression in todays fireworks a sequence of figures and colours leading up to a grand finale, I would never have imagined them having such a strong narrative presence. Its true that some of the fireworks we see nowadays are not only dramatised, their actual theme also carries a story, or at least a context. For example, the Saint Johns Eve fireworks celebrate the summer, at least in France. And in many countries, fireworks celebrate the national day. Going back to the idea of representation, your decision to use two antique engravings as an anchorage point for the exhibition is interesting, because it puts forward the idea of fireworks as an explosion, but also as a floral finale of fire.
Your selection also touches on the theme of eclosion. I seem to remember that the Japanese term Hana-bi means explosion, while Hana-mi refers to eclosion or blooming. The similarity between these two phenomena is clearly visible in the works you have selected for the exhibition, both the still and the moving images. Then there are also the themes of eruption, conflagration and illumination. All these themes come together to confirm an obvious fact: fireworks draw inspiration from the forces of nature and natural phenomena, such as volcanoes, storms and even fires. Another association you make is between fire and water, specifically fountains, which also draw inspiration from natural phenomena.
P-AM: Yes, fireworks as narrative structure, or even as a structure of thought: at the pinnacle of Baroque culture, Leibniz described it as a brightness that glowed at regular intervals... The history of the relationship between abstraction and fireworks is interesting: in the Classical Age, fireworks shows were conceived as authentic narrative spectacles, with a duration similar to todays feature films, divided into episodes that usually told the story of a war, in entertainment mode. At the same time, they were also a representation of the cosmos and of the harmony of natural forces that were supposedly controlled and regulated by the sovereign himself. People often think that fireworks stopped telling stories when abstraction emerged in the visual arts, broadly speaking at the threshold of the 20th century. However, the move away from a narrative thread in pyrotechnic spectacles probably has more to do with political undercurrents: the advent of universal ideals linked to the 1789 revolution. And there is another important point, that is probably also linked to this matter of the figurative or abstract nature of fire shows: in the Classical Age, fireworks were usually monochrome, golden or silver; fireworks only became polychrome in the early 19th century, when modern chemistry emerged. This is why I considered it important to start the exhibition with prints from the Classical Age. It should be noted that
they are modern reproductions from the Musée du Louvre, made using antique plates. They are the result of a culture of reproducibility that long pre-dates the emergence of cinema! What I find striking about these prints is the intelligence and attention to detail with which the artists managed to represent the energy, the effects of
emanation, of projection, of reverberation, of persistence... and the way the elements change: braziers become fountains, bodies dissolve and fade, light takes on form, pyrotechnic figures imitate storms, eruptions and fires: the unleashing of natural forces, the rightful material of the aesthetics of the sublime.
But fire is not only related to the sublime, it also has to do with the decorative arts. The floral metaphor continues to be one of the main "themes of the rhetoric of fireworks shows". In fact, the Japanese term Hana-bi means fireworks or flowers of fire. This idea is literally illustrated in a fragment of a film from the 1920s, unearthed in a European archive, that shows speeded-up growth, that is, flowers blooming, filmed frame by frame: some types are filmed at the rate of one image per hour, or every two hours... so that we see the flower opening and withering. And when it is projected on a large screen, it blows open the relationship that exists of film, usually hand-coloured
(the chromatic regime of pyrotechnic figures), was commonplace in the scientific and didactic universe of silent films. The example displayed at LABoral is a particularly sumptuous one.
BW: There is something else that links cinema and fireworks: the ephemeral and immateriality. Spectators walk through a darkened room to watch images on a big screen, and once the "show" is over, the room returns to darkness. It is also interesting to emphasize that projection techniques have gradually improved over the years, making it possible to screen films on ever-larger screens, thus increasing the spectators sense of immersion: Im thinking about Cinerama, or the IMAX format. And then there are all the experiments with 3D, which recently seems to be making a strong comeback. The notion of immateriality is even more interesting within the exhibition dispositif that we have designed, in which the images are physically present in the space, with some of them projected onto screens that seem to "float". Visitors wonder through a landscape of moving and Technicolor! images. However, there is also a two-way movement at work that isnt usually present in fireworks or moving images. The movement of visitors through the space also raises the issue of the obliteration of the notion of a beginning and an end, which has more to do with the practice of static art forms.
P-AM: Film, like fireworks, fits into the category of time-based art: perhaps theatre may also be included, and music too. But the timebased, ephemeral quality is not the only visible link between film and fireworks shows: there is also the theme of light, and its concomitant darkness, as well as the displacement of the body: in the experience of fireworks, spectators are free to come and go, while in the classic film experience, viewers are glued to their seats, and their gaze is directed at a single vanishing point. When a film is placed in a gallery, it generates a physical experiment: the connection that can be made between fireworks and film also signals the liberation of the body that watches images front-on. The immersion effect, in the "theatrical" cinematic mechanism, is invariably linked to the size of the screen. In the exhibition framework, we can play with different parameters: not just size, but also the angle of the projections, the multiplication of points of view that produce the effects of editing in space. And these effects are constantly transformed: the movement of the visitor, the movement of images on the screen, and the infinite combination of these types of movement. "We never step into the same river twice", Heraclitus said. A visitor who passes through the exhibition again will never have the same experience.