Artist Gilles Massot muses about the interconnected histories of the Riau islands through his writing, personal collection of photographs and collaborative artworks with different artists.
La fresque (1980)
Artists: Jean Jacques Martin, Jose Moreno, Christian XXX, Gilles Massot, and others.
Life dimension: King size bedsheet. Or is it queen size? Gender doesn’t really matter anyway.
Material: Anything and everything we could put our hands on. A good dose of spray paints and stencils.
“La fresque is seen here in a 2021 edit meant to counteract what is apparently its current state of derelict, according to Elisabeth Poli, the friend taking care of Jean Jacques’estate, after his passing on in August 2020. He had folded it and stored it in the attic where she found it under a heap of dust, the colours vanished and the fabric mouldy. I guess that this state of affairs is something to be looked at as an exciting challenge, if, as suggested by Alecia. It is meant to find a new life in tune with the fluidity and ubiquitous trompe l’oeil of the Malay archipelago? Will it breathe in harmony with the disorientating sense of time and space that makes the Malay realm a maddening fascination like no other? I bet it will because the story of its becoming anticipated what I would soon meet in 1981 when I left Marseille for Singapore… unknown to me the nearby island of Bintan, hidden further south by the tropical humidity hovering in the distant horizon.
The painting was done sometime around late spring 1980, started on the basis of an initial work done directly on the wall by Jean Jacques Martin, Jose Moreno, Christian XXX (forgot the family name), myself, and a few other people. There is unfortunately no documentation of that work. The energy in it was powerful enough to make us want to develop it, so we put a large bedsheet over it and started a new work that immediately became referred to as La Fresque, The Fresco, as if not other fresco of relevance had ever existed before. We worked on it in various sessions, often including contributions from one visitors or another. Its turning point was one evening when Jean Jacques and me were sitting on the sofa in front of after an afternoon of work on it, feeling basically rather pleased with ourselves. A friend then came in, Jean Marie, whose field of interest was entered on literature and theatre. Seeing how we were so naively pleased with ourselves he decided to challenge us by pushing the limits of our own game.
The rule was that there was no rule other than the obligation of accepting any of the alterations, transformations or additions that the other collaborators would apply. If one didn’t like them, then it was your responsibility to make it evolve into something that you liked. No respect had to be extended to any and all parts of the work at all time, no respect other than answering to your own sincerity and generosity for the collaborative endeavour. This had been the conscious basis of our artistic dialogue since teenage and even childhood on a subconscious level when we were playing at shooting movies during school recess instead of playing cowboys. We had called this dialogue Marma from the juxtaposition of the first syllabus of our names and our entourage was well aware of what Marma was and what it claimed to achieve.
So Jean Marie stood in front of the painting with a big pot of black enamel in hand, titillating our pride and self-assurance: “So how guys, shall I or shall I not?” implying that he intended to splash the content of the pot over it. Would we be faithful to the rule of the pictorial game we had developed between the two of us on the basis of the surrealist cadre exquis, or would we chicken out, frightened by the prospect of an impending graphic disaster? Obviously we had to go all the way and made it clear that the decision didn’t rest with us. He and only he could know what to do by listening to his innermost self. And his innermost self told him to do it. In an instant the fresco was disfigured by a huge splash of black paint at the very center of it and over a good part of the main character. We kept quiet, in a daze of puzzlement. Now what?
The answer came a few days later in the form of a synchronicity that beautifully expressed the level of intuitive communication that had grown for years between the two of us. With La Fresque, it had reached a new level of its transformative impact with a larger group of collaborators. Seating on the same sofa where I had been transfixed a few days earlier I suddenly saw in a flash what needed to be done to bring back the fresco to its initial glory and even probably pushed it higher. Students rarely had phones at home in those days but they often had a car. I jumped into my Renault 4L to rush to Jean Jacques’s place and share my vision. I was living at the 159 Rue Sainte (Holly Street) and his address was 3 Rue Socrate, two location at the ends of a straight lines that ran at the heart of Marseille from the southern end of the Vieux Port to the eastern top of the famed Canebière, Marseille’s main artery and shopping street. What happened then is too evidently meaningful in my opinion to be interpreted as coincidental and the result of chance occurrence the way a staunchly rational, so-called scientific mind will insist on understanding it. On the contrary, I believe that it is much more rational to see in the following events a narrative that needed to exist in order to bring meaning to life, a meaning that we were free to accept or reject, but one that had been in the making for the longest time. Hear what took place and I will let you decide for yourself if we were projecting this meaning on the events, or if it was rather the events that generated this meaning with such insistence that the non-physical dimension of telepathy, synchronicity and other non-quantifiable spiritual aspects of what we believe to be reality they led to was becoming impossible to ignore.
Somewhere half-way on the Canebière, I saw on the opposite descending lane Jean Jacques in his own Renault, a car one level higher than mine since it was a Renault 5. We looked at each other passing by in stupor, but the glimpse of excitement we could catch in each other's eyes showed that something unusual was happening. I carried on to his place and decided to wait for him. Ten minutes later it prove to be the right decision when the R5 entered the Rue Socrate. Philosophy had gone into high gear. A few words were enough to understand that we had had exactly the same vision at exactly the same time and jumped in our respective cars in perfect coordination to take La Fresque to new heights. We went back to our car and rushed to Rue Sainte where Spirituality awaited Philosophy. The plan of these two conspirators was to help Reason draw a frame around Intuition. This frame would then enhance the infinite doubts and universal beauties of their respective endless quests. The vision we had spontaneously shared at a distance was fairly simple to realise. A few strokes of brush were enough to bring to the front the motifs obstructed by the splash of black paint. In just about half an hour the disaster was effortlessly integrated into the collaboration, and the black mess turned into a powerful enhancement of the overall composition. Art is fairly simple when one stops thinking.
When Jean Jacques came to Singapore in 2014 for the Grand Prix I took him to Bintan. The strangeness of the environment was a little hard to swallow at first, but in the end he loved the island for the way it forced him to go beyond his preconceived ideas on comfort and safety, and embrace the unknown. This stay turned out to be one of the last few moments of deep intuitive communication between us.
Will Alecia’s idea to take La Fresque to Nikoi happen? Will we be able to generate the community spirit needed to bring it back to its former glory and push it even higher ? The answers to these questions are written somewhere in the stars’ configuration that, unknown to most, is nothing other than a reflection of the constant fluctuations in the grains of sands along Trikora beach. I know this because at some point it became clear to me that Bintan had been in a distant past and was destined to become again with the new millenium the epicentre of the world, ok make it the universe.
Ok, I am nuts but happily so.”
“The rule was that there was no rule
other than the obligation of accepting any of the alterations, transformations or additions that the other collaborators would apply. If one didn’t like them, then it was your responsibility to make it evolve into something that you liked. No respect had to be extended to any and all parts of the work at all time, no respect other than answering to your own
sincerity and generosity
for the collaborative endeavour.”
Interestingly enough, all the elements of the story above, came together recently in the on-going project of collaboration which started in August last year to lead towards my departure from Singapore. One of the themes that kept reappearing in these different collaborations was that of the Singapore stone, the historical artefact that places Singapore in its distant past. Over the years I have come to regard the story of the Singapore stone as one that connects that distant past with the postmodern identity of Singapore. And out of these collaborations, it is the one done with Alecia, Shaiful and Vimal that was the most purposefully exploring that story. It also so happens that at about the same time, I finally went for the walk in Labrador park where stands Long Ya Men, the Dragon Tooth Gate of Temasek, or so I thought.
Being surprised to discover that I shouldn't be surprised. The dragon teeth gate is a simulacra. Because the original one was blown up by the British. Somehow I had missed out on that part to focus on the early Chinese navigators mentions, the romance of fantasised history. So the dragon teeth gate is another Singapore stone. Singapore was indeed postmodern before being modern: the dissolution of physicality and the materialisation of memories.”
“Come to think of it... standing as we are now in the third decade of a new century that is in fact a new millenium, what if a re-reading of legends and history inherited from the 20th century made us now consider Singapore as a home, the home promised to a guy mistakenly identified as Iskandar, the king of kings, because the original version of "him" had lost his way in the meanders of an early episode in the timeless and boundless narrative of colonial expansion, and by extension reconsider this societal and cultural dynamic shaping the history of civilisations since the dawn of times, as the fundamental obsessive quest for power forever bent on a hypothetic global identity, but surprise, surprise!
Could that quest have come to an end now that we can see that global identity manifested by the universal dimension of the photographic simulacra?
Yeah! At least we seem to have achieved that one! Welcome to the 21st century. For we are indeed experiencing the dissolution of physicality and the materialisation of memory, as predicted by the allegory of the Singapore Stone.”