Cécile Hartmann : Supra-continent
By Eileen Sommerman


Repetition is profoundly and courageously living in the present...he who does not grasp that life is a repetition and that this is the beauty of life has pronounced his own verdict and deserves nothing better than what will happen to him anyway – he will perish.

Søren Kierkegaard, Répétition 1.


Life’s main medium is precisely repetition. While some things dodge the redundancy of time, for example death and madness, love and beauty, finite life is relieved by the utter monotony of infiniteness. Working with nature as a medium itself, Cécile Hartmann negotiates the tragic nature of nature.

A church-cum-exhibition space, les églises centre d'art contemporain is a shift from one anthropological space to another anthropological space, from the proverbial body to the head. In some ways walking into Hartmann’s exhibition Supra-continent is like walking into a head: dark and running, like an active mental machine, a repetitive fold that rises and falls.

Large images lean against the wall. Variations (2010) are pictures of precipitation, especially the dizzying moment of freezing, but their size and the inversion from positive to negative, abstract the reading and they feel like paintings. Hartmann is a painter, and it shows up here in the way she tends toward semblance. She recognizes pattern in the passage of time, and her images are a means of reification : an image of freezing is frozen by the image. It’s a reflexive tautology that’s simple, profound and also absurd [as in Kiekergaard’s Repetition (which some regard as a comedy): He tries to find repetition at the theater but it eludes him, he tries the coffee shop and finally says, "I had discovered that there simply is no repetition and had verified it by having it repeated in every possible way."] Hartmann’s vision turns the things sideways, and her gaze is like poetry so the object comes back refracted. More than beautiful images, these are images of beauty transformed by what Kant calls the transcendental faculty of imagination: this is second nature. Mined by her imagination, nature helps to liquify time and space. Thus her projective model of time and space is original and liberated, while her relation to nature is personal and political, producing images that show these signs of give and take, push and pull. 

In the late 1990’s Hartmann was working on the Orange Project where she used the aesthetics of the colour of controversy as a form of seduction. Bodies carrying orange placards on their backs wandered into the metro, into the sea and into traffic at night. A provocative visual device and an obscure one. In her images of solitary figures beaten by the city in Japan, and isolated in front of glowing screens, nature becomes antagonist in its absence. Hartmann is building a loose dramatic score that conjures a world full of signposts. In these current renderings of nature her aesthetics and politics visibly meet : beauty changes and she tracks the decadence, resisting the cliché picturesque in favour of something more hard and more touching. She sees the brutal landscape and she moves toward it like a cat. In this way the politics of alienation are stared down and subverted.

Toward the back of the space is a captivating film loop. In the belly of the chapel, this graphic sequence is aimed at the gut. It opens on gushing water which tempers as expectations mount, and the film follows an ominous placid stream with cameos of foreign objects – a twisted metal bar, a gem, a keffiyah – into a brittle landscape. It’s exciting when the water rages, and undeniably sad when things dry up. Finally we’re staring at the embers of a fire. It’s a compact and spectacular cycle, though somewhat uneventful, that manages to sustain a drama. As in much of Hartmann’s work, the super-realness triggers an emotional reaction and we watch the film with our bodies.  

Nature as an antidote to violence, while the seeds of violence are fundamentally embedded in nature ? Hartmann accounts for it with the film’s loop, which formally confuses protagonists. She follows the water’s movement with the hope that it will find its way to converge with another body of water (it’s possible to see her work as a search for affinities, as composing relationships). Within the space bracketed by the phenomenal extremes of nature and violence, that often overlap, the artist sees and activates the narrative, which is bittersweet, precarious and quietly fantastic. There’s not just one way to read her relation to nature. On the one hand it seems like she takes refuge in the accidents there -- like the abstractions of freezing, and wildlife on an industrial shore -- since the intelligence of her vision is not strictly political or feminine – that is, she’s not damning the obvious but she’s also not there to rescue it. She has a fine and firm gaze and when the object of her gaze can sustain it, the impression is trust, where trust is not an intellectual exercise.

Hartmann’s idea of beauty comes from nature -- like Hanne Darboven who perceived the flow of time in nature – so she doesn’t distinguish according to the conventional biases of beautiful. Rather she’s interested in the more awkward joints and mechanics of time and space and their physical manifestations, especially the way change looks. Darboven uses the simple addition of numbers to epic affect, and similarly Hartmann translates nuance through a perceptual and aesthetic algorithm that shows fragility and randomness as a form of beauty. In the series of images called Manifest (2010), she finds in nature little situations that could be either answers or questions. A stone pathway that is coming together or breaking up; a spotlit tangle of branches; the poised remains of a fire. In all shades of grey. Her visual language is precise, especially the large formats, deliberate edges and her determined focus. However she consistently frames the abject (perhaps a sign of the pathos of modernness and certainly a rejection of status quo) and her choice of subjects shows a sincere interest in an ontology of beingness over a taxonomy of beauty. Hartmann’s work is alluring, even when she’s documenting decay and erosion, because the temporality reads as an empathic gesture.

Hartmann’s grey palette is recent, whereas in earlier work she relied more on the value of colour. When the sensational cues aren’t there – for example colour which gives planar depth -- it helps to ease the transition between the self and the environment, by dissolving the structures that locate us in time and space. Her eery romanticism brings to mind Tarkovsky’s Zone in the Stalker...Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. And we are in no condition to comprehend them. Old traps vanish, new ones take their place; the old safe places become impassable, and the route can either be plain and easy, or impossibly confusing. That’s how the Zone is. It may even seem capricious. But in fact, at any moment it is exactly as we devise it, in our consciousness... 

Hartmann’s romanticism is less dystopic : nature is her medium to reality. Looking for more enchanting realities has a long history, and for reasons that haven’t changed very much. Blake sought a reality more real in his imagination, and in 1786 Goethe left on his Grand Tour, “Since the time of beauty has passed and only necessity and hard material needs fill our days.” Hartmann also recognizes the traps, and for her escape, she stakes her faith in nature and its mystic, repetitive course.  

 Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, A Venture in Experimental Psychology, by Constantin Constantius, October 16, 1843, ed and trans. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton University Press, 1983) p. 16
Repetition, p. 165
Andrei Tarkovsky, Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (Faber and Faber, London, 1999) p. 395
C. De Seta, La scoperta dell’Italia nel viaggio di Goethe, in L’Italia dei grandi viaggiatori, ed F. Paloscia (Abete, Rome, 1986) p .47