How Statues Die — Owen Vince

1953. Paris. Directors Chris Marker and Alain Resnais sit facing one another in a booth at La Closerie des Lilas. Marker orders a cognac to the table. Resnais orders a cognac to the table. They can see bunches of pale lilies leaning their heads in the garden. I imagine that Chris Marker sighs, and places his hands together. That afternoon, or one like it, they had discovered the French authorities intend to censor the second half of their recently completed Les Statues Meurent Aussi. It is a film about African art and the cultural violences of Colonialism, a film about artistic authenticity and commercialisation. Their project, in the eyes of the French authorities, had been too “critical” of France’s colonial interventions in Africa. Resnais later said, “nous n’avions pas, au depart, l’idee de faire un film anticolonialiste et antiraciste”. But that’s exactly what they made. 

*

The second half of the film would be censored until 1960, or 1968, depending on the source. Nobody is sure who saw what, and when. But all that would be left of it was a sequence of faces, masks, statues shot in a still, unmoving frame. Of statues shot in a moving frame. Stillness/movement. Everything without context. A voice over. “History” has obliterated everything. A glass cabinet. A gallery. In France the second half of the film was censored for its negative portrayal of French colonialism. A series of faces which are not faces. A camera hangs before them. History ate itself twice. Art was killed twice.

*

The masks, statues, and objet d’art were not stored at the Louvre. No. They were stored instead at the Musée de l’Homme. These were “artefacts” and not art. They were a record of scientific extraction. The longer they stared and stood before the masks, statues and objet d’art, the more perilous and violent were the consequences of colonialism made to them. I imagine Chris Marker leaning forward, very slightly, and then scanning the length of the room. A series of statues and masks and faces suspended in glass tanks.

*

Erosion and loss. A sequence of acts of dispersal and dislocation. The Musée de l’Homme is located at the Place du Trocadéro. The Museum has a vast and imposing white edifice. It is both a prison and a temple. In ancient Greece, the rulers and warrior-kings piled up the spoils of foreign wars at the feet of the statues of their gods. The cultures they had defeated did not exist until this moment — the moment of their death. All National Museums look like temples. All travellers found palaces, cities, life. An animal statue is hung in the dark. Two facing lion statues hang in the dark. There is nothing around them. They are extracted from time, history, life. Marker articulates the object, but demonstrates that it is a disposed-of object, a ruptured object. Lifeless.

*

This scene is a production line — a sweatshop of commercial manufacture. This, they argue, is a site of artistic and cultural pulverisation. This is a site (or sight)of art-industrial derangement and of vapid disorder. African workers produce objects for paltry wages. They produce art that will furnish and be appropriated by bourgeois households. A man leans over a desk to pare and sculpt a knot of material from the wood. A white man beams steadily behind him. His smile is strange. He leans over him. History is in fact a history of men leaning over other men.

*

Perhaps Marker and Resnais too readily essentialise and disfigure the contexts of the disrupted art they had seen in the Musée de l’Homme. Which “Africa?” Whose craft? What belief? Just as the French authorities sought to pacify and obstruct themselves from a threat of exposure, didn’t Marker and Resnais equally suspend an imagined “Africa” in a web of projections? Who exactly gets to speak here? A woman’s face. But she neither smiles nor speaks.

*

A face is lingered on in a glass cabinet. A soft, gradual light. Grey, black, white. Nobody can deny murder, or dispel violence. The Musée de l’Homme is a burial mound. The Musée de l’Homme is a disrupted duration, a sequence of discontinuous blocks, insertions, components. It is like a map that has been disemboweled. A statute is placed with its back to another statue. A face is hung in a glass cabinet. Chris Marker sighs, gently, and leans backwards.

*

A statue in pieces. Pieces of a dead civilization. Marker’s camera lulls and spins. The objects seem to live, but they are dead. My cat brings mice in and they twitch for a moment on the carpet. The statues have no air supply. The statues have no blood left. “History has devoured everything”. Marker slips from object to object. Only dead cultures are placed behind glass. Only cultures that have been killed.

*

The second half of the film plays to the end. And then it begins again. A face, suspended in a glass cabinet. A camera pulling slowly across the faces in the glass cabinet. Wood, ivory, paint, metal, plastic, glass, skin. A statue with its mouth open. A statue with its mouth closed. The music baulks. A symbol shimmers. “This botany of death, is what we call culture”.

*

There is blood everywhere. There is no blood. The blood has been cleaned up. The camera is a knife.


Owen Vince is a poet, arts critic, and editor of PYRAMID Editions poetry press. He has an upcoming e-chapbook with White Knuckle Press and tweets @abrightfar

Image:African MasksMichelle Ramos, Creative Commons.