As an artist of quantum events, Guillaume Cousin claims the materiality of emptiness

The discoveries of quantum physics have stirred an aesthetic fascination in Guillaume Cousin. To the point of calling for a quantum cultural revolution! He defines himself as an “experimenter-constructor” and creates a work with a minimalist device. Marked by a communicative belief; art is made of events, not things.

Immateriality made presence

On Instagram, last October, we were drawn to a small video. With the sumptuous and extravagant Gothic architecture of the Church of Saint-Eustache as a background, in the centre of Les Halles, the apparent serenity was progressively disturbed by a strange and surprising form. In the emptiness of the church, a sound like a gunshot cut through the silence. The origin was in a machine that Leonardo da Vinci would probably not have denied. It was installed and not hidden. Slowly, emerging from this curious instrument-catapult, a ring of white smoke began to fly slowly, floating high above the central nave. Then others wander in and gradually dissolve. We can imagine the wonder that must have been experienced by the visitors of La Nuit Blanche 2020, where the artist Guillaume Cousin invited the public to discover “The Awakening of Psyche”, an installation born in an encounter with the olfactory studio Magique. Everything seems to be said in the simplicity of an art that flourishes luminously with dematerialisation.

On the brink of hell?
Imagination, queen,
Keeps her wings outstretched,
But the dress she drags
Possesses a frantic weight.
As she thought,
A butterfly, it flew and flew,
Light pink and light, slender
Out of her frivolous head.
Imagination, located
On her throne, that proud place!
Watching, as if undecided,
With all that agile carousel,

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), Les limbes.

This memory trail reminds us of this poem by Verlaine. It also makes us imagine an interpretation of the circles of Hell by Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), described in the first part of the Divine Comedy. The smoke rings completely envelop the spectator’s progression and do not make them indifferent. In each circle, those whose lives have been contaminated by a definite kind of sin can be punished. Limbo refers to a state beyond, on the fringe of “hell”. Other avenues are opened, inspired by Pascal Quignard’s reading, quoted by Guillaume Cousin: “The visible is not enough, the visible can only be interpreted with reference to the invisible.”

Art is made of events, not things

As shown by many artists, including Susanna Fritscher, Bill Fontana, Stéphane Thidet, art is no longer born only in a relationship between a fixed object and a spectator, but also in a holistic experience, where the whole body of the observer associates with the expansion of the work in space. “The world is made of events, not things”: Carlo Rovelli, Italian physicist and theorist and philosopher of science, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity, states that this is present in Guillaume Cousin’s work. He who defines himself as an “experimenter-constructor” is part of this evolutionary dynamic, blurring the boundaries of the visible and the invisible, the physical and the aura, as he feeds on the latest scientific discoveries. His ambitious artistic project is invented as a global work, allowing everyone to let their imagination loose.

Don’t fall into the ego or the surface

“If you captivate me…”, has been since last autumn the “Saint-Exupérian” relationship with this fox-like artist, born in Tours in 1978, who currently lives in Longeville-sur-Mer. He is in no hurry and loves those who invest their time to get to know him. That is also the approach to the work of this graduate in lighting design. When we call him an artist, he blushes with shyness. He tells us: “For 20 years I have followed artists in the shadow of my work, as a lighting and set designer. To change position, to speak on my behalf, stirs many questions inside me. Firstly, I have seen so many artists embody issues of ego… I didn’t want to replicate that, I wanted to find my way, my point. Anyway, I am an artist. Maybe I put it this way to make sure I don’t stay above ground level”. He has a responsible ethic, that of “being part of the imagination of others”, as Tunga beautifully writes.

Descend into the depths of the unknown to find something new (Rimbaud)

This slow maturation is not a handicap, rather it is claimed in the gestation process: “I embark on an adventure on experimental tracks. The result is usually unknown and always carries a random side. Constructive principles are also part of this process. I build everything. I don’t subtract anything, because it gives the object meaning, it represents an image of my know-how, a visible logic. Everything is still very fresh. My works take a long time to be finished; if the “silence of the particles” was presented in 2018, the first tests already date back to 2012… I have been working on “Soudain toujours” since 2019, which was presented on September 21”.

Windows onto mystery

We think of Malevich’s (1879-1935) icon of supremacy, his “Black square on a white background”. This work, like Guillaume Cousin’s, is a gateway to something we can only see in the shadows, like windows onto mystery and the spiritual world. They highlight the play between “is” and “is not”. Is it a square? Is it black? Is it a simple smoke ring? We are invited to look, to question and to discover.

Why not start a quantum artistic revolution?

The humble artist knows how to guide us to the discoveries and beauties of quantum physics that prompt in him an aesthetic fascination: “At a time when a paradigm shift seems so illusory and essential to us, what cultural revolution could be the fuse? Why not a quantum revolution?”. He adds: “The poetic and philosophical beauty of quantum physics captivated me. It can redefine the notions of space and time, something fundamental to redefining the notion of reality. For example, we still live in the representation of time thought by Newton, a long straight line with an arrow that flows everywhere and to everyone in the same way. The reality of established science is quite different: Universal Time does not exist. Each of us has our own time and it is not continuous, but granular. Our perception is ‘diffuse’. It is a matter of point of view, which must be questioned and shaken up.”

Towards the dematerialisation of art?

Guillaume is part of the reflections of an art that, since the second half of the 20th century, has begun to relinquish all materials, even freeing itself from them. In the late 1950s, Yves Klein (1928-1962), known for his exhibition of “The Void” in 1958, advocated the intangible and multiplied actions and proposals centred on the spiritualisation and dematerialisation of the plastic process.

In the wake of the minimalist and conceptual art developed in the United States by artists such as Bruce Nauman (b.1941), the attempt is to “diminish the importance of what is seen”. In 1985, the exhibition “Les Immatériaux”, designed by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), took into consideration how new media and new technologies are transforming matter. Material is transmuted into an energetic flow, inspiring artists with new devices (video art, computer art, etc.). Guillaume Cousin also likes to quote the great Californian artist James Turrell (1943), a worldwide reference on issues related to light and space. But, also, more confidential but equally interesting artists, such as the Swiss artist specialising in sound sculptures Zimoun (1977-) or the Lithuanian Zilvinas Kempinas (1969-), who uses magnetic tapes in his work and whose 2008 piece Double O shows two large electric fans facing two magnetic tape loops, causing their perpetual flight and a dance between the flows of air.

Things, more or less long quantum interactions

“In reading, there is an expectation that does not intend to end. To read is to err. To read is to ramble.” If we replace ‘reading’ with ‘seeing’, in this quote from Pascal Quignard (1948-), we are left with a good definition of Guillaume Cousin’s philosophy, who frequently quotes the 2002 Goncourt Prize winner. Let’s quote him again to capture what is at stake in art: “Let us make poetry the desiderium. A form like a tide … A single rhythmic flow. A single flatus. A flow. A fluency. An influence. A light. A single growing influx. As desire. The descending is fun”. “The same is true for the material”, Guillaume Cousin continues. Everything we know and consider as things are events, more or less long quantum interactions. The tiniest grains of matter, which constitute everything, are quantum particles more or less from the moment of the Big Bang. They are in a state of portability (energy, velocity portion), close to chaos, or stabilised when they interact. Interaction is the threshold of matter because it is the limit of the evolution of our species. A great symbiosis”. It does not matter if Guillaume Cousin still has few works, what is important is their intensity. We have also learned that he knows how to seize the right moment. Let us control our impatience and wait for his next works, at least until the presentation of this creation, scheduled for Stereolux (Nantes), 8 and 9 September 2021.


*This article was originally published in Portuguese at DASartes.

Specialist in modern and contemporary art for over 30 years. Marc Pottier, a Frenchman, living between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, is an international curator of contemporary art, author, specializing in art in public spaces. He also is involved with cultural digital platforms, television and webtv.

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