Jean-Luc Godard

New York

at Miguel Abreu

Jean-Luc Godard: Murder (sesame)(theorem) (editing), 2004–06, foamcore, watercolor, paper collage, wood, plexiglass, felt pen, lamp, film strip on plastic coils, glue, and mixed mediums,15½ by 41¾ by 35⅞ inches; at Miguel Abreu.

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This exhibition of mixed-medium maquettes by the nouvelle vague film legend Jean-Luc Godard was titled, rather coyly, “Memories of Utopia.” “Whose memories?” one wondered at first. “Of which utopia?” Somewhat confusingly, the works were the byproduct of another Godard exhibition: a 2006 show at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, for which he created them as models for a series of nine separately themed galleries. The Pompidou project, according to his plans, was to be called “Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema According to JLG,” and each room was to be, in a sense, a sculptural incarnation of montage—that signature technique of Godard’s filmmaking. The final exhibition differed notably (and for him, disappointingly) from his conceived suite of galleries. But the models, which he made between 2004 and 2006, convey the nature of this unruly installation thematizing the mechanisms and magic of film.

The model rooms feature scaled painting reproductions, books, tiny video monitors, portraits of directors, quotes of poetry and prose, and many other materials. Flanking the entrance of the first one, titled Myth (Allegory of the Cinema), are poster-style images of Frankenstein and Fantômas, a villainous icon of the French detective novel and its adaptation to film. Displayed on the interior walls are a range of images, including those of Mickey Mouse and paintings by the Expressionist painter August Macke. On the floor, a three-dimensional miragelike landscape of what seem to be Middle Eastern ruins appears near a copy of Frederic Prokosch’s novel Hasards de l’Arabie heureuse. Such insouciant hybridity was surely a major factor in Godard’s fallout with the Pompidou, as he sought to hang actual paintings from the museum’s collection alongside pulp media, engravings by Goya alongside shots of tennis star Anna Kournikova. 

Godard famously took up video not long after the technology’s development. The cinema for him is not limited to the material of celluloid, but rather is inherent to the camera. Along these lines, his film-themed maquettes remind us that the camera was named as such since, in Latin, the word means vaulted room or chamber. Model number 3—The Camera (metaphor)—makes the connection explicit. Painted entirely black on the inside, it houses, among many other things, a small motorized wheel decorated with mirror shards that glint as the wheel turns—a direct metaphor for a reel of film registering traces of light. Model 8 includes a small table topped with a book whose title translates as Black Book of the Countershot. Given the room’s (somewhat cryptic) name—Murder (sesame) (theorem) (editing)—the book recalls Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mid-1960s reflections that montage (the basis of shot/countershot) relates to death, as it gives finality to an otherwise potentially endless sequence. Lying on the floor of this model is a photograph of Sergei Eisenstein, an early master of montage, cutting film with a pair of scissors.

Several of the models recall Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and indeed artists have been playing with the similarities between collage/assemblage and the cinema—the shared premise of arranging disparate images in a shallow space—since the latter medium’s early days. Yet the intended architectural applications of Godard’s maquettes lend them a further dimension, however ambiguously those applications had been conceived. The books in several examples are not miniature renditions but actual copies nailed to the walls and floors. How would they—like many other facets of the models—have been transferred in scale to real space? The uncertainty speaks to the exhibition’s titular utopia. These maquettes serve as memories of Godard’s vision for a scenic realm that may never have been possible.