Fiction-Science –– Buvard et Pécuchet

Fiction-Science — Buvard et Pécuchet
Dominique De Beir, Baptiste Edde-Chevrier, Samuel Étienne, Emma Genty, David Mendy, Laëtitia Mamodaly, Anicet Oser, Marie Tellier, Christina Tran and Tania Vladova

Artothèque ESADHaR, Le Havre
20 May -– 26 June 2021

Reviewed by: 
Edith Doove
June 2021

It is maybe somewhat unusual to critique a student exhibition but Fiction Science – Buvard et Pécuchet revealed a pleasant surprise with the discovery of the work of scientist/artist Samuel Étienne that begs for sharing. The small exhibition at the Artothèque ESADHaR in Le Havre is the (preliminary) end result of an art and science seminar that was organised for the first time during the past year. This seminar is the brainchild of artist Dominique De Beir and art historian Tania Vladova who invited geomorphologist Samuel Étienne as a collaborator. Étienne specializes in the erosion of landscapes and more specifically that of the littoral. He has been collaborating with De Beir on several projects since 2018 as her art work, for which she chisels away at all kinds of materials such as polystyrene, has a clear resemblance with natural erosion processes. Étienne points for instance to the resemblance of her work with several eroded landscapes, including that of one of Jupiter’s moons. Since 2016 Étienne is also active as an artist under the name of Seitoung, a pseudonym that comes forth out of his long-standing love for fanzines of which he has become somewhat of a specialist. As Seitoung he endeavours to use his art practice to introduce science to a wider audience. This is done, as he says in our email conversation, by reinventing his naturalist view on landscapes and putting an affective and personal dimension at the heart of an analytical approach.

As for the exhibition Buvard et Pichet [1] that came out of this collaboration and seminar, the reference to Gustave Flaubert’s infamous Bouvard and Pécuchet is obvious. The hilarious story of two copyists that run into each other in Paris by chance, discovering a lot of similarities and interests and are, thanks to an unexpected inheritance, finally able to retire to the Normandy countryside and more specifically to the as yet non-existing Chavignollles, is reactivated in a most original way. This year is not only Flaubert’s 200-year birth anniversary with the project being part of the many festivities that surround it, it’s also the 140st anniversary of Bouvard and Pécuchet that was published posthumously in 1881. But the main reason for choosing this book is of course the couples’ tireless thirst for knowledge, their endless experiments that more often than not are a complete failure but nevertheless keep them continuing discovering the world through the scientific literature of its time and copying it.

The possibilities of the experiment, whether in art or science or the combination of both, lies at the heart of Fiction-science, a form of art science situated between art and geomorphology [1]. The project has a clear pataphysical aspect that is also confirmed by Étienne in our email conversation on his work, saying that this aspect interests him in both his theoretical and practical activities, but also as a way of “living” (in) the world” in which every encounter becomes an event, opening up to something new, not unlike the constant experiments of Flaubert’s antagonists. The idea is “to produce a joyful science where the mood and thought of the producer of knowledge (scientist as well as artist) are at the heart of the creative mechanism and are a priori worth as much as the classical scientific baggage or tools.”

While part of the student’s work is a direct illustration of text fragments from Bouvard et Pécuchet, in other cases the nature of their work seamlessly connects with the theme of the seminar and the exhibition. The poster image by Laëtitia Mamodaly mimics scientific drawings of plant and other specimen while in an installation she also cuts geographically into Flaubert’s text. David Mendy was inspired by Bouvard and Pécuchet’s curiosity and determination which made him take the episode of their interest in the human body and its functions to create a series of organs in Le coeur, l’estomac, l’oreille et les intestins. A more ongoing interest in semi-scientific work that chimes with that of Bouvard and Pécuchet can be found in Baptiste Edde-Chevrier’s Sans titre (juste carotte), a kind of cabinet of curiosities, showing the beauty of all kinds of misshaped carrots in jars on an orange coloured oil drum, or Anicet Oser’s tongue-in-cheek scientific experiment Couveuse or Incubator that has as an ultimate aim to develop a burger. Emma Genty on the other hand is somewhat of a geologist herself, having collected stones from the landscapes she adores since 2019 and showing part of her collection Précieuses archives de la Terre, happily coinciding with Bouvard and Pécuchet’s expedition to the Normandy coast to find fossils. Or trying to copy a small grotto with the use of her hand painted, earth-coloured, plastic sheets.

The backbone of the exhibition is however literally formed by the work of Samuel Étienne and Dominique De Beir. The latter uses the shelves of her Rayonnages Altération, racks that are sculptures in themselves with their typically hammered surfaces, to generously show the work of the other participants. Amongst others the various petri dishes that Étienne has transformed into MicrosCopies, hinting to the ongoing copying activities of Bouvard and Pécuchet. A small fanzine edition with the same title presents various geomorphological surfaces. Most surprising are probably his so-called payscaments, the name of which is an amalgamation of the words paysage (landscape) and médicament (medicine). Étienne sees his meticulously designed ‘medicines’ as a way of both consuming and preserving various landscapes. A special edition of his fanzine Karst [2] comes with a box of six landscape capsules that can be ‘mentally’ taken to be transported to a landscape of once choice. Neatly positioned on the connecting cable housing between the sockets on the back wall is a series of medicine boxes of Chavignolles, the capsules of which possibly give direct access to Bouvard and Péchuchet’s stomping ground. Étienne intends to place Chavignolles on GoogleMaps as part of his New Reality-project [4]. In a way it’s already there.

Notes

[1] Already in April 2019 the members of the project gave a lecture-performance at Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris. Doctor Buvard (aka Seitoung) on this occasion gave a lecture entitled "Teaching the geomorphology of expanded polystyrene and a new substance, polystyrene-DDB" to which Dr. Pichet (aka Tania Vladova) responded.

[2] The notion of Fiction-science, basically a form of art science, is further explained in Vladova T., Etienne S., De Beir D. 2020. Creuser pour mieux comprendre. Fiction-Science entre art et géomorphologie. L’Information Géographique, vol. 85, 2, pp. 71-108.

[3] The title refers to a “landscape underlain by limestone which has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes and other characteristic landforms”.

[4] See his website http://seitoung.fr/.