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By Joseph Nechvatal.

Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel
(New Impressions of Raymond Roussel)
Palais de Tokyo, Paris

“My soul is a strange factory” – Raymond Roussel

New Impressions of Raymond Roussel points us towards an intellectual history that maps out art’s role in creating a social allegory for the poetic psychoanalysis [1] of mechanized pleasure — in circular struggle with the mechanized mass killings of World War I and II, the holocaust, and Hiroshima. And the rewards of such exhausting circularity are considerable, given both the historical significance of Raymond Roussel’s influence and its unapologetic relevance to today’s cyber culture — with its intransigent obliqueness and mechanical dizziness.

But if I were going to generate an art exhibition as homage to a particularly flamboyant artist [2], even if un peu obscur, I would think that it would be advantageous to try to match the aesthetic qualities of that person (absurdly intricate mechanical interlacings) with the show’s general aesthetic. Unfortunately, that was not the least bit achieved with the homage to the wildly creative dandy writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) [3] that is at the Palais de Tokyo’s Centre d’art contemporain in Paris.

While access to much of the remarkable work here (including five of Roussel’s otherworldy handwritten manuscript pages for his last book Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Some of my Books) and a wonderful cookie-encasing sculpture memento called Etoile cosmique (Cosmic Star) — a glass and silver case that Roussel had made for a star-shaped biscuit he brought back from lunch in Juvisy-sur-Orge with the astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) on July 29, 1923 — is to be appreciated and relished, the cavernous half-finished Level 1 Galerie Seine devoured and neutralized any stylistic moods of gamesmanship that are associated with Roussel: such as the famously extravagant, yet intricately hermetic, elaborate mechanamorphic constructions that verged on the exuberantly preposterousness of a machine running infinitely wild. Perhaps if I had seen the other two manifestations of this show — Impressions of Raymond Roussel held at the Museo Reina Sofia (Madrid) in 2011 and the Museu Serralves (Porto) in 2012 — I may not have felt so disappointed in the general lack of neurotic deliriousness experienced in this one.

Granted that Raymond Roussel’s disregard for financial restraint [4] cannot be matched by the Palais de Tokyo, but still the gutted construction materials hanging overhead in this ugly cavernous space take the eye and mind out of the magnificently intricate labyrinthine quality typical of his extravagant writings: as established in the prose work Impressions d’Afrique (1910) (a work that features a painting machine that duplicates the colour spectrum of the sky at dawn) [5], Locus Solus (1914) (like Impressions d’Afrique, written according to formal constraints based on homonymic puns) and the obsessive but convulsingly poetic Nouvelle Impressions d’Afrique (1932) [6]. Thus the larger the art (even as it was needed to fill this mammoth half-raw space) the worse it connected to Roussel’s sense of virtual impenetrability through mechanical precision.

Mike Kelly’s lumbering black cave Kandors 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) (2011) and Rodney Graham’s Camera Obscura Mobile (1995-1996) installation were particularly unmatched to Roussel’s obsessive minute attention; a concentration that is capable of whirling together copious narratives from a veiled network of murky puns and obscured double entendres in a way that anticipates the Oulipo. Mark Manders’s steamy black connectivist sculpture Mind Study (2011), Giuseppe Gabellone’s beautiful silver sculpture L’Assetalo (Thirsty Man) (2008) and Jacques Carelman’s droll motion sculpture Le Diamont (The Diamond) (1975) worked only a bit better in reinforcing a spirit of intricate mechanicalness as they each ate up almost an entire room. A relatively fascinating installation by André Maranha, Pedro Morais, Jorge Queiroz and Francisco Tropa called Tres Moscas (Three Flies) (2012) did eat an entire room and only delivered limited thematic power in terms of absurd interlacing.
Much more capable of such finicky and arcane mesmerizing rhythms was the more intimate yet preposterous work of Thomas Bayrle (his deadpan pulsating romantic machine Spatz von Paris, 2011, is one of the highlights of the show).

[Mark Mander, Mind Study]

Rodney Graham’s series of books called The System worked well in the context and it was captivating to see displays of the literary journal Revue Locus Solus, established by American writers John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Koch and James Shuyler. Published in Paris between 1961 and 1962, the journal formed a bridge between French authors, both historical and contemporary, and writers from the New York School and the Beat Generation. The Collège de Pataphysique was represented by the writer Jean Ferry who published several studies devoted to Roussel, including L’Afrique des Impressions, a detailed analysis which consists of considering the text as instructions for users and reconstructing, in the form of maps, diagrams and schedules, the journeys and events that took place at Ponukélé, an imaginary place in Roussel’s Africa. Two comical cosmic Joseph Cornell boxes, Blue Sand Box and Sand Fountain from the early 1950s pleased me, as they bracketed a stream of photographed drawings of fantastic imaginary architecture from 1857 by Victorien Sardou — as did an early Pataphysical video by Jean-Christophe Averty.

The irascible Salvador Dalí is represented with his short motion picture Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (1975), made with the filmmaker José Montes-Baquer. Dalí read Roussel’s books as early as the 1920s and Roussel had a great influence on Dalí’s “critical paranoia” method. Dalí, who died with a copy of Impressions d’Afrique on his bedside table, believed him to be one of France’s greatest writers ever. Jean Tinguely is inserted, rightly, into this mix with a brain-teasing manic lithograph from 1966-67 called Requiem pour une feuille morte (Requiem for a Dead Leaf), rather than an expected endless drawing machine contraption, that would have more directly interlocked with Roussel’s imagined painting machine.
And Roussel’s major inspiration (along with novelist and naval officer Pierre Loti), the author Jules Verne, has a wacky lithograph of a flat globe studded with images entitled Around the World in Eighty Days from 1880. Roussel greatly admired the works of Verne — which he read over and over again, fascinated with their extraodinary voyages and machines, full of bachelor scientists completely absorbed in positivist exploratory dreams taken to delirious extremes. At that scale of interlacing, some of the hypnotic effect of Roussel’s capacious playful circularity can be felt.

However, Gabriele Di Matteo’s contribution to the show’s circularity is essential. His hand-painted over digital-painting Marcel Duchamp, a life in pictures by André Raffray illustrates the time when Duchamp attended a showing of Impressions d’Afrique in 1912, an experience Duchamp would describe as revelatory. As Gabriele Di Matteo depicts, Duchamp, along with Guillaume Appollinaire, Picabia and Picabia’s wife Gabrielle Buffet, attended a performance of Impressions of Africa — the play by Roussel, based on his book. Duchamp later credited Roussel with the inspiration for his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). There are several original notes by Duchamp and a drawing that he made for The Large Glass in 1912-1915 in the show, as well as quite a few photos of Duchamp with The Large Glass. Among them is the striking photo of Duchamp that was taken by Man Ray in 1920 that shows a star carved out in Duchamp’s hair. This work connects ludicrously well with Roussel’s star-shaped cookie piece, Etoile cosmique, from just three years later.

[Raymond Roussel’s Etoile cosmique (Cosmic Star), 1923]

Historically, the mechanamorphic impulse behind Marcel Duchamp’s works from 1912 (that derived a good deal from Roussel) is of great significance. That is when Duchamp started producing paintings and drawings depicting mechanized sex acts such as Mechanics of Modesty and The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride — and the fantastic machine-body work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even that follow his exposure to the play Impressions d’Afrique — is an inescapable point of reference for the avant-garde of the 20th century. The same may be said for Francis Picabia (who has a room of paintings all to himself at the show La Collection Michael Werner just a stone’s throw away at the Musée d’Art Moderne Ville de Paris).

The elaborateness of the machine, for Duchamp and Picabia, became the symbol of sexual bliss [7] attainable through concept connected to auto-sexual autonomy in contradiction to the horror that mechanized war had brought. By hypnotizing attention, the machine freed them from troubling obsessions and personal hang-ups through the alternative model of android life; intimating both our rush of desperation and our ecstatic release, refracted through a web of glazed impersonality. If the machine, as a representative of order, was a fascination Duchamp and Picabia used to balance out the age’s clumsiness, whether of the mind or flesh, Roussel’s mechanamorphic production and machine forms refigured the human body into an almost mechanized substance.

In The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, which positions a central bride machine over a bachelor apparatus, Duchamp, with the strictness of machinery, applies fantasy to seduction and masturbation. In a way, Duchamp suggests that we (as viewers) can use his art as a vehicle for self-transcendence into a kind of dream world of nonsense sex. This rabbit-hole logic he took from Roussel.

So New Impressions of Raymond Roussel succeeds when it outlines an eccentric expanding circular history of 20th-century art, linking the points between artists and writers who have talked of the influence of this author and his writings on their work: starting with Dada (Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia), then André Breton and the Surrealists (like Michel Leiris, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau) to Neo-Dada Nouveau réalisme (Jean Tinguely) through Oulipo (Georges Perec) Pataphysicians (Jean Ferry, Jean-Christophe Averty and the Collège de Pataphysique) and the authors of the nouveau roman (like Alain Robbe-Grillet). As noted above, his most direct influence in the English-speaking world was on the New York School of poets John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch.

Writing as art — or art as writing: this is the theoretical ripe fruit plucked from Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel — art theory as art — made conceivable by Roussel’s inventions of language machines that produced texts through the use of repetitions and combination/permutations. This machine-like logic provides art with a seemingly pure spectacle of endless variety of textual games and combinations flowing in circular form. (We see and feel this most fully, however, in the sprawling and dazzling Julio Le Parc kinetic op art retrospective on the first floor of the Palais de Tokyo, rather than in this show.)

And there are lessons here for painting, also. Within this writing process Roussel described a number of fantastic machines, including a painting machine in his novel Impressions of Africa. This painting machine wonderfully describes and foresees the arrival of computer-robotic technology and it’s application to visual art which we have available to us today, a century after he envisioned it.

The web also regenerates deep connections to the past; so cyberspace, this territory which stretches out from hypertext to the world-wide computer network, from virtual reality to video games, might also be theorized as the domain of Roussel’s idea of reduplicating without duplication, reiterating without repeating: his game-of-mirrors cosmos. His is a strident activity lost in an infinite navigation from one sort of encounter to another in which the affirmation of the other keeps appearing and disappearing in the play of mechanical manoeuvres (or mechanisms) destined to avert gratification. This is where the bachelor apparatus of Duchamp repeats itself ad infinitum by transmitting the machine via an alter-ego.

But New Impressions of Raymond Roussel reminds us that Raymond Roussel’s themes and procedures also involved imprisonment and liberation, exoticism, cryptograms and torture by language — all formally reflected in his working technique with its inextricable play of double images, repetitions, and impediments, all giving the impression of the pen running on by itself through the dreamy usage and baroque play of mirrored form.

Roussel’s running on repetition technique, as used in the Thomas Bayrle sculpture, for example, lends itself well to the creation of unforeseen, automatic, spontaneous art which gives me the feeling of prolonging action into eternity through the ceaseless, fantastic constructions of the work itself, transmitting an altered, exalted and orgasmic state of mind which after the initial dazzle creates one predominant overall effect: that of creating doubt through mechanical discourse.

The image of enclosure is common with Roussel where a secret to a secret is held back, systematically imposing a formless anxiety in the reader through the labyrinthine extensions and doublings, disguises and duplications of his texts, which make all speech and vision undergo a moment of annihilation.

New Impressions of Raymond Roussel succeeds when it presents to us through intimacy the model of quiet perfection of the eternally repetitive mechanical machine which functions independently of time and space, pulling us into a logic of the infinite. We can learn this from Roussel’s final rebus-like book, Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Some of my Books); the last of his conceptual machines, the machine which contains and repeats within its mechanism all those mental machines he had formerly described and put into motion, making evident the machine which produced all of his machines — the master machine [8]. All of these machines map out an eccentric spiral space that is circular in nature and thus an abstract attempt at eliminating time. They reproduce the old myths of departure, of loss and of return. They construct a crisscrossed mechanical map of the two great mythic spaces so often explored by western imagination: space that is rigid and forbidden, containing the quest, the return and the treasure (for example the geography of the Argonauts and the labyrinth), and the other space of polymorphosic noise: the visible transformation of instantly crossed frontiers and borders, of strange affiliations, of spells, and of symbolic replacements (the space of the Minotaur).

Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel potentially removes us out of our quiet and glib indolence and points us in the potent direction of expanding intensity. I believe that shows like this are critical to us now because the counter-mannerist excess found there can problematize the popular simulacrum that art has become — and make the underground, intricately strange privateness of the human animal livelier.


[1] At age 17, Roussel wrote Mon Âme, a long poem published three years later in Le Gaulois. By 1896, he had commenced editing his long poem La Doublure when he suffered a mental crisis. After the poem was published on June 10, 1897 and was completely unsuccessful, Roussel began to see the psychiatrist Pierre Janet.

[2] Poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast.

[3] Raymond Roussel was born in Paris in 1877. His writings, including the novels Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus and volumes of poetry and drama, were largely ignored in his lifetime, but have since been championed by the likes of Michel Leiris (whose father was Roussel’s accountant), Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet (his first novel, Le Voyeur, was originally titled La Vue in homage to Roussel’s long 1904 poem of the same name), Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, John Ashbery and Michel Foucault (Foucault wrote a critical study, Death and the Labyrinth, after the chance discovery of one of Roussel’s volumes in an antiquarian shop across from the Luxembourg Gardens). Roussel died under mysterious circumstances (apparently by suicide) in 1933 in Palermo in Sicily after he went broke chasing literary fame before his death — decades before his work began receiving the acceptance he craved. He is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

[4] In 1894, at age 16, he inherited a substantial fortune from his deceased father and began to write poetry to accompany his musical compositions. Tremendously wealthy, he took two world tours during which he hardly left his hotel rooms.

[5] The story told in Impressions of Africa is a nominally bare-bones fantasy. The shipwrecked inhabitants of the Lyseus, en route from Marseille to Argentina, are captured by an African potentate, Talou, who holds them hostage while awaiting their ransom. The ship’s manifest includes actors, singers, musicians, fearless naturalists, a slew of carpenters, and, fortuitously, a trove of instruments, lumber, scientific equipment, and trained animals. Partly to keep themselves busy, the motley Europeans, dubbing themselves the Incomparables, decide to stage a set of performances. Converging with their gala is Talou’s military triumph over a rival clan (and the execution of a handful of unloyal subjects). This is the back-story of Impressions of Africa, literally.

[6] New Impressions of Africa is a 1,274-line poem, consisting of four long cantos in rhymed alexandrines, each a single sentence with parenthetical asides that run up to five levels deep. From time to time, a footnote refers to a further poem containing its own depths of brackets. Roussel worked and reworked the 1,274 lines of New Impressions of Africa over a seventeen-year period, rewriting each one as many as twenty times to accomplish a mordant succinctness.

[7] Around the same point in time, Dr. Freud was explaining in his lectures that complex machines that repeat in dreams signified the genital organs. Roussel’s descriptions of eggs on plates and the multiple allusions to the odor of urine after the eating of asparagus are typical of a poetic-mechanical apparatus helping to take us further into the area of the unconscious and the sexual.

[8] Roussel had kept this compositional method a secret until the publication of his posthumous text, How I Wrote Some of My Books, where he describes it as follows: “I chose two similar words. For example, billard (billiard) and pillard (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second. Amplifying the process then, I sought new words related to the word billiard, always to take them in a different direction than that which was presented at first, and that provided me each time with a new creation. The process evolved and I was led to take an unspecified sentence, from which I drew some images by dislocating it. …”


Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel (New Impressions of Raymond Roussel) includes work by: Mathieu K. Abonnenc, Jean-Michel Alberola, Jean-Christophe Averty, Zbynek Baladrán, Thomas Bayrle, Jacques Carelman, Guy de Cointet, Collège de Pataphysique, Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, Gabriele Di Matteo, Thea Djordjadze, Marcel Duchamp, Giuseppe Gabellone, Rodney Graham, João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva, Mike Kelley, Revue Locus Solus, Pierre Loti, Sabine Macher, Man Ray, Mark Manders, André Maranha, Pedro Morais, Jorge Queiroz et Francisco Tropa, Jean-Michel Othoniel, Victorien Sardou, Joe Scanlan, Jean Tinguely, Jules Verne.

Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois, France, on The Computer Virus Project: an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002 he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) University of Wales College, Newport, UK. His book of essays Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006) was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 11th, 2013.