Anca Mihuleț

The Kindness of Madness


In 2017, in the port-city of Le Havre, Baptiste Debombourg imagined Ghost Gardens, a sculptural intervention in the King’s Basin (Bassin du Roi), a historical landmark in the city, reserved for the French royal navy back in the 16-17th centuries. The elements of this imposing spatial piece, made from Corten steel and stainless steel, have been inspired by the Renaissance decorative motifs found in the King’s Chamber from Château of Blois and it is only visible during low tide. The work, unique in Debombourg’s practice, contains several codes of interpretation essential to the general understanding of his work –it reflects upon the artist’s deep analysis of the context where his projects are being presented; it demonstrated the process of de-historicization specific to Debombourg’s approach; it coalesces the intimate gaze with the public perspective, which is a rather subtle, but percussive consequence of his interventions; the accumulative tension rendered by Debombourg’s installations delivers a “poetic image” as Gaston Bachelard would call it, while antagonistically responding to precise, technical instructions.

            It is through this phenomenological reading that Baptiste Debombourg approached the complexity of Wuhan chi K11 art space, where fragments of the everyday life conjure with projections of the future and hidden meditative pockets. The project Elevation is conceived as “a total work of art in motion,” as the artist describes it, allowing the audience to confront themselves with an expanded space where the surface tension is combined with the transgressive materiality, leaving no room for entropy. The experience can be overwhelming, but the artist inserted a series of messages on broken glass – “RAGING DREAMS,” “IMPULSE,” or “ENERGIZE,” which redistribute the idiosyncratic energy of the viewer, helping her to connect to an inner force.

Force and broken glass … can be key words or an epitome of what is happening in the exhibition space. In 2016, the Canadian sociologist Hannah Scott wrote a striking study about the representation of glass in French culture – Broken Glass, Broken World: Glass in French Culture in the Aftermath of 1870. Scott meditates on the fact that during the Prussian war in 1870, the siege of Paris, and the Paris Commune, the inhabitants of Paris, where glass was widely used even in poorer communities, experienced the breakage of glass. She considers that glass breaking has a strong visual, aural, and tactile effect, without dismissing the psychological impact of solely witnessing that process. For her, “Broken glass became an inevitable symbol for a broken world.” Notable French writers of the 19th century, like Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, or Émile Zola, used the symbolism of broken glass to describe the decadence of society and the irreversible transformation of identity. Indeed, in the moment when a fragile matter like glass is being deliberately broken, a change in the order of things occurs. As Scott demonstrates, we are historically set to align the breaking of glass to the violent distortion of the immediate reality.

When Marcel Duchamp accepted the accident behind the “breaking” of his emblematic artwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors or The Large Glass as an integral component of the piece, a new chapter of modern art history was opened, informing upon the technological process and the conceptualization of matter as artistic methods. It is this event that inspired Baptiste Debombourg to acknowledge glass and the processes surrounding glass as central to his practice. As I mentioned above, although interested in the history of art, Debombourg doesn’t like to be caught in a never ending historicization of his research topics. Therefore, he shifts our attention toward what he calls “a true material of our era” – the laminated glass, which the artist perceives as a witness-material, as it records the traces of any impact through its characteristic of retaining the fragments of glass together after a forceful contact.

For the two contextual installations in Wuhan chi K11 art space – Aérial and Matière Noire (Dark Matter) – the artist will recover two types of laminated glass – for Aérial he intends to utilize transparent glass, while for Dark Matter he will recycle black glass.The laminated glass is subjected to a double-agent – on one side, the accidents or incidents that represent invisible forces and had a damaging effect on it, and on another side, the artist who intervenes on the existent abstract layer with a precise plan of breaking the already broken glass. It is a cathartic gesture, juxtaposing the outside space to the inside space – the laminated glass becomes the metaphor of a reclusive outside, whereas the finite installation becomes the reflection of a fluid intimate space with a new memory. As a poignant theoretician of the dichotomy between the outside and the inside, Gaston Bachelard noted in his book The Poetics of Space that “In order to experience it in the reality of the images, one would have to remain the contemporary of an osmosis between intimate and undetermined space.” The intervention waves on the wall functions as an “undetermined space” as it partially colonizes the walls of the building, creating an apparent link to an uncertain outside. One cannot help but wonder if waves on the wall acts as a barrier or as shell.

         The more the space reveals itself to the eye of the beholders, they come to term with the fact that Baptiste Debombourg transforms chi K11 art space into a protective area, resistant to the outside. For interpreting the large-scale installation Dark Matter, I return to a notion so beautifully explained by Bachelard – “immensity” – “Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, immensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming.” The work Dark Matter creates a poetic, almost primordial locus within the exhibition, signifying resilience, the core theme of Debombourg’s project in Wuhan. The artist demonstrates that once acknowledged, immensity, in all its sublime forms – like natural phenomena such as tsunamis, glaciers, a protruding landscape, or megalithic art – can be synonymous with resilience.

         The last extensive work presented in the exhibition, Rheology, refers to the ability of matter to flow or to be deformed and consists of a variable number of conglomerates, produced from small fragments of broken safety glass, resembling a collection of rocks. What is interesting about this installation is that it seems to dismiss human presence, generating a setting that reminds of a prehistoric order or even the aftermath of a calamity. Not to mention the degree of mysticism that surrounds the scattered objects of various dimensions. The combination of factors behind Rheology imposes several questions regarding the position of man amid the imminent changes around us. Can we handle the resurgence of matter? Can we develop diagonal connections to matter and to other beings?

         Elevation, Baptiste Debombourg’s first project in China, reclaims space and matter, by opening indefinite channels of interpretation and revising our reactions in front of a hidden past and an uncertain future.

Anca Verona Mihuleţ is a Romanian art historian, writer and curator based in Seoul. The projects proposed by Anca Mihuleț are motivated by specific historic and social coordinates, by the institutional frameworks where they take place, but also by her artistic and curatorial collaborations that unfold over the course of several years. In 2016, Anca Verona Mihuleţ was awarded one of the ”Igor Zabel Grants” and in 2019 she was the recipient of the Bega ArtPrize, offered by the Calina Foundation in Romania. She was one of the curators of the 2019 edition of the Singapore Biennale, a context in which she researched cases of artistic displacement and naturalization, together with modes in which transmediality can influence our perception onto the future.