Marc Camille Chaimowicz Le Désert ... 1981

Catalogue entry

T03384 LE DÉSERT... 1981

Photographs, silkscreen, Xerox, acetate, and type on grey Rivco paper, elephant hide paper, cream laid on paper and Xerox paper mounted on card, 13 framed panels, 14 5/8 × 11 3/8 (370 × 290); 14 5/8 × 20 1/2 (370 × 520); 11 remaining panels, 14 5/8 × 22 7/8 (370 × 580)
Inscribed ‘Marc C.C. 81’ on each panel with date and page number and ‘Marc C.C. Spring 81’ on last panel
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Maquettes ..., Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd., December 1981–January 1982 (no catalogue); Prints and Works on Paper from the Modern Collection, Tate Gallery, August–November 1982 (7, as ‘Le Désert (A chapter for a book)’, detail repr. in leaflet)
Lit: Sarah Kent, exhibition review, Time Out, January 8–14 1982, p.76 (detail repr.); Jean Fisher and Stuart Morgan, Past Imperfect: Marc Camille Chaimowicz 1972–1982, Liverpool, Londonderry, Southampton, Leeds, 1983, book accompanying exhibition travelling to Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, Orchard Gallery, Londonderry, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton 1983–4, pp.47–50 and 60–3 (detail repr. in col. pp.48–9); Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Café du Rêve, Paris and London, 1985 (repr. in col. pp.9–33)

While it functions as a complete statement, ‘Le Désert ...’ is also the original artwork for the first chapter of a book, Café du Rêve, consisting of texts by the artist, designs, drawings and photographs, which was published in Paris on 9 May 1985, by the Galerie de France and Editions du Regard. It was exhibited at the Galerie de France (9 May–15 June 1985) with some of the original artwork, but not T03384. A second edition of the book was published by Thames and Hudson and launched by the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in London in September 1985. Both editions have English texts.

Café du Rêve contains seven chapters, a biography and a bibliography, the density of text and image-and therefore the relationship between them-varying from chapter to chapter. According to Jean Fisher (in Past Imperfect, op.cit., p.47) ‘Le Désert’ was the first chapter to be completed although at the time of its completion the artist was also working on ‘Partial Eclipse’ (Chapter 4, which contains the only preoriginated material in the book and records Chaimowicz's performance of the same name), ‘North Africa Song’ (Chapter 3) and ‘Le Parc’ (Chapter 2). In the early stages of the project T03384 was conceived as the fifth chapter but in the final publication, the sequence is as follows:

1. ‘le Désert...’

2. ‘le Parc...’

3. ‘North Africa Song’

4. ‘Partial Eclipse, a performance’

5. ‘Chorus, a letter from Vienna’

6. ‘Liaison’

7. ‘le Select...’

As the original for a chapter, T03384 was always intended for reproduction. It consists of a range of different paper grounds on which the artist has drawn in pencil and Indian ink, silkscreened, painted with watercolour and collaged photographs. When acquired by the Gallery, it consisted of 18 single and one double sheet of card, supporting photographs collaged on to decorative backgrounds of the artist's own design, and in places accompanied by short texts. After acquisition, all but the title page were framed in pairs, on the instruction of the artist. At five intervals throughout the sequence, a collaged sheet has been paired with a blank sheet.

A motif repeated eight times throughout the chapter, in each case in a slightly modified form, is a reproduction of an old postcard, showing a photograph of Saharan date palms, bearing the legend ‘6222 Scènes et types - Paysage Saharien - Palmiers Dattiers - LL’.

The framed pages are displayed in the following sequence:

1. The title page, bearing the title ‘le désert’ set on printer's film which had been laid on a background decorated in watercolour covered with a small pen or brush design (the trim lines are clearly visible); the title is placed within a rectangle of dotted lines corresponding in dimensions to the postcard image referred to above.

2/3. A double frame containing two pages each silkscreened with a bold rippling design in grey and white; the left-hand page carries the dedication ‘For Angelo B’ surmounted by a reproduction of the back of a French postcard, complete with the address of its manufacturer in Paris; a reproduction of the date palm postcard already described is collaged to the right-hand page.

4/5. A double frame with, on the left, a blank area, facing another empty rectangular dotted outline but surrounded by cut-up fragments of the postcard image.

6/7. Again a double panel; here set against a plain grey ground is a postcard of the church of San Ambrogio in Milan, facing the date palm card. Beneath the desert image is a statement made by Cardinal Hume on Thames Television in 1981: ‘I understand the need to frequent the market place... but miss the chances of going into the desert.’ Chaimowicz gives a footnote, in the final panel of T03384, explaining Cardinal Hume's appointment to Westminster in 1976 which he describes as a ‘radical’ appointment.

8/9. Pages 8/9 are similar in layout to 6/7 but with a more open background pattern which runs across both panels; the image on the left is titled ‘157 TUNIS Mosquée rue des Tanneurs-LL’; the date palm image is repeated on the right.

10/11. On the left, against a dark background, is a simple outline drawing in black ink of a desert scene showing an American-looking cactus and a pyramid. Facing it, beneath a darkened image of date palms and laid over a decorated ground again with cactus drawings, are four verses of ‘Berlin’, a song about urban despair by Lou Reed (1973) which starts ‘How do you think it feels/When you're speeding and lonely/’.

12/13. Against a brightly coloured red, green and white background, a hand-coloured postcard, with the title ‘1186 PAYSAGE DU SUD-DANS L'OASIS’ faces another reproduction of the ‘Paysage Saharien’ above the following excerpt from The Immoralist, by André Gide, Penguin 1960 edition, p.107;

Oh Michael! Every joy is always awaiting us, but it must always be the only one; It insists on finding the bed empty and demands from us a widower's welcome.

Oh Michael!Every joy is like the manner of the desert which corrupts from one day to the next; It is like the fountain of Ameles, whose waters, says Plato, could never be kept in any vase... (The Penguin edition retains the French spelling, Michel)

14/15. A vertical format postcard of ‘TUNIS-Souk-et-Blat’ against the same silkscreened background as panels 2 and 3 and beneath, again from Gide:

Tunis! The quality of the light here is not strength but abundance. The shade is still full of it. The air itself is like a luminous fluid in which everything is steeped; One bathes, one swims in it. This land of pleasure satisfies desire without appeasing it, and desire is sharpened by satisfaction. (André Gide, op.cit., p.148)

Opposite is a paler print of the date palm postcard and the quotation:

Poverty is a slave-driver; in return for food, men give their grudging labour; all work that is not joyous is wretched, I thought, and I paid many of them to rest. ‘Don't work’, I said, ‘you hate it.’ In imagination, I bestowed on each of them that leisure without which nothing can blossom. (André Gide, op.cit., p.146)

16/17. A blank page, facing a one decorated in shades of grey on which is pasted a small reproduction of two seated naked boys; at the foot of the page Chaimowicz gives the following information ‘Wilhelm Von Gloeden, Taormina, 1902–1003 (detail).’ [Taormina in Sicily, where many of von Gloeden's photographs were taken, was also visited by Michel, the narrator in Gide's novel The Immoralist]

18/19. Again a blank page, facing a bright ground with a differently coloured version of the card used for panel 12.

20/21. A blank page faces a silkscreened ground (the design is also used as background in panels, 2, 3, 7, 14 and 19) on which is collaged a small slightly out-of-focus photograph showing a transparent crucifix and the outline of a pyramid shape with, underneath, the caption, ‘Approach Road, London 1977’ (detail) (this image, which also appears in ‘Partial Eclipse’ relates to a flat Chaimowicz used to occupy. Iconography related to this flat has been used in a number of his works).

22/23. A blank sheet, this time facing a photocopy of the ubiquitous date palms which Chaimowicz had modified by drawing over them with images of American cacti.

24/25. The final pages. Although the right-hand page carries a very pale image of the palms, these pages chiefly consist of text by the artist beneath the heading ‘The Desert...’

This concludes:

he reconsidered the desert...
as magnet to those who seek truth, mirror of serenity,
as image of openness and context for privacy,
mirage and oasis, cacti and hyena,
as quiet illusion of sullen staticity...
as cruel wasteland, fierce desolation, unforgiving and extreme...
The black tents of the nomads echoing a deep silence,
both of wonder and fearful...
wanton and sensual as in French literature,
a colonization, body to the Parisian mind...
as sublime in appearance yet shifty as any urban drifter ...
sanctuary to the spirit, haven of amorality...

he remembered the Cardinal reconnected the telephone, glanced at his correspondence... dressed and was last seen walking, well and lightly, towards a land of discourse and of dance, of intoxication and gaiety...

Marc Chaimowicz published his first illustrated book, Dream, an Anecdote in London in 1977 but Café du Rêve was his most ambitious published project at the time of publication and a number of his catalogues between 1982 and 1984 contain preliminary ideas for it, for example, the illustrated pamphlet, Marc Camille Chaimowicz Humanic Artist in Residence, Vienna, Spring 1982, which anticipates chapters 3 and 5 and refers briefly to chapter 2.

In her introduction to Past Imperfect (cited above, p.5), Jean Fisher compares Chaimowicz's work to a journey or quest ‘... a ... tender exploration of the microcosmic world of everyday experience’. Despite the multifarious nature of his art, she points to:

a cohesion... an interlocking of recurrent images and motifs. A content that expands into the public area of the performance may become transferred and represented through the intimate pages of a book.

In an unpublished interview with a member of the Tate Gallery staff (8 January 1983), Chaimowicz discussed how he began working on Café du Rêve:

I suspect I remember a kind of frustration with certain forms of work... one of which was performance... the performances I did were invariably very introspective. I was intellectually and philosophically drawn to the need [to work] in that kind of a direct manner but I would tend to retreat into myself by working obliquely and time and space seemed more appropriately translated into the physicality of the book... the actual activity of turning even a page, the privacy of the book, the form of the book fascinates me...

I think there are a number of roads that led to the book... one was to do, oddly enough, with some screens... I did a show for Nigel [Greenwood] at

the end of '79. I did three screens, in the most overt sense manifested with ambiguity, screens being something which both reveal and conceal... which have a back and a front... which can be stored away easily enough or brought out... I found books, a logical extension of screens in a formal sense.

I see this book as very musical, in terms of how I order the relationship of text to image and of rhythm, the quiet parts and of busy parts and of climaxes and ... it seems to me..., loosely symphonic. It seems to offer an accessibility as well as a complexity and a richness which I've not found in any other media. I have looked into other means, like working with video-tape or film, or sound-tape and these are logically 20th Century media that are easily reproducible and easily marketed and easily played back and yet they don't seem to offer the richness and variety of interpretation...

In the interview, the artist also commented on the individual chapters in Café du Rêve:

It's difficult for me to be explicit. I suppose if one were to use a contemporary metaphor I would in a way see it not unlike the memorable albums by groups, by rock groups for example, that I have high regard for ..., each group I've liked has produced one or two albums, one or two have perhaps produced more, which are so good that each track has the potential of being a successful single.

Of his choice of images of the French North African desert as a central theme, he said:

I think mythically that was the strongest single image, and it therefore becomes the leit motif in that particular chapter. I've equally alluded to other definitions of the desert. There's a song from Lou Reed which seemed to me the epitome of a certain kind of urban alienation, a very New York kind of sensibility which is in contrast to the French colonialist image. There's also the references to Cardinal Hume. I think the impossibility of using a loaded image such as the desert is that one has to resort to mythical interpretations because the desert no longer exists other than through loaded references, and that, in a way, became the premise of the work.

Chaimowicz's first book, Dream, an Anecdote, has been described by Jean Fisher (above, p.30) as creating a serene quiet mood ‘which allows the image to act as a screen onto which can be projected the fantasy and drama of the other scene, relayed by the text’. What Fisher describes as ‘a strategy of interlocution between two textural spaces’ is, she suggests, fully realised in Café du Rêve. She describes the latter (op.cit., p.47) as a travelogue, ‘a record of a journey through the time and space of memory and experience which nurture creative life’ ... like a performance, ‘the book is a spatio temporal structure: we turn the leaves, and through the interrelationship between image, text and design. We move through the literal space of the paper and the figural space of its contents.’ Fisher compares the narrative structure to a musical score... ‘with passages of melody or rhythm, sounds and silences’.

She describes ‘Le Désert’ as ‘a journey within a journey’ and the repeated image of date palms as ‘a “place” which embodies the relationship between text and image-the mirage that contains all the personal and collective fantasies evoked by the word “desert”, from the urban wasteland of Lou Reed to the exotic body of France’. As the first chapter, ‘Le Désert’ acts as a preface, it has less text than later chapters and the emphasis is on visual build-up before the final two pages of text.

‘Le Désert’ is a predominantly pictorial and ultimately cyclical meditation on the possibility of arriving at what Chaimowicz has described elsewhere as ‘a temporary truce between the ideal and the real’. Here this search for balance is represented as a journey into an imaginary desert which, at the outset, suggests the possibility of an escape to solitude, a respite from worldly distractions. However, as the piece unfolds, Chaimowicz increasingly emphasises the impossible nature of the quest by showing that while the idea of escape into a virgin wilderness appears desirable, ‘the desert’ is no longer intact, having been ‘colonized’ or invaded by its many different interpretations in art and literature. We are eventually led back to the artist's starting point, towards an essentially optimistic acceptance of the imperfection of ‘real’ life.

Less obvious when T03384 is displayed on the wall is the chapter's carefully orchestrated structure. The recurring image of date palms acts as a central theme against which pictures and texts are introduced in counterpoint. As the piece gradually builds up to its finale, colours and patterns become more intense and blank pages appear more frequently, like points of punctuation, or rests in a musical score. However, Stuart Morgan has written (op.cit.) that:

to suggest that escape is proposed as an ideal would falsify the complexity of Chaimowicz's position. At the same time as he recognizes that the extremes of isolation necessary for self-analysis are alien to his nature, his ‘self’ must be preserved from too much perfection and the consequent engulfment. The dilemma is explored in ‘Le Désert’ with a title borrowed from Albert Camus. Exotic yet arid, it is a wilderness in which the choice between boredom and temptation must be made. In contrast to ‘le Parc’, in which a specific urban setting offers the protagonist consolation, the desert is less a physical space than a mental construct. To emphasize its boredom and sterility the same photograph, a found postcard of the Sahara, printed hard or soft, is used again and again, each time in the same position in the layout. Though it is associated with spiritual retirement it also provides an opportunity for what Chaimowicz calls ‘wantonness’. Oscillation between the two states of mind distinguishes this chapter of the book.

The following articles deal generally with Café du Rêve:

Alan Parker, Café du Rêve, Performance Magazine, no.37, October–November 1985, pp.22–3 (repr., detail of panel 4); Cathy Courtney, ‘Artist's Books’, Art Monthly, no.91, November 1985, p.30; Book News, Artline, 11, no.10, Winter 1985, pp.13–14.

This entry has been approved by the artist.


Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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