— Cultural Sources of Newness

Waste as a cultural source of newness: Inspired by Serge Crampon

My first intellectual introduction to the topic of valuing waste was when the anthropologist Mike Thompson was a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Society of the WZB in the late-1970s. He was working on his Rubbish Theory at the time (in between his treks in the Himalayas, a passion he shared with our WZB colleague Rob Coppock, who was working on chaos theory). If I don’t count learning about the garbage can theory of decision making, my next intellectual engagement with the subject came many years later when my colleagues at the research unit Cultural Sources of Newness chose texts by Boris Groys for our internal seminar. We discussed how things that society no longer values become sources of new value at later points in time and we explored the potential usefulness of the concept of re-valorization for our research program at the WZB.

The concept intrigued me, but it was not until André Sobczak introduced me to the French artist Serge Crampon  in 2009, that it really made sense to me. Serge’s art emerges from materials that nature and humans abandon, items he discovers during his walks and brings back to his studio, where he reveals their essence in a new creation.

When I first visited the studio in a little village near Nantes with André we were surrounded by Serge’s recent paintings and drawings on the walls and on tables, bags hanging from the ceiling, and models on tables. Each time we have returned to the studio in subsequent years, we find ourselves in almost completely new surroundings. Two weeks ago there were huge panels with black calligraphic-like lines, a new project that has grown out of his discovery of an unusual orchard, whose owner had trained the trees to lower their branches so that he could pick the fruit easily. Serge was shocked to pass the orchard one day and find the trees pulled out of the ground: the owner had given up on his project because his grown children would not maintain it. Serge collected some of the uprooted trees and suspended them, allowing them to swing in the air above patches of earth in which they had grown. They then became part of a choreographic performance with a dancer, and the large panels now seek to capture the essence of the trees in movement with a few lines. The dead trees whose owner had given up are now living on, sources of new value. And this is just one of the numerous new projects he is engaged in.

The purpose of our most recent visit to Serge was to explore the possibility of involving him in the upcoming RIODD conference on global responsibility at Audencia   For example, we wonder what would happen if we stimulated people in organizations to think about their working environment and their jobs with the following attitudes that Serge expresses about his work:

  • « Valoriser les déchets par le regard qu’on y porte, leur donner une valeur esthétique. »
  • « J’invente mon métier à chaque fois! »

However, we regretfully decided that the RIODD conference would not offer enough time and space for participants to engage with Serge and his work. Instead, we will involve him in the context of a series of seminars and events on Global Responsibility and the Arts that we will organize with Dominique Billier at Audencia next year. To be continued.

In the meantime, I warmly recommend visiting Serge’s website which includes three  short  films about his work (for the Artup film, click on the  HD video link on the site ).

For those who cannot read French, here are my unofficial translations of some of the texts on the site:

 From Newsletter 2009

At first glance it is a beige mass, added to other scraps at the bottom of a container on the timber port of St. Malo. A form that is initially quite indistinct and crumpled, which suddenly takes shape and emits a special radiance in the indirect light. It offers the observer the privilege of giving it meaning, an aesthetic value.

Once it has been noticed, chosen and picked up, this form, this abandoned mass, gives rise to the fervent sense of a find that is extremely malleable. It will become part of a series entitled “Tawdry rags and other refuse” (“Oripeaux et autres abandons”), forms and materials deposited then collected during my ramblings along paths and shorelines.

In the light, the wear and tear from long exposure to the winds and sea sprays accentuate and reveal a richness and sophistication which open up spaces for new experiences.

Rather than immediately inspiring any kind of retouching that would change the initial impression, the material reveals its subtly-ordered plasticity, its structured soul becomes apparent. It is only the desire to separate the layers, then to recompose them to present the two hidden faces of this archaic assemblage that participates in the act of creation.

Text written by Catherine Plassart for a new exhibit

 The world must fly

To feel lightness is a concrete sensation. Dance offers the aesthetic experience of such a sensation. But it is not the exclusive domain of choreography or rhythm. Artists who sculpt, paint and draw incorporate impressions of lightness in their work, making one think that if a being can fly, the world need not remain on the ground.

At the origin of Serge Crampon’s artistic quest are scraps, materials forsaken, deteriorated and soiled by the great banquet of modern life; objects from nature now exhausted, floating and capable of disturbing us. A multitude of heavy traces destined to burden the earth and weigh on the ground. But in his approach the creator makes space for the imagination. His “chance” subjects find favourable winds, lift off, dilate, spread, and in this way attain a useful and precious lightness in a world that must fly.

From every walk undertaken with the uncertain objective of a collection, Serge Crampon returns with armloads full of abandoned materials. Formless in their neglected state, they spoil the landscape or fill dumps. However, they have a shadow: the memory of their use, their past function. The artist’s energy concentrates entirely on this germane shadow to permit us to sense that all life is pregnant with its past. This is how the idealisation of the humble slags of a shimmering industrial disarray emerges — from the alchemy which combines the experience of human activity with the power of the imagination.

In Serge Crampon’s oeuvre, which encompasses space for work and time for rest, philosophy gives way to the eternal combat, and discourse to sobriety. The artist is tenacious in his approach and rigorous in executing his art, applying several skills—painting, drawing, sculpting, and more—to unfold inexhaustibly the spirit of resistance in the land of silence and forgetting. He is the meticulous surveyor of a vast tract of space-time called History, the stage manager for an idea. He teaches that the world must feel light because, after all, humans reign supreme in their reveries.

Introduction to Artup-tv piece/ text by F-C Baitinger :

To see does not mean to look at what is in front of us, but to be capable of naming it. And, by giving this name, to assign an essence and a function to the things that surround us. This is why every true artist is said to be a ‘seer,’ because art works by rising above the everyday vocabulary, a move that lifts the artist’s vision beyond the limits of his condition, placing him in a new kind of Garden of Eden. This new Adam has the poetic responsibility to give a new name to the world around him.

De signatura rerum

“If all things, plants, seeds, stones, and roots reveal in their qualities, their forms, their figures what is inside them (…), then the signature is the science through which one finds all that is hidden. And without this art, one can do nothing profound.” (Paracelsus)

This is not a trunk but a torso. This is not a wire netting, but rather a bramble heap. Such is the vision of Serge Crampon, indefatigable rambler, self-taught and multi-talented. Sometimes sculpting, sometimes painting, sometimes drawing, sometimes photographing, this boundary-spanning artist seeks always to work with that which our society relegates to the category of “waste” in order to enable the emergence of forms capable of suggesting, without actually representing, the multiple forces that make-up a field of tensions in every body of matter.

By picking up what appeared to be dead, the movement that underlies his art is an extension of Land Art and Arte Povera. He works only with humble materials like driftwood, wires, or well-worn boilermakers’ gloves, and he always finds his inspiration outside the studio, whether that is out in nature or in an industrial wasteland. Serge Crampon is not a romantic artist focused on himself. He is a resurrector, an alchemist, a man capable of transforming the lead of our modern societies into visual gold, in other words into symbols.

Always in search of new forms and new materials, his approach is related to that of “primitive” people whose creativity transcends the limits of bricolage and diversion (détournement). Following the example of the likes of Roger Caillois who saw in the striations in rocks the future of abstraction, Serge Crampon is inventing a new form of ready-made for which he does not just use objects of mass consumption but rather calls on the world in its entirety to furnish him with works of art, as long as the objects that compose it have lost the context that had originally given them meaning and attributed to them a function.

For it is only at the exact point at which this decay, this slippage occurs that an object can at last become itself once again, in other words, be nothing more than the palpable expression of a material that tries, despite all attempts to destroy it, to maintain its form. This is the most fascinating aspect of Serge Crampon’s art, this stripping away of the temporality that gives materials their creases and furrows; it is an art which lays bare before us, almost unwittingly, the very foundation on which our universe moves; this moving, floating foundation to which Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, gave the supreme name: the will to power.