Looking Beyond, Seeing Up Close

Nothing seems to happen in Agnès Baillon’s sculptures. No drama, no narrative frame, and no action. When she was a painter she painted swimmers whose heads were not only out of the water but also absent from the canvas. Her first sculptures,  exhibited next to her paintings, were in fact the missing heads – but before long, they had  acquired a life of their own, a placid autonomy out of time and action, an inactive autonomy of sorts. Lack of action and even more so lack of explicit subject has always been a problem in the field of sculpture. Rodin’s sculpture The Age of Bronze, had in its day confused both the public and the critics precisely for this reason: no one knew what it really represented. No tangible clues here as to the identity of the subjects of Agnès Baillon’s sculptures and their gender is  only hinted at. There is no way of knowing whether the hats they are wearing are swimming or Phrygian caps and there is certainly nothing in their clothing (when they do wear some) which could allow us to guess the context to which these figures belong, and much less the era from which they seem to have been taken out of like a dream.

Those faces have, we can be sure about it, a trace of the conscience of their own corporeality mixed what the Greeks named “Ataraxia”, the tranquility of the soul reached through lack of passions. Some other faces seem deep in the throes of their dreams or asleep while the last ones look like newly incarnated souls tentatively accustoming themselves to their new body. Could these figures be a reflection of  innocence – once described by Victor Hugo as “a whiteness, untouched by shadow and make-up”? The whiteness we see here is provided by layers of paint applied on the paper-mâché, the resin and the bronze which induce a sense of transparency which in turn incites us to dive inside these awkward bodies, to delve beyond their skin. This process is not new: Antonio Canova painted his sculptures with a thin layer of pigments mixed with wax in order to give marble the sensuality of real flesh. And even before that, in classical times, it was not uncommon for Bas-reliefs, caryatids and kouroi to be painted in different colors. One should actually look at the art of ancient times, and particularly the Fayum encaustic and tempera portraits to fully grasp the art of Agnès Baillon: indeed, could her fragments of faces be nothing more than an attempt at an archeology of our times? Isn’t the silence in their stare the most talkative soliloquy on our era and on ourselves? It probably isn’t a coincidence that Agnès Baillon herself is attracted to the sculptures of José Vermeersch, who passed away in 1997. It is the fragmenting and dislocating of the bodies of the Belgian sculptor, and at the same time their sheer imperfection and the gaping holes that seize us and lead us toward their inner humanity. Very much like Vermeersch’s, Agnès Baillon’s sculptures possess a “haptic” sensibility, that is to say, an invitation to be touched by the eye and to be felt by our stare.

During the 18th century heated philosophical debates on the hierarchy of arts occurred. Those who believed that sculpture was superior to painting argued that it was  because of “the visual touch” of sculpture which allowed the viewer to fully grasp the sculpture, to go beyond its surface and feel its intimate and inner truth as it were. This definition applies very aptly to Agnès Baillon’s sculptures for they never make us feel indifferent. Her sculptures always elicit deep feelings quite simply because they are like a mirror that is handed to us, a reflective surface upon which our own emotions are laid bare. “Talk to me about my sculptures and I will tell you who you are” likes to muse the artist. Her pun is somewhat true in that her works of art act like catalysts of our hopes and fears. This does makes Agnès Baillon’s sculptures truly unique: they will not simply give rise to feelings in the mind of the viewer but will instead initiate a relationship, a fruitful exchange through what he will feel when confronted with these bodies and faces. This is how the title of exhibition, Looking Beyond, should truly be understood: stand on the tip of your toes and look beyond Agnès Baillon’s sculptures. There you will able to see yourself. Up close.