Review of Modern Alchemy | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Modern Alchemy

Modern Alchemy
by Emmanuele Coccia (text) and Viviane Sassen (photographs)

JBE editions, Paris, France, 2022

160 pp., illus. 80 col. Trade, €35.00 EUR

ISBN: 978-2-36568-063-9.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
September 2022

Images in books are everywhere today, but that doesn’t make them into real illustrations, a publication format that has become somewhat outdated, unlike the more recent and fashionable domain of the artist book, which has taken over much of its place since the 1970s. Yet more and more works are appearing that announce a new golden age of the merger of words and images in ways that both supersede their very divide and maintain and even enlarge the gulf between the verbal and the visual. Two major pitfalls put the intersection and collision of words and images at risk. On the one hand redundancy, with too literal a transfer from one medium to another. Many writers are reluctant to overexplicit illustrations, whereas many visual artists fear the intrusive power of words. On the other hand arbitrariness, with the pleasure for pleasure’s sake of mixing dissimilar units or aggressively mixing incompatible forms and contents. Not all of these combinations is saved by putting them under the “intellectual montage” umbrella.

The second volume of the Artisans of the Wild: An Enchanting Library series (a first book by Ryoko Sekiguchi has already been published in 2021), Modern Alchemy is a brilliant example of this new publication philosophy that is at the same time an illustrated work, in the strong and creative term of the term, and an artist book, where the notion of artist refers as much to the writer, the visual artist as the series editors, Mathieu Cénac and David Desrimais, whose collaboration produces a volume that is doing what it says and show while also showing and saying what it does. It unfolds and brings together, with the help of a perfectly transparent parallel montage, a text by Italian philosopher and essayist Emmanuele Coccia on the fundamental unity of all manifestations of life (12 brief chapters) and a gathering of photographically composed hybrids by Dutch artist Viviane Sassen mixing species, body parts, highly colored shapes, materialities, and surfaces in a way that still clearly distinguishes figure and ground but that does no longer allow to easily name what elements are merged in figure as well as ground (almost always just one image per page, but with widely varying margins).

And the title of the book is the perfect synthesis of these maneuvers. Not “alchemy”, the attempt to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials, mainly to find gold, but “modern alchemy”, the awareness of the fundamental unity of everything that exists in life, at all possible levels and in all possible domains. Coccia’s essay start with a reflection on the divide between the hand and the brain, body, and mind, high and low, material and spiritual, superior and inferior, the organic and the inorganic, the animated and the inanimated, etc., in order to elucidate their inextricable relationship and, more generally, the no less strong mutual involvement of everything that exists, anytime, everywhere. As things progress in the text, Coccia’s philosophy – if  that is the still right word since the final horizon of his writing and thinking is less absolute knowledge but joyful immersion in the infinite diversity and interconnectedness of all life forms – reveals and lovingly describes the ways in which variety and unity are always co-present: Modern alchemy is thus defined as “the attempt to build a world in which everything is the mind and the hand of something other. A world where everything breathes and yearns in unison.” At the same time, Coccia also discloses the agency of material life: any form of thought and action in and on the world is both a reflection of life’s material energy and a transformation of its proper form and structure. An eternal feedback loop exists between what already exists and what is permanently being changed. Another characterization of modern alchemy in the book puts it this way: “As long as matter exists, nothing can prevent it from irreparably transforming everything around it. Such art imbues everything: each reality is more of an artist than a form.” The name of Spinoza remains absent from the text – one feels Coccia closer to certain forms of pre-Euclidian Greek atomist thinking –, but the family resemblance rapidly springs to mind.

Coccia’s extremely fluent and seducing way of writing is efficiently supported by the book’s page layout and material properties (during the reading, it is impossible to forget about the touch and feel of the paper or the binding, for instance). It also finds a perfect match in Sassen’s photographs. Their equivalence is far from being illustrative, though. Sassen’s images do not visualize the themes or objects addressed by Coccia. Nor do they try to cover as wide a spectrum as that of the essay they accompany. Instead, they are a patient reworking of a small set of units and parts of units that are ceaselessly broken, torn apart, and rearranged in permanently changing combinations: a female body, some insects, various fruits, but also colors, tissues, shadows, liquids. The profound symmetry of this material is not that of their content, although the viewer is of course encouraged to do think so, but that of the mechanisms that determine the artists’s transformation of it: division and multiplication, binding and unbinding, segmentation, and fusion. In addition, the result of this combinatorics is always perfect readable: what the photographs display is not an action painting-like creative outburst, but carefully composed and well-lit compositions, very contemporary “living still lives” (the French term, “nature morte”, that is “dead nature”, would be a complete misnomer), whose general impression is not unlike the order Ad Reinhardt claimed for his minimalist black paintings: “No noise, no schmutz, no schmerz, no fauve schwärmerei.”

In Modern Alchemy, minimalism and maximalism seamlessly match. The convergence of words and images, neither flatly illustrative nor created by unusual montage effects, is diagrammatic. It is not the result of some direct identity between words on the one hand and images on the other hand. It progressively emerges from the awareness of a symmetry between textual and visual operations within both domains. As such, this book can serve as a model to all those who try to reinvent the marriage of words and images in contemporary art.