Rêverie Zénonienne, 1972-2013
A pioneer of video art, Jean Otth began working in Switzerland in the early 1970s after completing his art history and philosophy studies in Lausanne (he subsequently spent some of his time teaching). His Rêverie zénonienne (‘Zenonian Reverie’, 1968-2013) – a phrase taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work L’Œil et l’Esprit (‘Eye and Mind’)—is an exhibition of his work with a retrospective component, although it focuses on the last ten years of his work, which is now shown at Mamco for the first time.
‘Having always felt that any image is obscene in the etymological sense of the word, and that the only way to rescue it is to obliterate and blunt it, I’ve rejected it not in order to destroy it but to help it exist....’, says Jean Otth, speaking of his work on images. The ‘obscenity’ he refers to (the Latin word obscenus means ‘ill-omened’) is the fore- boding he believes is contained in any perfectly perceptible image. So what is seen must be injured, damaged, made more complex in order to rescue it—and hence the possibility of looking—and preserve the future. To reveal, we must disguise. Thus many of the devices to be seen in Rêverie zénonienne—the title of the exhibition, but also the generic title of a series of works created since 2001—are based on processes of obliteration of the centre of the projection, the centre of attention: for instance, by painting a black rectangle on a wall and then projecting a video based on digitally processed film images around it rather than directly on it, Otth combines the fixity and the instability of an image that is both pictorial and videographic and hence captures the viewer’s gaze and requires it to view the work from a kind of central—and active—black hole.
Revolving around the latter is thus what the artist calls the parergon, which, despite being outside the work (the literal meaning of the Greek term), nonetheless affects its constitution and identity. ‘My purpose is to add a genuine movement to the movement the painting displays in its immobility and its simulation—a feature I see as an additional colour on the painter’s palette.’ This work thus includes a pictorial dimension (Jean Otth started out as a painter) in the exploration of video as a medium, as a subject, analogue in the 1970s and digital today. Hence the works are not narrative and are not based on the creation of fiction (it is the medium as such that is summoned up through its very nature, even more than its ability to represent), as well as the fact that they take account of the space of the wall. Seeing or making paintings with, or on the basis of, video can be seen quite explicitly in a work from 1972, Hommage à Mondrian (‘Tribute to Mondrian’), in which a painting by Mondrian is filmed face-on and in which disruptions in the image—the work is part of a series called Vidéo perturbations (‘Video disruptions’) in which the visual image is technically messed up—are shown as such (ultimately this is a history of painting after, and according to, video which makes the technical depth of the instrument truly palpable).
Other works in the exhibition refer directly to painting such as the mirror paintings of the late 1960s or the murals or paintings under glass of the 1980s. The Rêverie zénonienne series, Otth’s most recent work, is fully represented here. It suggests a meditation on time through painting rather than an exploration of movement, and includes works such as Héraclite au Parc Bourget (‘Heraclitus in Parc Bourget’) which deal with photon flux, with a constant sensory and formal rigour—a way to keep on questioning the plastic and philosophical issues in the often conflicting relationships between representation and non-representation, painting and video. Finally, as Otth himself says, ‘the exhibition tells of the illusions of meaning and the illusion of the senses, in Pessoa’s words:
The main thing is knowing how to see
Knowing how to see without thinking
Knowing how to see when one sees
And not thinking when one sees
Nor seeing when one’s thinking.’
This goes to show that the purpose of this work is to achieve a full, entire gaze, nothing but a gaze, a vision as such, through a medium whose potential it puts into practice.
Jean Otth was born in Lausanne in 1940, and still lives there.