Martin Widmer

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SIMPLE SUBTRACTION
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Martin Widmer

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ABOUT
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The texts of Simple Susbtraction have been written under hypnosis and with the help of a deck of Oblique Strategies cards.

The artist had already tried working in a hypnotic state (self-hypnosis) in the series of photographs called Présence IILe Grand Sans-abri.” In this work the process is extended to include texts. The idea behind Simple Soustraction is to achieve a state in which the mind fluidly liberates images and visions that are then transcribed as texts. The mind in this case is a site like any other for capturing images, as a photographer does in reality.

In order to not crystalize the experience of vision, Le Grand Sans-abri had incorporated a kind of movement in comprehending still images through the juxtaposition of several distinct images at the same time. So, too, in Simple Soustraction the images are part of the movement thanks to a form of narrative. The texts, which take the form of short stories, are to be understood in the end as devices in which the question of the image (and of the sculpture-object) can be developed in multiple ways, including self-reflexively.

Self-hypnosis

The technique of self-hypnosis introduces a deep calm that allows the brain to produce images (visions) extremely freely. The hypnotic state can also be considered a site, a place, that the hypnotized returns to at each session. At that point, he can, in a way, develop it as he pleases. In that regard, “Simple Soustraction” is a constructed space like a work of art.

Stratégies Obliques

Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. Each of the cards in the deck bears a kind of mysterious and arbitrary injunction. Eno used the deck during recording sessions to prepare artists and push them to break up creative habits.

At the start of each of the writing sessions under hypnosis that make up Simple Susbtraction (or Simple Subtraction, the title is borrowed from one of the cards in the deck), one or more cards are drawn from the Oblique Strategies deck. This method ensures that the start of each experiment is not consciously chosen.

 

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Reverse

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I always receive the instructions the same way. First of all, an unexpected numbness comes over me. There follows an impression of falling during which my eyes close abruptly and immediately. It’s at the very moment my eyelids come together that the visions appear! What does it mean to see in the end?

I have to get to the other side of the Rade and find something over there. The messages that the images convey are never totally clear; they make themselves known in a logic that is all their own. The visions begin, I see myself crossing the bridge, turning off to the left on Quai Gustave-Ador, then further on, this time to the right, in a small alley. I reach a mid-sized building, somewhat yellow. After entering the code that frees the door’s mechanism, I plunge into the hall…

Suddenly sounds of metal, like knives or clashing swords, disturb me! I open my eyes! Oddly enough the visions do not disappear; they are juxtaposed with the image of the restaurant of the hotel I am in. I frantically look around in my bag, sitting on the chair next to me, for the box in which I put away the cards. My vision is now taken over by a flood of images that I no longer control, and that visual and mental chaos almost makes me lose my balance. Finally I find the small box and without taking it out completely I extract a card. As if I were dealing with an incantation, I read out loud what is written on it:

“Reverse!”

Immediately, here I am in the apartment. My usual starting point. I am seated in the living room opposite the large window, my bag next to me. I verify its contents. The box with the cards inside is in place, my briefcase, my cameras, my pills, everything is in order.

I go to the stairs to reach the outdoor space and walk along first that area, so calm and odd, that lies next to the apartment. Having entered the embankments, I set off to cross the bridge and go to the other side of the Rade. It’s a warm day, very nice! I come across Japanese tourists who seem to be floating; they are unreal, like designer objects. I turn onto Quai Gustave-Ador, and further on into a small alley. In front of me I find the yellow building; I have already seen it dozens of times in my visions. Quickly the few steps that lead me up to the front landing are mounted. As expected, the code comes to me naturally and now here I am in the entrance hall. On the first floor I recognize the corridor, then the table. On the table, there is an envelope with my name on it, which I open right away. I know exactly what will be written on it, and once again I declaim the note as if it were the first time.

“Reverse!”

I open my eyes! I am in front of the large window, but this time it’s the hotel restaurant’s. On the table, my things are precisely laid out just as the ritual demands. No superimposed view, no double exposure, my eyesight is not disturbed by any ghostly image or by other kinds of artifacts. I pay up and carefully stow in my bag the objects, viz., my box of cards, my briefcase, my cameras, my pills, and my various potions. I move towards the exit and then go back to the embankments and finally the bridge. An icy cold chills every part of me. I turn once again onto Quai Gustave-Ador...



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Ambiguity Where Unforgotten Death

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By boat, the crossing hardly lasted ten minutes. But that morning, it seemed to me the trip took much longer. I was in the habit of standing on the forward deck and from there staring at the prow tirelessly cleaving the waves like scissors cutting through a giant sheet of paper.

The gallery stood a few blocks from Port-Noir in a residential neighborhood. A limousine was parked in front of the vast window, on which the title of the show, “Ambiguity Where Unforgotten Death” (Ambiguity or the Unforgotten Dead), was written in large white letters. A metal door opened to a corridor that led to a reception desk. No one was seated in the two chairs hidden behind the counter, which was piled with invitations and binders filled with documentation. Nevertheless I heard a “hello,” which must have been addressed to me, emanating from another room, perhaps a back office. Crossing the threshold separating the reception from the exhibition galleries, I folded and tucked away in my jacket pocket the introductory text of this rather mysteriously titled event.

The space was bathed in a half-light. The blinds on the windows had been lowered and tilted. Here and there the half-light was slashed by series of long streaks of light. The venue was completely empty save for a small photograph hanging on one of the gallery walls. I heard my steps echoing in the room as I moved in closer.

The image in a vertical format was displayed in a skeleton key. Exaggeratedly large, the key seemed to want to distance the image as much as possible from the wall, perhaps with the aim of emphasizing in a deep and, in the end, illusory way the world separating them. For the frame they had chosen a thin polished aluminum rod that gleamed slightly and gave off a few flashes of light in the darkened space of the gallery. This type of frame, used more in hotels and restaurants, flanked by slightly kitsch posters, raised a slight doubt here in the viewer as to the status of the work of art in front of him.

It wasn’t easy to make out what was shown on the photograph since the glass protecting it gave off a multitude of reflections coming as much from the direct light of the windows opposite it as from the indirect light thrown off by the other gallery walls. The darkness, a bit deeper as well in that part of the gallery, meant additional difficulty for someone who might want to see something there.

Paradoxically, these glints, cuts and other accidents of light—this collection of revealed visual events on an image that was indeed resisting our gaze proved to be in itself an intriguing situation. Was that the work of this show in the end?

Other elements also drew my attention. First, it was a ghost image. One, then two eyes, then part of a forehead, slowly emerged from an indistinct mass. The image vanished, then returned. It appeared in a more precise way on the glass before an especially dark area of the photograph. I now had before me a kind of expressionist-styled portrait. This sharply contrasting black-and-white image reminded me of those Scandinavian photographers at the turn of the twentieth century who lit their models in an astonishing, almost unreal way. That face was mine of course, but the image (can one speak of image here? Of vision?) that I saw was located in an in-between space that I had a hard time defining and which remained between photography, the glass, myself, and the venue around me. “Here’s what images and exhibitions are good for in the end!” I said to myself, “For revealing to us the viewers and the world around us!”

A glint on the glass intrigued me; the unity of the vision with the portrait was immediately rent. With this new element my eye set off once again on a path that should lead it to construct a new image. That image would crystalize at the end of a movement, a back-and-forth oscillation, then a fusion between my mind, imagination, and the real environment around me.

I concentrated on that trace of light. My eyes, dazzled at first, eventually adapted to it like a camera on which you closed the aperture a little. On the white surface there were details now, like little horizontal white lines. These were moving, undulating on a glistening surface that seemed horizontal. Those movements, like tremors, pleasantly hypnotized me. Lulled I lingered a few minutes before this abstract picture, this intoxicating all-over painting, little by little losing all notion of space and time. The dark shape of a boat appeared; it disrupted the shapes around it, jostled them. The lake, through the slats of the blinds behind me, was evidently reflected on the glass covering the photograph. I thought I could also make out the shore where I had just disembarked a few moments before. Nevertheless, I was suddenly prey to a doubt. Was I seeing these things really, or was I seeing them because I knew they could potentially be there, or even because I had seen them previously? Just how much was my mind, helped by its memory and imagination, completing the hints, the chaotic fragments of reality in order to distil a simple and intelligible image?

I turned on my heels with the aim of leaving. Before my eyes the overexposed image of the lake was floating still, indistinct, this time on one of the empty walls of the gallery. I lowered my eyes a moment. Then quickly, without making a sound, I returned to the reception.




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The Oil

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The painter knows intuitively that the picture is completed. His hand slowly slides up along the wall. Tiny drips of black paint leave the floor and return to the brush he’s holding, almost on the tips of his fingers. Suddenly, following a broad gesture begun by the wrist, the brush cuts across the canvas from top to bottom and erases the black line. Then the artist approaches the right side of the painting and removes short sinewy lines, like hatching, one by one. The painter exchanges his brush for a mid-sized one and energetically attacks the large beige-colored shapes that extend over the entire lower part of the work. He automatically dips the brush in a can of paint, then puts it away directly in one of the glass jars that have pride of place on the tray of a small metal cart.

The artist steps back a few meters and takes a mobile phone out of his pocket. He stares at its screen for a long time before taking a few photographs of his painting.

Having got a can of spray paint, the man comes back and approaches the wall so as to press his back to the surface of the canvas. And then, as if he were performing some sort of choreography, he stretches out his arm and traces, from right to left, partial circles in the space behind him. Thick clouds of white paint are extracted from the painting with each movement and rush in perfect formation into the minuscule hole of the spray can. The painter frees himself from the painting and squats; he reaches out to grab another spray can that is standing on a small stool. After hesitating between the two cans, they set both on the studio floor.

The artist removes a large shape, cut from the canvas, which was glued to the painting. This piece of slightly coarse fabric is laid out on a plastic tarp directly on the floor and covered with paste. Afterwards the piece joins the surface of another picture that was lying on the floor of the studio.

The painting is taken down from the gallery wall and laid flat on a table. The painter grabs a stapler and removes the canvas from the stretcher. The canvas is then appended to another much longer piece of canvas by using scissors. The whole length of cloth is carefully put away in a metal cabinet.

On the table, between the empty spaces of the stretcher’s structure, the artist scribbles a few sketches on A4 sheets of paper. Among the drawings that are piling up lies an open book. On the double page that can be seen, the painter underlines sentences with a yellow felt-tip pen. After bending over the work for quite some time, he closes it and slips it a little further away into a small bookcase. The stretcher of the painting is completely dismantled. Using a cutter, the man joins lengths of string wrapped around the pieces of wood to make a bundle, which he sets next to the studio door. He eventually sits on a chair and gently takes his head in his hands.

Before these eyes the mental image of the painting disappeared. The vision isn’t stable and the painter has to concentrate to be able to observe it for more than a few seconds. He is increasingly disturbed by images from his daily life: the face of a child, a secondary road, dead bodies in the dunes of some desert glimpsed in the evening news.

The work is now clearly visible in his mind. A piece of untreated canvas is stuck to its surface. Its shape, an oval at the bottom of which a small squiggle of the fabric is poking out on the left, vaguely suggests a comic book speech balloon. Over the whole of the picture a coat of semi-opaque white paint has been applied with a sprayer. On the lower part of the canvas, a large beige shape has been quickly sketched out using a heavily diluted paint. Black vertical lines cross the painting. Yet all at once, the artist is no longer sure if it’s a matter of one or two lines, since everything is momentarily mixed up. Above on the right, a torn sheet of paper has been simply scotch-taped. Black lines of paint, hatching really, have been added as if to cross out the drawing of a small airplane that was done in a bit of a childish hand and is now scribbled over.

The vision of the painting wavers. Several different works are becoming mixed up in the painter’s mind. Ropes cross spaces, parts of Donald Judd sculptures pierce various paintings and are projected onto the bluish gallery walls, and finally it’s the image of a dog that comes to the fore.

The painter extricates himself from his thoughts, rises, and takes the cup of coffee that has been set next to him. He takes a sip of the liquid, which seems cold. Into the Italian coffee maker he pours the contents of his cup. He puts on his jacket and leaves the studio. In the rearview mirror of the still half-open car door, the man notices the gaunt silhouette of a dog. Motionless, it is staring at a face it doesn’t understand in the little bit of mirror. After turning its head several times toward the studio door, the animal suddenly jumps up and disappears.



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Painting

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The painter knows intuitively that the picture is completed. His hand slowly slides up along the wall. Tiny drips of black paint leave the floor and return to the brush he’s holding, almost on the tips of his fingers. Suddenly, following a broad gesture begun by the wrist, the brush cuts across the canvas from top to bottom and erases the black line. Then the artist approaches the right side of the painting and removes short sinewy lines, like hatching, one by one. The painter exchanges his brush for a mid-sized one and energetically attacks the large beige-colored shapes that extend over the entire lower part of the work. He automatically dips the brush in a can of paint, then puts it away directly in one of the glass jars that have pride of place on the tray of a small metal cart.

The artist steps back a few meters and takes a mobile phone out of his pocket. He stares at its screen for a long time before taking a few photographs of his painting.

Having got a can of spray paint, the man comes back and approaches the wall so as to press his back to the surface of the canvas. And then, as if he were performing some sort of choreography, he stretches out his arm and traces, from right to left, partial circles in the space behind him. Thick clouds of white paint are extracted from the painting with each movement and rush in perfect formation into the minuscule hole of the spray can. The painter frees himself from the painting and squats; he reaches out to grab another spray can that is standing on a small stool. After hesitating between the two cans, they set both on the studio floor.

The artist removes a large shape, cut from the canvas, which was glued to the painting. This piece of slightly coarse fabric is laid out on a plastic tarp directly on the floor and covered with paste. Afterwards the piece joins the surface of another picture that was lying on the floor of the studio.

The painting is taken down from the gallery wall and laid flat on a table. The painter grabs a stapler and removes the canvas from the stretcher. The canvas is then appended to another much longer piece of canvas by using scissors. The whole length of cloth is carefully put away in a metal cabinet.

On the table, between the empty spaces of the stretcher’s structure, the artist scribbles a few sketches on A4 sheets of paper. Among the drawings that are piling up lies an open book. On the double page that can be seen, the painter underlines sentences with a yellow felt-tip pen. After bending over the work for quite some time, he closes it and slips it a little further away into a small bookcase. The stretcher of the painting is completely dismantled. Using a cutter, the man joins lengths of string wrapped around the pieces of wood to make a bundle, which he sets next to the studio door. He eventually sits on a chair and gently takes his head in his hands.

Before these eyes the mental image of the painting disappeared. The vision isn’t stable and the painter has to concentrate to be able to observe it for more than a few seconds. He is increasingly disturbed by images from his daily life: the face of a child, a secondary road, dead bodies in the dunes of some desert glimpsed in the evening news.

The work is now clearly visible in his mind. A piece of untreated canvas is stuck to its surface. Its shape, an oval at the bottom of which a small squiggle of the fabric is poking out on the left, vaguely suggests a comic book speech balloon. Over the whole of the picture a coat of semi-opaque white paint has been applied with a sprayer. On the lower part of the canvas, a large beige shape has been quickly sketched out using a heavily diluted paint. Black vertical lines cross the painting. Yet all at once, the artist is no longer sure if it’s a matter of one or two lines, since everything is momentarily mixed up. Above on the right, a torn sheet of paper has been simply scotch-taped. Black lines of paint, hatching really, have been added as if to cross out the drawing of a small airplane that was done in a bit of a childish hand and is now scribbled over.

The vision of the painting wavers. Several different works are becoming mixed up in the painter’s mind. Ropes cross spaces, parts of Donald Judd sculptures pierce various paintings and are projected onto the bluish gallery walls, and finally it’s the image of a dog that comes to the fore.

The painter extricates himself from his thoughts, rises, and takes the cup of coffee that has been set next to him. He takes a sip of the liquid, which seems cold. Into the Italian coffee maker he pours the contents of his cup. He puts on his jacket and leaves the studio. In the rearview mirror of the still half-open car door, the man notices the gaunt silhouette of a dog. Motionless, it is staring at a face it doesn’t understand in the little bit of mirror. After turning its head several times toward the studio door, the animal suddenly jumps up and disappears.