NOAH’S ARK | Philippe Dagen

Patriarch, Noah is the hero of the Flood.

Since early Christian art, representations of the episode abound. The embarkation of animals allowed painters to demonstrate their knowledge of zoology and their concern for accuracy: they had to be able to represent a giraffe, an elephant, a deer or a lion in a plausible way.

As the knowledge of fauna increased with discoveries and descriptions, the range of species became broader and the demonstration of painting skills became more and more convincing. Then less and less useful: with the multiplication of encyclopedias and treaties on anatomy and zoology, what was the point of representing these animals whose physiognomy was detailed in dictionaries?

The pictorial fauna was thus rapidly impoverished, while the fauna of book illustrators constantly increased. With the exception of dogs, cats and horses, animal painting disappears. Delacroix is the last of its heroes. But can we imagine Renoir painting the dromedaries of the Magi or Matisse, Jonah’s whale ? One does not go further than cats and the other limits himself to goldfish. In the twentieth century – the century of photography and cinema, of the great zoos and natural parks, of National Geographic and organized trips – the question no longer arises, with one exception, the eternal exception of Picasso who, contrary to the general trend, is interested not only in horses and bulls, but mesures himself to Buffon. In the last decades, in France, only Gilles Aillaud and Vincent Corpet have proven that it is still  possible to paint Noah’s Ark.

Noah’s gesture, which allows creation to start anew, finds its symmetry in Villani’s gesture who, not without fantasy, allows animals to reappear. For that, he works with the available elements, objects that he recycles and reconditions, images that he reactivates by covering them or cutting them out. His Creation  depends on approximate hybridization and tinkering – but it is remarkable that it refuses to slip into the monstrous and the fantastic. In spite of everything, Villani makes the passengers of the ark appear as they are today, after well over forty days and forty nights of confinement. He is their Noah, without posing as the patriarch.


Architecture. It is not necessary to define this word. But Villani often adds the adjective “migratory”, which complicates everything since, obviously, architecture is very generally understood as the art of constructing buildings that are intended to be stable and resistant, whatever their intended use. If utopians have dreamed of migrating architectures, they did not imagine them as Villani builds them: clear-cut towers reduced to a frame that rises vertically, do not support any floor, and end neither in a terrace nor a roof. Less towers, in other words, than spectra of towers, obviously useless.

Migrants, we said ? Mobile at least. Rather than their elevation or their form, this characteristic seems to justify their construction. But this particularity is obviously contrary to the very notion of architecture, so much so that these empty towers could be considered anti-architecture. But they are nevertheless towers, and this point, in itself, deserves attention. These constructions have always been, since their most ancient examples, built in order to dominate, to possess, to watch over a territory and to impose the irrefutable sign of a power, the right of ownership over a landscape. A light and empty tower is therefore an architectural aberration and a threat of subversion, since this object, as devoid of weight as it is of practical use, treats the most significant of architectures with derision. We would say as much of a ship conceived to take water by its hull. One will find in Villani other inversions of the same type which empty the object he lays his hands on of any sense and of any use.

The notion of migration suggests other observations. The most obvious one is that Villani is himself a migrant, from Brazil to Paris and back, and that, in an ironic way, he can lay down his light towers alternately in one country and the other. In this way he indicates that he takes possession of them – but a possession as light as his constructions themselves, with no other power than that of art. The states, the administrations make fun of such gestures, ephemeral and strictly personal. They make fun or repress them: they have a whole vocabulary to define them, vagrancy, absence of fixed abode, loitering on public roads.

These are architectures more than mobile, ephemeral and uncertain: architectures for those who are only passing through and do not pretend to disfigure the landscape to make it look like them.

MACHINES | Philippe Dagen

Machines have been part of the arts for more than a century, steam or coal engine, piston, gas, electric, electronic, cybernetic, computerized, digital – surely I forget some. There is hardly an avant-garde that has not been in one way or another marked by their irruption and their progress since the first locomotive crossed a landscape by Turner until… the examples are innumerable.

Of all these artistic machines, Villani’s favorites are the célibataires. Conceived by the engineer of lost time Marcel Duchamp, the machines célibataires produce nothing, as the adjective indicates, which does not mean they are useless. On the contrary: those are machines that are enemies of machines. It has often been observed that the appearance of a single machine célibataire disrupts the active machines so strongly that they break down or go bonkers, becoming in their turn célibataires by a strange contagion.

In this register, the engineer Villani proposes articles whose poetic absurdity cannot fail to leave one perplexed. One of them is a mobile machine to stay still. Composed of a conveyor belt – with its drive cylinders and motor – and a wooden house painted red and yellow, its singularity resides in that the conveyor belt spins uselessly under the house which remains immobile by the sole power of a string attached to a nail on the wall.

Among the hypothetical interpretations that can be suggested, we will retain three. The simplest one is obviously that of an insult to the engine, whose regular efforts and impeccable technical design are rendered impotent by a string. One could easily see in it the revenge of the rudimentary over the complex. Other examples of the same confrontation would be the damage caused by a branch stuck between the spokes of a wheel, a bit of sand in a carburetor or water drops in an electrical circuit. These incidents should remind us all of the terrible frailty of indestructible machines.

A second consideration is hardly less obvious: the architecture, which Villani likes migratory, proves itself here, on the contrary, unmovable, thwarting the device that should walk it tirelessly on the black rubber mat. This could be a way of suggesting that the house is the same everywhere and that change is only an appearance. For an artist who lives on both sides of the Atlantic, the symbol would speak volumes.

The third would take the same direction: that movement is not perceptible even though its reality cannot be questioned, as the daily life of men demonstrates. They know that their planet spins and yet they have the impression that their houses are immobile, held by invisible strings despite the rotation of the earth on its axis.

Another machine, obviously célibataire and duchampian, walks to better stay still – again the dialectic of mobility taken in reverse. It consists of a table and a stool. The table has a rear wheel, a pedal and a sawn bicycle frame. On the stool, Villani attached a wooden box that once held bottles of wine and inside it, a second, smaller wheel. At both ends of the hub, outside the box, two strings are attached, the other end of which is tied to two shoes, masculine, tan leather, rather chic. Pressing the pedals drives the chain and the big wheel, whose rotation is transmitted by a belt to the other wheel, a rotation that makes the shoes walk – or rather trample, since neither the length of the string, nor the general device allow them to gain even a few centimeters. They are condemned to walk without advancing, until he who pedals at the other end of the chain is exhausted. This construction is both clever and silly, in the claimed continuity of Duchamp’s bicycle wheel turning above the stool, a legendary readymade which Villani had the audacity to tackle.

The game of cancellation is at its height here: a real movement determines a movement that is no less real, but immobile – i.e. it hovers, an exercise well known to track cyclists who, unwittingly,  practice this form of negative dialectic. In Villani’s case, it is certainly not without his knowledge. Just to add a little bit of wackiness, he superimposed on top of the wheel that makes the shoes sway a tin can of cookies, like a drum. But this drum serves absolutely no purpose. It is, according to the consecrated expression, of a splendid uselessness. All the more splendid as the idea of the shoes which do not advance can be associated with many legends and fables, stories of strollers or professor Sunflower, of statues and ghosts, of illusions and disillusions. You think you’re moving? You only give yourself the comforting impression of doing so.

The third machine is of a slightly different kind, although it is presented as two boxes – large display boxes, bill boards for the use of advertisers – equipped with rotating systems. Here though, no publicity posters revolve, but a long paper roll on which Villani has drawn his life in the form of anatomical plates. The arteries and veins are the circulation routes, cities and ideas were made organs. It’s simple – of that obviousness that makes one wonder why no artist had thought of it before, so clever and effective is the diversion of this advertising material. (And who would complain that it is finally being used for something other than promoting a Hollywood movie, a beer or a line of teenage underwear?)

It is simple and it is disquieting. Because of the confusion between anatomy and geography, as Villani unearths here, quite naturally, the principle of the cosmic man and of the games of symbolic correspondences that were of such importance in the past and which we believe – modern and rational men that we are –  having renounced a long time ago; whereas this mode of thought, said to be archaic, has not disappeared, but continues to act in a more or less hidden way. Because of the scrolling too: the change never stops, but this change reveals to be the reappearance of the identical, an identical which would be the self, a self thus mapped, circumscribed and defined, in spite of the appearance of variation induced by the movement. We find here the strange – melancholic perhaps – dialectic of the immobility and the movement, central to Villani’s work and that consists one of its main interests.

Regarding art history, this double autobiographical screen in the form of billboards presents a final singularity: it brings together the readymade – the rotating device – and the drawing – the anatomical plates – and thus obtains a self-portrait, this ancient and probably immortal genre reappearing here under a rather unexpected guise.

Unless thought is so taken aback by this appearance that it comes to re-examine the history of the readymades and its purposes, in defiance of all critical and philosophical tradition, and to hold the readymade for a sort of self-portrait, the most rapid, the most brutal and the most obviously “signed”. If we stick to Duchamp, nothing less illegitimate: the decision to place a bicycle wheel on a stool or to hang a hat rack can only be justified as a pure decree of the artist’s will that modifies the order of the world according to his fantasy. A readymade would thus be an autobiographical reliquary, like those made with objects (of art or not) by all that compose at home certain arrangements that – because they represent disturbances – bear their mark.

Villani’s machines are self-portraits in the form of readymade abetted and diverted.

PARROT (in memoriam Walter Benjamin) | Philippe Dagen

This bird is to Villani what the eagle is to Saint John. Like the eagle, the parrot has a rich symbolic history, although in a very different register. Its exotic origin – for the Europeans –, its plumage variously and richly colored, its propensity to imitate the most different noises and even the human voice, all these characteristics have made it a seductive and suspicious bird. All the more suspicious as it is very seductive. It has been one of the symbols of lust and remains one of those of imitation – and therefore of falsity. Frida Kahlo associates it with the monkey in at least one of her self-portraits.

One also recalls that Flaubert had one, stuffed, in his writing room in the Croisset and that he made it one of the protagonists of A Simple Heart. It has also not been forgotten that a parrot plays a preponderant role in one of the best adventures of Tintin, that of the informer, and that it becomes the object of a relentless pursuit when it flees. He sometimes appears in paintings in the 17th and 18th centuries and his appearance, like that of the monkey, is not only explained by the curiosity that these creatures from overseas arouse. A painter who represents nature repeats it, as the monkey repeats gestures and the parrot, sounds. Which is to say that a painter can be held as a kind of parrot, and should be judged according to the quality of the imitation.

Villani’s parrot also has a close relationship with reproduction. But its first particularity is that it is neither stuffed nor painted, but alive, living in a large cage with an open door. It does not come out when an intruder is in the studio and it is recommended to this unknown intruder not to approach it indiscreetly so as not to test its beak. This grey parrot excels in forging noises such as doorbells and telephone rings. However, this propensity is not the one that Villani puts to good use, but the destructive energy of the bird, which shreds what comes within reach of its beak.

What does this parrot destroy? Reproductions. The symbol of imitation tears apart imitations of famous paintings, starting with the Mona Lisa. After the first moment of astonishment, the video that shows him at work turns into an apologue in memoriam Walter Benjamin. Here it is, The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility: the painting has become a photograph, a poster, a postcard, an object of small trade and mass distribution, an article for the popular cultural market. A parrot tears by small pieces the parrot-image.

When it is done with Leonardo da Vinci, it goes after Picasso: his photographic portrait and reproductions. The choice of victims is easily explained. This vengeful parrot devours the most famous images of the most famous artists: reproducibility raised to the level of the media industry. It absorbs not only the works but the icons of the legendary lives of the most illustrious painters. This extension is all the more understandable since the “cultural” industry offers the consumer what he is deemed to prefer, not paintings that might seem difficult or off-putting, but stories, romanticized episodes, anecdotes. It is no longer Leonard that interests, but the Da Vinci Code that captivates. It is no longer cubism that intrigues, but Picasso’s seductive life that moves or disgusts. All that remains of art are a few signs of elementary recognition – the so called “masterpieces” – and shreds of stories whose historical accuracy is no longer important.

What matters is that they entertain effortlessly and are effortlessly remembered. Renoir is eclipsed by Amélie Poulain and Van Gogh by the account of the severed ear. Just as the parrot retains only the simplest tunes and the most strident sounds, the public is supposed – at least according to the manufacturers and distributors of these goods – to be able to buy only the most cartoonish fables and the most vivid colors. Benjamin’s melancholic analyses have long been overtaken by the infernal energy and indecency of the image industry, and reproduction has been replaced by the derivative, not to say the by-product, the bestseller, the bazaar article.

It is therefore logical that the videos of the parrot with the merciless beak should be presented in the company of comic variations on Picasso, his paintings and his portraits. With slight retouching, delicate highlights of a little gouache, cut-outs and scooping judiciously made in the paper, Villani has composed a numerous and very representative sample of Picasso’s stereotypes and clichés – Picassian psittacism should we be writing sagely, remembering moreover the mass of imitators, pasticheurs and forgers Picasso has unwillingly given rise to. One will not mistake this psittacism – “mechanical repetition of words, of sentences heard without the subject understanding them” – for its almost homonym, psittacosis, “contagious disease of parrots and parakeets, transmissible to man”. At most, one wonders, because of this transmissibility itself, if the human species has not been infected by a general psittacosis which would condemn it to an incessant and incurable psittacism. If this is the case, the parrot certainly deserves to reign: glory to him.

ALICE (I’M LATE) | Philippe Dagen

She is to be found – it is wildly known – in Wonderland, where a rather strange rabbit is also found. In Villani’s work, Alice is only a first name and the rabbit is even stranger than Lewis Carroll’s. It runs and does not run. Like the shoes that do not walk, like the house that does not move. Like the arrow of Zenon, which, according to Valéry, ” flies and does not fly”.

Villani or the art of the insoluble contradiction carried to its paroxysm?

CROSSINGS | Philippe Dagen

« It was then that we began our extensive travels all over the United States.» Julio Villani’s painting resembles Humbert and Lolita’s love and guilt journey : they both alternate ironic episodes and serious passages, over a similar black backdrop of anxiety. The novelist and the painter cross a disparate and infinite continent, United States and painting. In Nabokov’s book, the halt provokes the disaster, while the continuous displacement had warded it off until then. Incidentally, an unjustified halt: why stop when there are still so many places, sights and works of art to be discovered, “Blue, blue Crater Lake”, “A chateau built by a French marquess in North Dakota”, roadside advertisements: “The Bearded Woman read our jingle and now she is no longer single” and a “zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship”.

Like Nabokov, Villani knows that his art begins with the inventory of the world and that, this world being of the most complete eclecticism, his inventory must equal it in variety and wackiness. Artifice, parody, collage, quotation have no other reason than this: they are the only processes that can be applied to an era that pushes incoherence to its highest, an era full of artifices, parodies, collages and quotations. On the American roads: see Humbert Humbert wandering from neo-Gothic motels to fake Indian ruins to “Lincoln’s home, largely spurious, with  parlor books and period furniture that most visitors reverently accepted as personal belongings”.

In the museums, which exude this disorder to a burlesque point, pompous luxury erected as a glorious principle: see Villani swinging between cubism, abstraction, the Aztec, the Egyptian and the African. Archaeological forms is the title of his exhibition, in English, neither in French, nor in Portuguese. A matter of languages indeed : they are all offered, all their allusive and poetic resources presented to whoever knows how to use them, to whoever knows how to tender for himself in this abelian dictionary enriched with quotations from universal literature, film lines and advertising slogans. Exactly as the forms, materials and motives are offered in the encyclopedia of the history of art from the origins to our days that museums and catalogs display, forms and motives are at hand to those who dare manipulate them without reverence.

A Villani polyptych is composed of five panels, each bearing a pencil inscription, two in English, one in Portuguese, two in French. We can indulge in quoting them, if only because from their combination emerges a singular power of embarrassment and derision. From top to bottom: The father and the mother (dubious genealogy), The largest view (good photographer’s resolution), A linha do pensamento (tangled Ariadne’s thread), L’Occident et l’Orient (cardinal points of aesthetic disorder) and La Peinture et la Poésie (same thing, as we know, pictura ut poesis).

That fact that he is Brazilian by birth, studied in London and works in Paris may also have helped Villani to convince himself that he would not escape the modern chaos. (For the sake of drawing a parallel, Nabokov was Russian by birth, studied in Cambridge and worked in Paris and the United States).

Two aesthetics have been contradicting each other for a century, that of those who believe in purity and that of those who don’t. On the one hand, in bulk, the “perfect”, the “simple”, Matisse, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Malevich, Rothko, the minimal, all the followers of a primitivism of sorts, of a system of innocence, of religious symbolism. On the other hand, in bulk again, the major impure, Picasso, Derain, Chirico, Klee, Torres-Garcia, Hélion, De Kooning, Warhol, all artists of the accidental, of passions, of historical and human details. It is logical that Villani pays homage to Picasso from time to time, in a collage of musical staves or a painting constructed in the manner of the Meninas of Barcelona. It is legitimate that he put Mondrian in a wooden box as pretty as a coffin.

It is also logical that to this intelligence of the situation, he joins an astonishing elegance of execution. Both go hand in hand in artists of great quality.

In catalog of the exhibition Archaelological forms, La Base, Levallois Perret, 1990.