Caving in, or the eyeful tower: Pauline Curnier Jardin’s Grotta Profunda by John Welchmann

Grotta Profunda begins in a crypto-documentary mode, its black-and-white images of the wandering, self-interrogatory teenager, Bernadette Soubirous shot on location in the French Pyrenees in the vicinity of her apparitions near the town of Lourdes in 1858. Accentuating the body and face of the future saint (she was beatified in 1925 and canonized eight years later in the pontificate of Pius XI), the declension of these sequences recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece of physiognomic cinema, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc  (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), which was framed as an investigation into the corporeal impress of metaphysical experience, layered with questions of gender, theological disputation, and tenacity in the face of intimidating patriarchal power.

The second and longer part of the 30-minute video is transacted inside Curnier Jardin’s allegorically reconfigured variant of the cave-grotto at Massabielle where Bernadette’s revelations took place. This interior space is made over as a bodily cavity, a belly, or a parody of the immaculate uterus at the center of the Marian dialectic of purity and procreation that structures Bernadette’s visionary encounters and has underwritten her devotional legacy. Here the protagonist is confronted by, or projects, a cryptically madcap menagerie of composite figures, answering in apocryphal twenty-first century terms to the congregations of hybrid human and demonic forms present in the Christian tradition as ecclesiastical marginalia (on misericords, at the edges of manuscripts, in gargoyles, corbels and capitals in the remoter reaches of Catholic architectures): an alternately naked and latex-clad Venus of Willendorf who scuttles across the cavern floor as a crab-woman and doubles-up as a semaphore for Death; a hermaphroditic monkey-cum-mermaid, betokening a conjugation of lust, evolutionary regression and the mythography of female embodiment; a long-hair Jesus, introduced as a cod-piece or personified fig-leaf; and Vanilla and Chocolate, a brace of “disco-crazy gay ice-cream gigolos”[1] who act out a demotically cross-dressed pantomime of Original Sin as an Expulsion from their dairy Eden.

Curnier Jardin interleaves allusions to vaudeville, melodrama, medieval processions, silent film and operetta, with recursive reference to a strand of contemporary art vested in the metaphoricity of subterranean transcendentalism and conjugations of social plenitude, generic superabundance and the postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk. The mise-en-scene of Grotta Profunda in an imagined body cavity, for example, makes a visceral pair with Nathaniel Mellor’s Giantbum, a sibling meditation on religion, truth and the meaning of life, set in the intestinal recesses of the eponymous outsized figure.[2] Another network of relations can be glimpsed in a comparison with Mike Kelley’s almost obsessive attention to the locations and figuring capacities of caves and subterranean space and the associations they broker with shadows, hiddenness and the discourse of the remote. Key here is The Poetry of Form: Part of an Ongoing Attempt to Develop an Auteur Theory of Naming (1984-96), a publication comprising 34 black and white photographs of cave formations, shot from various books while Kelley was at work on his performance Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile (Artists Space, New York,1986) in 1984 and 1985. As the subtitle indicates, the artist was mainly interested in the picturesque associative nomenclature inherited from the books, postcards and cave pamphlets he had researched or collected. Kelley italicizes the discrepant nominalism that underwrites this work, noting, that “the rock formations are essentially found objects that are given identity through the naming process.” The caves and their characteristic accretive formations had already been named, then, by an unknowable collectivity of amateur spelunkers and photographers, guides, gatekeepers, book and postcard publishers, or by consensus from folkloric inheritance: each of the names thus reaches for a projective reconstruction of the cave element it “describes” in the form of phrase-based similes. Kelley reroutes questions about representation, similitude and the ideal addressed in Plato’s parable of the cave through vernacular linguistic tropes by affirming his commitment to the social relativities of language coupled with thoroughgoing skepticism about idealization that is antithetical to the revelatory transcendentalism of the religious seer, and, at first sight, makes a conceptual right angle with Curnier Jardin’s riotously ironic and quizzically skeptical modes of embodiment.[3]

But Curnier Jardin also routes her inquiry through the conditions of language mediated by the genres of intercession, invocation and spiritual ventriloquism. Some of the indistinctness and wild scattering of reference manifest in Grotta Profunda are given sanction—we might say—in the original accounts of Bernadette’s encounters, wherein she was purportedly unable to articulate the referential object of her visions, making recourse time and again to the word aquero, which in the local Gascon Occitan dialect simply meant “that” or “that one.” If Kelley’s repertoire of cave-descriptors—Bristly Joe, The Temple of the Sun—represents an over-abundance of vernacular, figural allusion, and Bernadette’s circumlocutionary minima a refusal or emptying-out of linguistic correlation, Curnier Jardin works in and around a melodramatic space she interposes between them. In fact, her negotiation with the indicative takes us back to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. For the relational logic she subjects to the most corrosive interrogation in Grotta Profunda is the method of correlation between external appearance and inner truth associated with the pseudo-science of physiognomy.

The first phrases articulated in the video point directly to this mode of analysis by offering an abbreviated sketch of its own mode of reduction—seemingly vested in the misplaced projective fantasy of the future saint as she gazes at the lustrous emanation of the Immaculate Conception: “If the outside is pretty, then the core must be good.” Grotta Profunda tangles with several implications of physiognomic methodology, including the associative presumption of aligning physical appearance with moral disposition—and by further implication with sexual or gender orientation. One of the ironic outcomes arising from this way of thinking surface-depth relations is revealed in the counter-logical challenge posed to physiognomic reckoning by the visionary experience itself. Bernadette’s consistent inability to name the mystical conjunction of God, Virgin and theological principle manifest at Massabielle, points to the sheer analytic incommensurability of her encounter—predicated, precisely, on a lack of the palpable, readable and decodable properties that fund physiognomic correlation. In fact, what transpires is more like an inversion of the system of exchange on which physiognomy is predicated: an immaterial, ideal, light-suffused referent imbued with a priori moral perfection is (somehow) seen, if not really apprehended, ruining the circuitry of physiognomic accounting as depth or content arrives ahead of—and utterly supplants—surface and form. This mismatch becomes the motor-force of Curnier Jardin’s retort to correlationism and the reductive politics of identity—a blowback alluded to in the second sentence of the artist’s script: “I am invisible, at least that’s what they say . . . so, if you can see me then I’ll give you an eyeful, and we’ll go the very core of things.” Equivocating between the visible and the hidden, clarity and obscurity, the reiterated conditionals of this response (“at least that’s what they say . . . if you can see me”) grant permission for a revelation that is equal and opposite to the apparition of pure whiteness vouchsafed by Bernadette. It too, aspires to exemplify, though not to incarnate, “the very core of things,” but does so through the self-conscious orchestration of performative maxima, all that adds up to being given “an eyeful.”

The final utterance of Grotta Profunda underscores the physiognomic subtext—and introduces another. While the voiceover suggests that we should not ignore “the faces of things and their expression” we see onscreen Bernadette’s reflection in the water, a visage that looks like a mask or an idealized image d’Épinal. This overlay of iconic religiosity, the facialization of objects and instruction by stereotype points back to the musical score of the video, in particular to Teiji Ito’s “The Language of Faces”[4] (composed in 1961 for John Korty’s eponymous, Quaker-sponsored pacifist apologia) which Curnier Jardin uses to support images of the red, latex-clad spider of death as she scuttles around in the grotto. Built on this allusion, the wider soundtrack of Grotta Profunda offers a sonic inflection of the crisis of reference staged between appearance and purported truth mediated by facial discourse. The “voice” itself is a misbegotten mix of Brigitte Bardot and Bernadette Lafont—an enunciative scene in which sultry come-on is washed over by the tonalities of the Nouvelle Vague. Bruitist and ethnographical accents are the product of Curnier Jardin’s long-term collaboration with sound designer Vincent Denieul; and female-choir polyphony from work with Claire Vailler. Both registers offer resonances with pre-modernity, whether pagan, pre- or non-Christian on the one hand, or religious primitivism, on the other. All this is rounded out (in a gesture that is also an inversion) at the end of the video as the cave walls perform a campy dance to a Viennese waltz by Johann Strauss: Die Fledermaus, of course, because the title refers to bats “and bats,” as the artist so presciently notes, “live in caves” (upside down).

If the logic of physiognomy (and the final image) of Grotta Profunda are scrambled and inverted, in Teetotum (2017)[5] the discourse dies an extended and lingering death along with the heads and faces on which it depends. As with the earlier project, Curnier Jardin combines historical reference with the machinations of a carnivalesque group, only in Teetotum the participants belong to one of the few sanctioned entities in popular culture specifically given over to the practice of corporeal excess, slapstick humor, and gymnastic finesse: the circus. As, again, with Grotta Profunda, the artist draws on and expands an earlier work that takes off from a specific historical event, here Blutbad Parade (Bloodbath Parade, 2014), filmed on location in Karlsruhe, Germany, where a nascent French air force bombed a circus “big top” during a performance in 1916 resulting in mass civilian casualties. Teetotum focuses on the performative mannerisms of the young acrobats—postmodern reincarnations, perhaps, of the saltimbanques represented by Picasso around 1905—particularly their work with colored hoops which they rotate around their torsos and necks. Within a general theory of facial objectification, Fernand Léger opened up an interrogatory space between the facial denominations of the circus, particularly the face of the clown (“a multicolored face, an eye, a nose, a mouth that doesn’t look like a nose, a mouth, an eye any longer”)[6] and the facial orders of the spectators who come to see it. With Twilight Zone insouciance, Curnier Jardin converts objectification into capital calamity as the rings cut into the performers’ skin and they are finally garroted by their props. Jugglers are wiped out through the jugular in a chilling allegory of collateral damage.


[1] Johanna Zinecker, Labor Berlin 12: Drifting (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2012).

[2] See my “Abecedarium [A former Fragment]” in Nathaniel Mellors, Book A / MEGACOLON / For and Against Language (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2010).

[3] I borrow here from my “Plato in America: Hopper, Rothko, Kelley” in Platon’s Mirror and the Actuality of the Cave Allegory, Inspired by Projections by Mischa Kuball, eds. Andreas Beitin, Leonhard Emmerling and Blair French (Cologne: König, 2012), 235-58.

[4] “The Language Of Faces” is available on Music For Maya: Film Music Of Teiji Ito (Tzadik, 2007).

[5] Teetotum was commissioned by Frieze Projects, first screened at Frieze London 2017 and had its broadcast premiere as part of Random Acts, Channel 4 (UK), at midnight 7 November 2017.

[6] Fernand Léger, “The Circus” (1950), in Functions of Painting, trans. Alexandra Anderson (New York: Viking, 1973), 175. I discuss Léger’s theories of facial objectification in popular culture, film and painting in “Face, Mask, Profile: From Affect to Object in the Work of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger,” chapter 3 of After the Wagnerian Bouillabaisse: Essays on European Art 1900-80 (Berlin: Sternberg, forthcoming 2018).