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Au commencement la chaleur
February 11 - April 3, 2021
Cloître St Merri II, Paris

Galerie Nathalie Obadia is delighted to present Au commencement la chaleur, Sarkis’s sixth exhibition, after Les vitraux mobiles de Sarkis in 2019 and Intérieurs in 2018. Born in 1938, in Istanbul, the artist moved to Paris in 1964, where he spent the last 60 years developing a prodigious body of work that defies any attempt at classification. Starting with Kriegsschatz (War Treasure) and Leidschatz (Pain Treasure), concepts that would inform his prolific career from 1976 onwards, Sarkis became a pioneering figure in the way he reflected on the history and aesthetics of pillaged or subtracted objects. At a time when international institutions have started to address this hot topic — an area of particular concern for museums —, Sarkis scrupulously continues to carry out the critical analysis he had begun almost 45 years earlier.

Au commencement la chaleur comprises a group of Scènes en cuivre (Copper Scenes), Plans Brûlés avec néons S.W.N.O. (Burned Plans with Neons S.W.N.O.), and a work on paper from the series Main/Feu (Hand/Fire). Highly incandescent, this exhibition steeps the viewer in a decor set alight by the works’ glowing emanations.

He began to work on the series of Plans Brûlés avec néons S.W.N.O. in 1997 and presented it for the first time that same year at Barbara Claasen-Schmal Gallery in Bremen. Each work comprises a wooden frame with the four cardinal points (Nord, Ost, West, Süd), in neon, shaped according to the artist’s own handwriting: the positions of these points are intentionally inaccurate and throw off our sense of space. The plans are topographical surveys of places that were crucial to Sarkis, who draws the main elements of their inflamed furniture in red watercolor. Thus, 1997 S.O.W.N. (galerie B.) reproduces the burning space of the Barbara Claasen-Schmal Gallery, while 1997. O.S.W.N. (Krutenau) evokes his own studio-bedroom at rue Krutenau in Strasbourg. While at the head of the art department of the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs from 1980 to 1990, he never invited anyone to his monastic home-studio, but the room was the birthplace of an absolutely crucial production in his oeuvre.

The flames, made with water and red pigment, reflect the intensity and inexorable power of the interaction between materials and space. Eminently alive, the objects, the wall, or the furniture simulate the artist’s creative power. The pencil-drawn floorplans recall Sarkis’s early training and the fondness for architecture that infuses all of his creation — his works and his exhibitions. All the techniques are visible and the materials were selected meticulously for their intrinsic properties — the neon is Sarkis’s optic nerve and watercolor is chosen for the way it interacts with the liquidity of water.

The series of Scènes en cuivre also bears the weight of its material: copper is preferred for its electric and thermal conductivity on the one hand and its resistance to corrosion on the other. Sarkis realizes the T-shaped supports in this metal, which he considers “warm”, and drapes them with fabrics that are meaningful. The first two works in this series begun in 2012 present Dozo vests (Burkina Faso), from the confraternity of West African hunters; one of these is currently on show at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac through June 27, 2021, in the exhibition Ex Africa, curated by Philippe Dagen.

A light silk tunic, meticulously sourced from a vintage store, partly covers a coat of mail that reproduces the T of its support structure; a multi-pocket, military vest for desert operations (other type of body armor) embraces a shimmery, floral dress made by a Korean designer. A lacerated camouflage jacket is adorned with a “bird” bag by the same stylist. The bag, with its golden seams, sequins and embroidered beads, jars against the backdrop of the hostile equipment. The pierced coppery rod of 2015.03 Sculpture de cuivre avec veste militaire et sac Tsumori Chisato (2015.03 Copper Sculpture with Military Jacket and Tsumori Chisato Bag) brings to mind a flute harnessing a harlequin. Associating tactical and warlike clothing with happy, seductive fabrics creates something of a paradox. While war is by no means poetic, the elements that determine it can be: it is this duality that interests Sarkis, who finds sublime in the camouflage motif, as evident in the title of the work 2018. Veste de camouflage en paysage de neige et châle en soie à fleurs (2018. Camouflage Jacket as Snowy Landscape and Floral Silk Scarf).

At once “minimalistic and maximalistic,” they are Totems, which, because of their size, lend the clothing a certain dignity. According to the artist, “the artwork becomes an artwork when it is shown, in all its glory: clothing is proud to be exhibited.” Transcended by their supports, these fabrics reach a culminating sculptural state, with the elevation freeing their psychological and spiritual dimension.

2018.05.17 Main/Feu en 7 couleurs d’arc-en-ciel, sur 3 feuilles superposées (2018.05.17 Hand/Fire in 7 Rainbow Colors, on 3 Superimposed Sheets) is the next work to punctuate the exhibition. The motif is made with an impasto of rainbow-colored paints and represents a matrix that recalls, at once, a hand and combusting flames. Edged with the oil that has bled into the paper, leaving behind a halo that espouses the shape, the living matter continues to weep even when the artist’s hand has distanced itself. The superimposition of sheets of paper can be seen in transparency under the pictorial layers, adding, via this stratification, a multiplied perception of inflamed desires.

By composing reverently, using active materials, Sarkis proposes a powerful hanging with Au commencement la chaleur. With an evident mastery that does not detract from his work’s sheer vehemence, the Plans Brûlés, Main/Feu and Scènes en cuivre are hearths that ignite at the spectator’s contact. The dazzling combustions provoked by these encounters will soon turn into a tenacious glow that attests to the crucialness of Sarkis’s visionary work.