Untitled (Bataille) is a large, roughly symmetrical installation that features a low white plinth at its centre, a set of twenty-four black and white photographs of a woman’s bare chest displayed on the wall to the left of the plinth, and a group of twenty-four white panels featuring single words and short phrases written in French to its right. The sets of photographs and text panels are unframed and are arranged into two grids, each featuring four rows and six columns. In each of the twenty-four photographs the woman’s body is shown in an identical pose: she is seen close up from her right side, with her head, most of her neck and the lower parts of her arms cropped out of the frame and her right breast concealed by her right arm. Despite the similarity in pose, when viewed sequentially from top left to bottom right these images increase in contrast and the shadows begin to obscure the woman’s form, so that by the last image the scene is completely black and the woman cannot be seen. On top of the plinth are placed a black and white photograph on the left and a piece of text on the right. The photograph is a half-length portrait of two women looking towards the camera, and the text, which is written in French, is an extract from the French philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille’s book L’Erotisme (Eroticism) (1957). The twenty-four panels to the right of the plinth each feature words in French at their centre, and these words, which include ‘corps’ (‘body’), ‘lécher’ (‘licking’) and ‘ombre’ (‘shadow’), correspond to the erotic sentiment of the text on the plinth and the photographs on the left.
This work was made by the Portuguese artist Julião Sarmento in 1976. Each of the individual printed elements of the installation consists of a digital print on a sheet of paper mounted on a piece of fibreboard that is 7 mm thick. The twenty-four photographs of the woman at the left of the installation and the portrait photograph on the plinth were each originally produced as gelatine silver prints, but were remade as digital prints after the work was acquired by Tate in 2007, due to the fact that the paper of the originals had become discoloured and heavily marked. No information exists regarding the original production of the text panels, but these are now also digital prints.
The bracketed section of this work’s title features the word ‘Bataille’, a reference to the author of the extracted text, L’Erotisme. Bataille is known for the erotic fictional writings that he published during his lifetime and L’Erotisme is his famous philosophical treatise on the connection between eroticism and violence. In this text Bataille argued that erotic experiences dissolve the usual barriers between people and that this also leads to a breakdown of social order since, according to Bataille, that order is founded on an assumption that subjects relate to each other as separate individuals. Untitled (Bataille) could be seen to address Bataille’s notions of separateness and continuity by including many differently treated versions of the same nude, which turns what would normally be a comparable set of repeated moments into a number of discrete images.
The body, and especially the female body, has been a common motif for Sarmento throughout his career, which has included work in photography, painting, drawing, film and installation. In his photographic works of the 1970s Sarmento often presented the human body cropped or partially visible and shadows were used to conceal parts of the figures, as is seen in Untitled (Bataille) and Les Objets du Désir 1977. The critic Hubertus Gaßner has argued that these techniques form part of Sarmento’s investigation into the eroticism of figurative images, stating of Untitled (Bataille) and similar works that ‘Only when not everything is revealed, when some is seen, much is guessed at, and some is forever concealed, is our fantasy evoked and motivated to unveil the hidden enigma’ (Gaßner 1998, p.48).
Untitled (Bataille) is one of a number of installations made by Sarmento during the mid- to late 1970s that combine photographs and text. Through their incorporation of black and white imagery, serial arrangements, grid patterns and plainly presented words, these works can be associated with conceptual art, a movement that was prevalent in Europe and America during the 1970s. Conceptual artists used such techniques to place the emphasis of their work on ideas and language rather than visual qualities, and Sarmento stated in 2003 that at this point during the 1970s he was very interested in the work of American conceptualists such as Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari (Louise Neri and Julião Sarmento, ‘Floating World: A Conversation’, in Louise Neri, Julião Sarmento, Barcelona 2003, pp.113–14).
Julião Sarmento, exhibition catalogue, Fundação de Serralves, Porto 1992, p.30, reproduced p.35.
Germano Celant and Alexandre Melo, Julião Sarmento, Florence 1997, reproduced pp.58–9.
Hubertus Gaßner, ‘Where Pain Rules’, in Julião Sarmento, Galleria d’Arte Moderne Bologna, Bologna 1998, p.47.
Supported by Christie’s.