Colin Guillemet: Smoothed Operators

Colin Guillemet, XXL. Mutt, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Colin Guillemet, XXL. Mutt, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Transcription of a lecture recorded on April 23, 2015:


Let us begin with a look at that most emblematic of Romantic poets:

For oft when on my couch I lie

In vacant or pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude,

And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.

Consider, for a moment, where the poem places us, the reader. The titular opening line of Wordsworth’s oft-cited poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (1807) gives us a simile that presents the image of an anthropomorphised, forlorn cloud. As if we are outdoors watching the poet on a pleasant outdoor stroll, it puts us firmly in the role of a standby spectator, or maybe a fellow rambler. But as we approach the closing lines above, it turns out instead that we have the whole time been indoors, as he lounges dejectedly on his sofa. More specifically, inside his head: the vision we’ve been subject to is that of his ‘inward eye’. We finish the poem trapped in this space, standing next to a dancing, stuffed heart, as if we’re at some sort of internal organ-vegetation wedding party.

The point is, of course, that Wordsworth’s journey is achieved overtly through his visual imagery, but more effectively through his quietly unusual metaphors – lonely clouds, blissful eyes, dancing hearts – that direct us towards and hem us in to the peculiar mood he seems to find himself in. Which is to say: metaphor is instructional.

Now, let us look to a more contemporary example, which we shall draw from the second most successful song of all time and the final number one hit of the last millennium:

It’s just like the ocean

Under the moon,

It’s the same as the emotion

That I get from you.

Here, similarly, we are initially given a simile that sets an outdoor scene, this time at night; we might be at the shore, looking at the reflection of the moon in the water and thinking of the planetary cycle, how the effect of the moon’s gravity manifests itself in our ebbing tides. The chorus of Santana and Rob Thomas’ ‘Smooth’ (1999) [i] then, like Wordsworth, draws back into the interiority of the singer’s emotions. But the singular construction of the line gives us pause. The use of ‘get from you’ makes it ambiguous as to whether it is the singer’s own feelings, or just his understanding of what the object of his affection’s feelings might be. Furthermore, the initial simile doesn’t provide us with what the ocean is being compared to, and by the time we arrive at what we might assume is its corresponding subject – ‘the emotion’- we have been told that it is not similar, or like, or metonymical to the ocean but ‘the same.’[ii]

This places us, the listener, in quite an awkward position. Where Wordsworth’s figures of speech are strange invisible entities given unlikely qualities, they remain in the realm of analogy. These curious creatures might teach us, as some claimed of Wordsworth, to make us look again, to ‘open out the soul of little or insignificant things’. In Thomas’ lyrics, though, we have a remarkable transformation where in a brief instant a passing sentiment literally becomes a planetary phenomenon. An incomplete simile is turned into a physical fact. This places us in an odd in-between state where his uttering of ‘just like’ and ‘it’s the same’ both point straight at the metaphor he’s thinking of, while at the same time abolishing it. Here, Thomas leaves us conscious and caught with the impossibility of the statement. [iii]

Colin Guillemet, Untitled (Vaccum), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Colin Guillemet, Untitled (Vaccum), 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Now, let us turn to the true focus of this talk:

We enter into a dim room, the sound of a steady wind filling the space, a rhythmic click every few moments. A low wooden platform juts out from one wall for a few metres. A slide projector sits at one end. The projected photographs show the head of a vacuum cleaner being run along a stretch of dark brown sand, pushed in all directions over the sequence in an attempt to it smooth out and erase any footsteps or other marks.

The room, the installation Untitled (Vacuum) (2012) by Colin Guillemet, is on a pictorial level placing us as a witness, giving us documentation of the patently ridiculous gesture of someone trying to clean a beach. On a sensory level, we are placed in a sort of beach simulation: the projector mechanisms providing the cheap imitation sounds of wind and waves, the platform acting as a jetty in to this ersatz holiday space. The installation poses a hypothetical answer to a long-delayed question: if the beach is beneath the paving stones, what’s beneath the beach? Standing in this room, we are placed on the beach but perhaps in a potential future where the insane person who has attempted to hoover up all the sand might have actually succeeded. Guillemet’s slogan might thus be: beneath the (kind of) beach, the (kind of) gallery.

The ‘kind of’ is important: none of the worlds that Guillemet portrays here are fully immersive or resolved but uneasily reliant on each other, and it leaves the visitor in an imaginary half-state. Like Thomas, Guillemet weaves a concentrated palimpsest of self-digesting half metaphors, ones that call attention to themselves but refuse to disappear. This leads us to the potential of the consciously reified metaphor, the double-crossed and ousted analogy, the non sequitur comparison that might somehow escape into reality.

Colin Guillemet, Imposteurs, 2008-2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Colin Guillemet, Imposteurs, 2008-2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Let us continue:

Three animals are each perched on corresponding stacks of shipping pallets. They are, at first glance, stiffly colourful and life-size representations of a blue penguin, a pink flamingo, and a white ram. Each is carved out of polystyrene, at times a bit unfinished and roughly hewn. But there is something else, something you might describe as ‘wrong.’ Each of the animals wears a plastic party mask: the penguin is disguised as a pig, the flamingo as a grey donkey, and the ram as some sort of yellow-beaked bird, perhaps even a penguin.

These as a group are the Imposters (Pretender (penguin) (2008), Pretender (ram) (2014), and Pretender (flamingo) (2014)). We might imagine them as an animal-led bank heist gang; or we might take pity on these creatures for what they seem to think passes for a persuasive imitation; or even admire them for their attempts at drag, trying to actualise their inner identities. The attempts, though, remain slight and ultimately unconvincing. Who do you think your fooling? The hollows in the eyes of each mask stare back blankly: we’re asking the aspirations of a piece of polystyrene. These wannabes aren’t fooling anyone, but still here they are. Maybe the question should be asked of the artist, or of ourselves. The metaphors that Guillemet gives us here (polystyrene as animal, animal as party trick, animal as animal) place us as surreal detectives, but without any resolution. We’re left working at an impossible knot.

Guillemet’s work tends to treat the world as a ready material for use: oversized bone-shaped dog chew toys, ‘Flamingo Fun No. 2’ paint from Dulux, snippets of films from Herzog or Goddard, a live canary, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings or a worn out phrase like ‘the cup is half empty’, all are treated equally as starting points. Every thing tells a story; or rather, everything comes from a certain context, and in its relation to us instructs us in the manners and codes of that context. Everything both is itself, but also a metaphor for its context, instructing us, placing us. Guillemet’s role is that of the wayward, mischievous poet, conjuncting things from one context with things from another, to create mixed metaphors and entities that hover unresolved. They butt up against each other, wind around dead-ended corners, disappear in puns and spirals. Guillemet’s conjunctions are deliberately crossed wires, concise confusions, and joyfully pointed failures. What becomes apparent when a metaphor fails or sputters out is that act of instruction: it becomes apparent that we are already well versed and bound into these contexts, bringing with us our own baggage of stereotypes, assumptions, clichés, expectations. But even dead-ended metaphors are instructional: the act of interpellation becomes if not ineffective, then at least visible, an object in itself that can be contemplated.

In one of his more recent works, Guillemet draws a room. Over a set of videos shown on four sequential screens, we see a lit fuse running along the contours of four corners. We can see the scratch of celluloid on the images, and hear the whirring sound of a film projector, but the videos have been transposed from their Super 8 origins to more contemporary, digital projections. The work, Fuse Corners (2015), places us in this delineated room, but perhaps what is in the room is up to us. For some, it might call to mind scenes from Mission: Impossible, or any number of cartoons or films where a sparkling fuse draws ever-closer to a waiting incendiary device. The stark outlines might recall, for the more art historically inclined, one of LeWitt’s geometric drawings, or bring to mind Bruce Nauman’s mapping of the mouse-infested corners of his studio. The explosion never arrives, but we remain in this tense room, one that is self-consciously cinematic through its film haze, and incessantly drawing its own perimeters.

The question and playful challenge posed by Guillemet’s work, of course, is if we can free ourselves of these hemmed in spaces and these instructions, if by laying bare these bindings we might be able to if not liberate ourselves then at least re-wire them. The problem is left for us to solve, or indeed throw out and start again, if that’s at all possible. Wordsworth’s sister, in a diary entry that helped inspire his later poem, described the daffodils as ‘ever-glancing, ever-changing,’[iv] and it is this state that we might ideally aspire to with our relationship with the metaphorical world. But, as Guillemet seems to suggest, it is more likely closer to the tautological assertion and gruesome half-reality that Thomas demands in ‘Smooth’: ‘You’re the reason for my reason…Give me your heart,/ Make it real/ Or else forget about it.’ It is in this doubled-back part-metaphorical existence that Guillemet creates that we might envision our escape, attempting to jog with limbs flailing towards wild, free interpretation.[v]


First published in Colin Guillemet: Fil Rouge, 2015




[i] The song is listed as Billboard’s second most successful song of all time, only following Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ (1960). The song spent 12 weeks at number one in the USA, though it only reached a highest ranking of 15th place in France.

[ii] The clues to the peculiar construction of this line might lie in its unique provenance. The song, originally composed by Ital Shuur, instead had the lines ‘Room one seven, on the seventeenth floor, take the elevator and I’ll meet you at the door.’ After being accepted by the Arista record label for consideration for Santana’s upcoming album of collaborations, one director at the label felt the original line ‘sounded like a groupie meeting a musician after a concert – not something Carlos Santana would be associated with.’ He changed the line to ‘give me the ocean, give me the moon’, which was subsequently further altered by Rob Thomas before the recording session to the immortal line we have today.

[iii] Rob Thomas on his thinking behind writing the song: ‘[My wife and I] had just moved into New York at the time and were feeling young and hot. I think it’s got to be a moment of inspiration to write a line like, “You’ve got the kind of loving that can be anything.”’

[iv] Dorothy Wordsworth, describing a walk at Gowbarrow Park in the Eastern Fells, Lake District, UK, April 1802.

[v] Post Script, July 2015: The recorded lecture and subsequent academic papers were disputed by followers of the New Criticism, and then re-instated the following week by the followers of the newly founded school of Wild Interpretation. The Historicists have as yet declined to comment, though the New Contextualists have made a point to distance themselves from the statements made here. The lecturer is still in hiding.


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