Repetition Compulsion

Levé's stock image storytelling

Text by Tess Edmonson

Berlin-based writer and curator Tess Edmonson finds uncanny echoes between the photographic work of French artist Édouard Levé and recent practices that blur the line between art and stock imagery – clichés we can’t help turning into narratives.

The work of the French artist and writer Édouard Levé is framed by two suicides. There is, firstly, the suicide of an unnamed friend, whose death and life became the subject of Levé’s final novel, Suicide (2008). The opening passage reads:

“One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later, she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared”.

The mechanisms by which the friend commits suicide are both unusual and inscrutable – why the artifice of the tennis game? Levé’s nameless narrator (told in the second person, the novel is populated almost entirely by “you” and “I”) is clearly captivated by both the suicide’s particular logistics and the exercise of exploring how they relate to narrative structures: “Your suicide was scandalously beautiful,” he writes.

With the friend’s ending established, ironically, from the beginning, Levé leads us in the fairly uncomfortable project of reading this suicide. The novel chronicles the narrator’s non-chronological memories of his dead friend (“To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random”): dinner parties, conversations between friends and strangers, childhood incidents both banal and significant, the course of his days and nights. These memories are somewhat suspect: the narrator hasn’t always witnessed what he describes and the degree of intimacy he assumes in narrating his dead friend’s thoughts and feelings is jarring. And what structures this constellation of ephemera – long, joyless walks in unfamiliar provincial towns, failed experiments in clinical psychiatry, the fear of boredom, the feeling of looking at yourself in the mirror long enough to lose any self-recognition – is the teleology of the suicide, the singular event that so heavy-handedly gives the collected anecdotes meaning. “The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form,” Levé writes. “Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last. Henceforth, the shadow of this tall black tree hides the forest that was your life. When you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it. Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?”

The second suicide instrumental to understanding Levé’s work is his own. Ten days after he delivered the manuscript for Suicide to his publisher, Levé was found hanging in his Paris apartment.

In his short story “Sum”, the American writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes a version of the afterlife in which you immediately re-experience your entire life in real time. The order of events, however, is rearranged according to types: for example, you spend 40 years sleeping; 10 years eating; a couple of years on the bus; a few months crying; a full year (or two) hungover.

As well as his writing, Édouard Levé made and exhibited several series of photographs whose organisational logic might be said to resemble that of Eagleman’s “Sum”: banal phenomena are isolated, typified, re-ordered and, in their new, alien environments, made unrecognisable. In “Quotidien” (2003), Levé re-stages scenes taken from newspapers in a photography studio. The models are grouped unintelligibly: it’s clear that they are recreating existing photographs, but with neither the props nor costumes necessary for a coherent theatre. The constructed neutrality of the studio – black background, even lighting – becomes an absurd setting for both the clichéd and the spectacular narratives usually found in photojournalism. The people of “Quotidien” wear bland, somewhat corporate clothing in the style of Pina Bausch. Divorced from any context, the models seem disengaged, confused, even unconvinced by their own postures.

Last fall, the Musée d’art contemporain de Marseille put on the first major retrospective of Levé’s work. On the evening the exhibition opened, there were whispers about its lack of ambition. The Musée was rumoured to have missed out on the generous endowments for renovation, expansion and programming bestowed on most other local institutions as part of Marseille’s European Capital of Culture 2013 campaign. Many of the local people I spoke to understood this first solo retrospective of a relatively unknown and infrequently exhibited French artist as something of an embarrassment. The work wasn’t bad, they conceded, but a museum of this stature should be able to use its generous gallery space to host a better known artist.

I myself, on the other hand, was struck by what I saw amid the exhibition’s cartoonishly mismatched frames and uneven vinyl lettering. The awkwardness of the presentation seemed oddly appropriate to a body of work concerned with anticipation and disappointment, with gaucheness and poor taste. In Levé’s work I found a contemporaneity I hadn’t expected. His use of stock gestures and compositions in portrait photography seemed particularly prescient, anticipating a practice that is now common currency among certain post-internet artists.

Commercial and art photography have a volatile shared history, and in recent years a symbiotic relationship has developed between stock images and contemporary art. Levé’s work seems to me emblematic of a pre-internet kind of “versioning”, where visual tropes are catalogued and, in their abundance, made both familiar and absurd; the post-internet equivalent can be seen in the work of younger artists such as David Horvitz, Oliver Laric and others who manipulate images through digital technologies. In the spring, DIS magazine, in a conceptual exercise typical of its deliberate confusion of art, commerce, fashion and the internet, launched DISimages. The website functions similarly to the generic stock photography companies who, in the early 2000s, took advantage of increasingly cheap digital technology and online image hosting. It is a library of stock photos, browsable, digitally watermarked and categorised by tags – another organisational principle that groups events according to their similarities. DIS describes their project as “manipulating the codes and trends in stock photography”: they invite artists “to create alternative scenarios and new stereotypes, thus broadening the spectrum of lifestyle portrayal”. The website’s recent collaborators include the artists Dora Budor, Katja Novitskova and Anne de Vries, but their intention is to have the images bought, sold and distributed as stock photos are, as imagery for advertising or pre-fab illustration for magazines.

What the stock image (and the art stock image) has in common with the confusing procedure by which Levé took his own life is a conscious exploitation of the viewer’s narrative impulse, our urge to make sense of what we see. While I’m reluctant to read his suicide as a conceptual act, its execution does share certain formal characteristics with his writing and photography. Levé’s images highlight visual tropes that, in their profusion, become alien, drawing attention to how easily we accept these clichés when we see them in the context of commercial advertising or mass media. When reading images, people will always see diegesis, whether or not it is implied. In Suicide, too, Levé both exploits and exposes that narrative impulse: as the dead character’s fictional suicide structures his life, so Levé’s real suicide structures and determines how we read the book. It is impossible to read without wondering whether the book and the act are part of a deliberate and morbid experiment in meaning-making. Suicide, like its author’s death, hints at a narrative order in which even real events, images and actions ultimately only serve to reinforce whatever cultural clichés are already in circulation. § 

Top left and bottom right: Oliver Laric, Something Old, Something New (2013). Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery, London and Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin. Top right: Dora Budor, New Fragrance Options, ProEverything (2013). Courtesy of DISimages, New York. Bottom left: Anne de Vries, Exchange Materials (2013). Courtesy of DISimages, New York.

  • Repetition Compulsion