Where do statues go when they die? (h2so4 14)

On Art, Colonialism and Complicity:

Thoughts after seeing Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), a film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

Alain Resnais’ definition of dying is: when you are no longer perceived. Statues die when people stop looking at them. In the European conception of art, the value of the artwork lies in its ability to solicit a different kind of looking from its viewers—a reverent kind of looking, inherited from the days when all art wasreligious art. We perceive the formal properties of Duchamp’s urinal, for example, because it is in the museum, in a sacral space. Itsplacement there allows us to see the shininess of the porcelain, the elegant curve of the bowl. We see the object, and it comes to life—no longer simply a receptacle for human waste. The work of art is separate from our world, from the activities of everyday life, and this is precisely what allows it to exist as an object of attentive perception.

The commentary track of Les Statues meurent aussi (France, 1953) tells us that the African work of art is quitedifferent. It belongs to a different system: a cosmology of unity. The work of art is not separate from the world or from the activities of everyday life. We are allconnected to the earth; we make things out of clay and we too are made out of clay. A spoon has a human posture. A religious chalice is not put on a pedestal, but is rather treated as an ordinary drinking glass, not because the sacred has been secularized, but because drinking is simply always a “spiritual” activity.

A fertility icon is not a goddess to be bowed down before and prayed to, but is the prayer itself. Making this object is an act of creation. By figuring fertility as anexteriorized object, I can pray for it and bring it closer to me with my own hands. The act of prayer is thus equivalent to the statue, not something which happens afterwards when it is on display. The African work of art, or rather everyday object, is a speech-act objects function like utterances and are part of a system of address and communication. Les Statues meurent aussi tells us that labor and prayer can be equivalentactivities; ritual items and daily items can be one and the same.

This is not an “expressionist” art: not a figuring of the interior contents in an exterior form. Neither is it “impressionist,” where the outside is inflected by my perceptual lens. In this case, what one wants to be inside, one produces a figure of on the outside.

African death masks keep death at bay by bringing it closer. Death is on the outside, and I want to keep it that way, therefore I wear its mask upon my face. The mask, though, is not for hiding behind. It is not meant to “trick” death into choosing somebody else. It is rather a revealing of death which functions to scare it away: I keep it at bay by acknowledging its proximity to me.

Les Statues meurent aussi asks the question: What happens to art when Africa is colonized by France? Africa’s objects are brought closer, but paradoxically they are more distant than ever. To put these objects in a glass case is to take them out of their universe. Under glass, the sacred is no longer a part of everyday life; it is marked as belonging to a separate sphere, a sphere which is now designated “African,” “religious,” and “art.” Viewers may now appreciate the formal properties of theseobjects, be attentive to their textures and shapes. They are presented as examples of primitive craft. The viewer may gain a new if partial understanding of their ritual properties from the explanatory cards and may evensee how they prefigure and correspond to examples of modernist European sculpture and design. But have they come to life?

Resnais suggests that putting these objects on display means that they are no longer perceived. These are dead statues, no longer shining in a cosmology of unity, paradoxically stripped of their spiritual functions by being designated as “spiritual.” To exhibit these objects in such a way is to render them invisible. We do not see a cup: we see a religious chalice. We do not see an act of prayer, but rather a pre-formed idol to which we may pay museum-style homage. The ritual properties of the deathmask are reversed: behind glass, it no longer speaks to death’s proximity, but to its radical otherness. These statues die when they no longer tell stories of life and death, when they are taken out of time and perceived in mortified suspension.

Resnais shows us how it is not just museums, but the tourist economy which makes statues die. Spoons, cups, fertility icons, and masks are now manufactured with western tools and sold to western consumers. A white man now teaches an African man how to make his own objects, with new mechanical tools: labor and prayer are no longer equivalent activities. The fertility icons are no longer acts of prayer, but souvenirs. They speak to the memory of a destruction rather than appealing to life. The death masks are sold as“portraits” of living Africans, functioning as feeble attestations of life rather than disclosures of death. They have been transformed from utterances into commodities.

Resnais’ film makes clear that the effect of colonialism upon art is not simply that other people’s objects get looked at from a damaging, uncomprehending foreign perspective. Nor is it even that other people get looked at as objects rather than as subjects in their own right. It could be said that in Resnais’ film, we can’t really see these objects or these people at all: we see chalice not cup, souvenir not prayer, portrait not death. If we want to think of ourselves as well-intentioned viewers, we might substitute for the above categories: “example of African art which I will never be able to comprehend in its entirety.” Acknowledging the statue’s invisibility to us may make us feel better about our looking. But unfortunately, this gesture doesn’t really allow the statue any more life than seeing it as a souvenir does.

Should we then boycott themuseum exhibit, refuse to travel to Africa, shield our eyes from that which we may damage with our vision, in order to put a stop to this killing-off? Should we perhaps not even view this film? This is the conclusion towards which Resnais’ critique of colonialism might at first appear to point. The film repeatedly poses the question: is to look to be complicit with? Resnais seems to answer “yes” in both Les Statues and Night and Fog, an essay film about Nazi concentration camps (for an excellent analysis of Night and Fog, and by which the current review is inspired, see Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, “Sadism and Film: Freud and Resnais” [Qui Parle 6.1, Fall/Winter 1992]). By our vision, we are connected to the tourist economy, to colonization, and to various forms of sanctioned death, both metaphorical and literal.

And yet in Les Statues meurent aussi, Resnais’ camera clearly does go to the museums, it journeys to Africa, and it looks at the objects and statues. The film is both the result of this looking, and a duplication of it for the audience. With our viewing, we are complicit with Resnais, with the museums, with France. According to this logic, to watch even a film that critiques a colonialist vision isto participate in that very vision; to refuse to watch would seem to be to protest the same thing that the film is protesting. The fact that this film was banned for many years suggests that the censors failed to grasp this paradox.

But Resnais tells us something else, something we often tend to forget: that just as we are connected to colonialism, we are also connected to ongoing lives in Africa, and to objects produced there that, although in some respects we can never fully“see” them, are clearly visible on the film print. When we say, “I am unavoidably complicit with colonialism, and therefore I will avert my eyes from these art objects to prevent further damage,” we insist on our connection to the former, while denying our connection to the latter. Resnais affirms both: We are affiliated with colonialism, and we are also affiliated with the earth, its land and people and objects. We are both complicit and connected. And we are linked to it all through sight, perhaps more now than ever.

In writing this review, I am tangentially complicit with colonialism, because it is colonialism’s existence which provided the possibility for me to write it (although I am not profiting in any immediate way from my writing). At the same time, you may be reading this review from anywhere in the world, and I am tangentially connected to those places through your eyes. It is important to remember this, and not to dismiss this new connectivity as naïve utopianism. This is not to deny the increasing atomization of the world, its division into economically analyzable units, its partitioning into “sites.” Nor is it to idealize vision as an inherently world-uniting instrument. But Resnais’ film helps us to conceptualize alternatives to these positions with its dual affirmation of complicity and connectedness.

Where we would most like to imagine ourselves as different from the colonizers, we may end up finding that we are similar. But when we use our difference from the African artist as a reason to avert our eyes, to leave the camera at home, to not write a review, and so on, we end up in a position similar to that of the censors of Resnais’ film, who most likely thought they could undo their complicity by rendering it invisible. Resnais is trying to imagine a way that the above things may be affirmed without concluding that blindness is the only option. We may or may not have chosen to be complicit with phenomena ranging from tourism to genocide. But our protest against these phenomena, Resnais tells us, ought not to take the form of a “see no evil”attitude—of a voluntary perceptual disengagement from the world.

Les Statues meurent aussi participates in something like a cosmology of unity. Like the fertility icon, the film is an utterance expressing a wish for future creation, not a memorial to an already-completed destruction (for this destruction is still with us). Like the death mask, the film is not a screen to hide behind, but an object which renders visible death’s proximity, our complicity with and connectedness to it. •