‘Water - Instance No. 8’
Text for the solo show ‘Water’ (Curator: Jo-ey Tang)
Beeler Gallery, Columbus College of Art and Design Columbus, Ohio, USA, 10 Oct 2019 - 15 Mar 2020
Paris-based artist Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann‘s project ‘WATER: A PRELUDE’ is developped in collabotation with Daniel Marcus. Referring to water’s states from liquid to solid, from filtration to contamination, the artist is interested in how multiple voices from the past and the present materialize through the body of the performers, celebrating the disappearance of the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Japan and the liquid life of Charlotte Perriand.
Water above and water below
Water that gives and water that takes
Water within and water between
Water before and water to come
I set out across the water at Mallorca with my husband Percy. I had arranged a kayaking expedition to explore the perimeter of the island, and had hired six young men to guide us. Together we paddled down the coastline, heading toward Formentor, a port on the north coast of the island. Along the way, we searched for coves hidden in the towering cliffs, and after several sleepless nights, we finally found one large enough to accommodate us. Here was paradise—a tiny white-sand beach at the back of a cove squeezed between the hills, on a stretch of flat land covered with rose laurels. It was an ideal spot to set up our four tents, although we were hardly alone: wild pigs roved about at night, and men came and went in the morning balancing baskets on their heads.
The sea was rough the day we left the cove, so rough that we had to be rescued by a fishing boat, which took us to a nearby yacht. That evening, the captain arranged for a lavish feast, but we took ill with seasickness, and I spent the night curled up among the ropes. Upon waking the next morning, we begged the crew to put us ashore at the next fishing port. Our plan was to reach the bay of Formentor, and for nothing in the world did we want to cut out even the tiniest bit of our trip. Obliging our wishes, the captain discharged us onto dry land. As the yacht departed, it blew its horn in a farewell salute, attracting a throng of curious onlookers as we readied our fragile vessels for the sea.
At the next village we stopped at, the townspeople were having a celebration, complete with bull runs, dancing, and joyful signing long into the night. Percy chose not to join me, and in the morning, I discovered him loading his kayak, his mind already made up: He was leaving us. It was up to me whether I wanted to follow him or not. It was an ultimatum, and I stayed, drunk on freedom. I stayed for those long, golden, sandy beaches that beckoned me. I stayed for the side of a naked man on horseback riding through the white froth of the ocean in the rising dawn. I stayed to breathe the scent of the Mediterranean. I clambered over the rocky scrubland under the blazing sun, following a narrow footpath overlooking the sea. I rejoined my friends at the next stop. I didn’t go off alone again.
I set out across the water on the S.S. Patris II, embarking at Marseille. With me were many architects, delegates of the International Congress of Modern Architecture, or CIAM; together, we were to deliberate the design of ‘The Functional City.’ On our way towards Athens, the ship paused for six days to allow our delegation to explore the Cycladic Islands. For my part, I had secretly arranged for Pierre and I to tour the Peloponnese peninsula—the land of Herodotus. I wished to see the theater in Epidaurus, and Sparta, that autocratic military city so different from democratic Athens. Above all, I wanted to reach the summit of Mount Taygetus. I could never travel to a mountainous region without scaling its highest peaks.
One evening—it might have been on our way to Sparta—Pierre and I saw a group of shepherds and villagers seated upon a large, dark red rug, relaxing and breathing in the fragrance of the land, still warm from the day’s heat. Resting beneath the knotty trunk of an olive tree (or was it an orange tree?), they quietly puffed their pipes in the cool evening air. Time seemed at a standstill.
Our walk to Sparta was beautiful, but Sparta itself was uninteresting when seen close up. It was hot, very hot. We traveled up the foothills of Taygetus to the Byzantine site of Mystras, a holy town that had managed to preserve more or less intact the most beautiful of its churches, convents, and monasteries. Walking for two-and-a-half hours along a winding footpath, we arrived at Anavryti, a pretty little mountain village. A local official led us to a cool, whitewashed dwelling, the flagstone floor of which was covered in a traditional wool rug, dyed red from plant extracts brightened by spring water. The next morning, a child woke us at daybreak, offering a bowl of candied cherries and a large glass of clear, cold water that tasted exquisite.
The next day, we were again awakened with cherries in syrup and crystal-clear water. It was time for us to leave, as a storm was forecast and we wanted to reach the summit of Taygetus before the weather hit. A short three hours later, the heavens opened and rain poured down—brutal, rapid, and effective. We backtracked to a pilgrims’ chapel, Saint Elia, where we dried our clothes and struggled in vain to light a fire. By the following day, the storm had passed, and the horizon emerged out of the morning mist. We set off at dawn, making our way west down a steep slope. At the bottom, we slipped, sliding toward a flock of sheep and their shepherd, whose pastoral face was the very image of tranquility. Nearby, four slender, barely squared-off tree trunks supported a layer of branches, twigs, and sheepskins, forming a frail shelter on pilings that offered little shade in the midday heat. A few branches still clung to the tree trunks, and from these dangled the shepherd’s possessions: butter, cheese, a saucepan, and a coat.
The sherpherd gave us a big bowl of sheep’s milk for our journey, as well as butter and cheese—his only supplies. He looked the part of the pure mountain man, but had in fact just returned from a four-year stint in New York, where he had worked a dishwashing job at a hotel in order to pay off a bad debt. He showed us the way through a dark crevice, and we walked along a dry streambed until the skies opened again around 5 o’clock, and the rain began to fall.
Several days later, we arrived at Pireaus, outside Athens, dirty and tired. We were glad to get back to our luxury hotel and catch up with our friends, Léger, Corbu, and Albert Jeanneret. They were glowing with health and delighted with their trip through the Cycladic Islands. In any case, our stay in Athens wasn’t all fun and fames: Senior members of CIAM expressed their differing views in lecture sessions. Corbu put forward the solution of ‘the neutralizing wall,’ which would embrace all three elements—air, water, heat—and prevent cold from penetrating the buildings: ‘In one fell swoop, all heating, cooling, and ventilation problems are simplified, brought together in one single technological solution: perfect respiration. Close your windows; better than that, you won’t need windows anymore. The sealed glass facades will cloak the house in silence. The dwelling will be flooded with light and rays of sun.”
Léger responded to Corbu’s speech a few days later with observations of his own, arguing modern painting had to open itself to the scale and social immediacy of murals and architecture. In his speech to the architects, Léger challenged his architect friends—including Corbu—to rethink the human impact of so-called ‘perfect respiration.’ “You have chosen to move away from the elite,” he observed, “in favor of the ‘middle class,’ who have always blocked up their windows with curtains and cluttered their living space with furniture, hangings, and knickknacks. You have unclothed these shy, simple, and slow-living people, and have pinned them, stunned, against ‘the wall’—a wall you have brought back to life, once again, but which their forefathers spent all their time trying to hide. These people now find themselves abruptly enveloped in light, surrounded by smooth, brand-new surfaces that reveal everything—every bit of dust—and where shadow itself no longer has any place.”
The Patris II sounded its melancholy farewell to Greece on the morning of August 11th. The sailors proceeded with the customary washing of decks. Poor Pierre disappeared into his cabin and didn’t resurface—he was laid up by Maltese fever, brought on by our hike up Mount Taygetus. The congress members were once again alone on board the ship, but they failed to reach a consensus on a number of points. In the end, two schools of thought emerged: On one hand, there was the Polish group, with their Marxist convictions, who criticized the lack of attention paid to social and political issues, believing that “the course of events will be profoundly influenced by political, social, and economic factors.” On the other hand, there was Corbu, who felt that “the dimensions of all elements within the urban system could only be governed by human scale,” not by political whim.
I can’t help returning to the seashore when reflecting on these ideas. I love long sandy beaches, walking in the frothy waves, my face to the wind, accompanied by seagulls and cormorants. The CIAM delegation declared: “Private interest shall be subordinate to community interest.” This rule has since been followed to the letter along so many of the world’s beaches, where residential access roads line the beachfronts, requiring pedestrians to do battle with traffic when crossing over to the beach. The road— community interest—has been retained, which is why cars prevail over Man. The Idea gained the upper hand over the Subject; it didn’t occur to us that children would have to cross roads. For my part, I prefer the Paramé beach at Saint-Malo. The jetty perches on a granite rampart several meters above the sea, and is lined by housing with private front gardens; these gardens are surrounded by low walls dotted with thoughtfully placed beaches for people who wish to interrupt their stroll with a chat. Vehicles are relegated to the rear of the buildings, and dead-end side paths lead to the traffic-free jetty. The housing—both public and private—overlooks the sea, with views out to the beach, where the waves break wildly against the jetty, soaking it during the equinox.
The jetty is the main meeting place for the people of Paramé, as well as for residents staying at nearby hotels. Depending on the time of day, different types of people can be seen strolling up and down: mothers with their babies; young couples; local girls on the hunt for good-looking boys; or windsurfers, slipping on their wetsuits and unfurling their multicolored sails.
In the evenings, pensive souls and old fishermen in their black-trimmed caps linger along the jetty, surveying the sun’s slow descent toward the horizon, where it hesitates before diving into the sea in a glorious blaze.
I set out across the water aboard the Hakusan Maru. I had been in Paris on June 10th. The evening was tense. I had been to the same café every night for the previous week. Léger was gone. Picasso was gone. The blond was gone. The Belgians from the café were also gone. People clutched each other’s hands, gazed into each other’s eyes. They were looking, reaching for that beloved someone, as the earth shatters and everything falls apart: tradition, family, emotions. A thousand letters flowed in from the north, the east, and the west: ‘...My name is Dupont. I was with my aging father, the former mayor of Fouille. We left at night during the bombing. We were huddled against a wall, when my father slipped around to the other side. We looked for him all night. Can you give us any news of him? I was evacuated to X…’
‘…I lost sight of my husband during a bombing raid. My children went missing as we were fleeing. I’m all alone now. Please help me find my family. My name is X. His name is Y. I was evacuated to Z.’
‘I’m with Grandma. My name is Madeleine ... farewell everyone. We’ll have to be tough from now on.’
That last evening sitting on the café’s glazed veranda. Two bodies side by side. Were they listening to the cicadas singing? No, it’s the rumbling of cars driving away. Dull, heavy thuds. Bombs? An invasion?
Our arms touched, hand in hand, barely touching, my heart beating in time with the city. The wealthy had left. Only the poor remained. They won’t be evacuated.
As the sun rises, it was over. Paris wore a heavy fog of mourning.
In the streets, cars were weighted down with mattresses, clothing, fancy rugs, a corset, a doll. Suddenly, everyone was a nomad. The land where you were born, the house you grew up in, the street you knew, the person you loved. Goodbye—no, don’t wallow in it. Off to the train station. It was cordoned off. A throng, old men, women, children, some seated, some sprawled on the floor, others standing, anxious. Waiting. The station was barricaded. They were going to open the gate. Yes. No. At 7 o’clock. At 10 o’clock. No, never. Access was forbidden. There was no one there. No one at the counter. Then the passage was clear! Off we went. A train. And then farewell, it’s all over now. An iron gate you’d not dare cross again. There wasn’t any way back. Fate had decided. Goodbye.
The train, emptiness. The train lurched forward. A dining car: maybe there was life here after all.
What was the black smoke enveloping the city? Was it fog? Or was it a smokescreen, kicked up to imitate a squid’s inky getaway? Was this civilization? Upon reaching Marseille, I was told Paris had been bombed. True, but the city was still calm. Still proud!
Then Marseille, too, became a part of the past. The ship was leaving. I went on board, a prisoner. It’s all over now. French soil beneath my feet, visible, but untouchable, forbidden. Back into the cage. It was my country, but it had already been lost to me. Tell it goodbye, tell them all goodbye, as though they were dead. You don’t know the whole story, no, you don’t know the half of it. One by one you cut ties. Now they’re all gone. You didn’t expect it to be so easy, so final. Only the first snip of the scissors matters.
We set of across the deep blue sea, the Mediterranean, cradle of civilizations. But what good is civilization? Our species had evolved through its attachment to the land, a trajectory set into motion by the farmer. But the twentieth century had put an end to all that.
Marshal Pétain told us: ‘Only those who deserve French land will be entitled to live on it.’ What god was he to decide who was deserving, and who was not? Separated from the peasants, from the proud poor, from the craftsmen of France, from all who work with their hands, my heart falls to
We reached Lisbon, full of lights and cars. We joined the party, singing and dancing, while under the same skies Spain was dying—China was dying, so was Abyssinia and Poland—while we enjoyed peace. It wasn’t happening to us yet, but everyone gets a turn in the end.
The open ocean. Long nights aboard the ship.