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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Works - Edouard Leve (translated by Jan Steyn) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

When you think of the word “fiction” do you generally think of a prose “story”? One with some basic narrative structure, whether in the short or long form? Did your education “tell you” it should have a beginning, a middle and an end? Did those training courses teach you the importance of character, plot, a sense of place, conflict?

Here is the Oxford Dictionary definition of “fiction”:

1.       (noun) 1. Literature in the form of prose, especially novels, that describes imaginary events and people
2.       2. Something that is invented or untrue
2.1   A belief or statement which is false, but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so

I’m not 100% sure that this definition helps, when we are looking at Edouard Leve’s “Works”. Leve was a Parisian artist, photographer and writer. After a trip to India in the early 1990’s he claimed to have destroyed his paintings and “reinvented” himself as a conceptual photographer. However I’m not here to review his photographic works, it is first publication “Works” (originally published as “Oeuvres” in 2002) which I am looking at, a book recently translated into English and released by Dalkey Archive.

If you search for Leve on the internet you will find numerous references to his final book “Suicide”, a work also published by the Dalkey Archive. This plethora of references is possibly best explained by the Berlin Review of Books biography:

There are books that can never escape the circumstances of their creation. Suicide is one of them. French artist and author Edouard Leve submitted the manuscript of his novel on October 5th, 2007; three days later his editor at Editions P.O.L. called to tell him that he was utterly captivated by it, and they arranged to meet on the 18th to discuss publication. The meeting was not to be. On the 15th, at the age of 42, Leve hanged himself in his Parisian apartment.

Was that act itself the ultimate in conceptual art? As an artist it is fascinating to look at Leve’s life and where better to start than his first published work? (Please note: I will review his final novel “Suicide” at a later stage).

“Works” is a list of 533 artistic projects that Leve has conceived but at the time of writing has not realised. Our book starts with the description of the book itself:

1.                    1. A book describes works conceived of but not realized by its author.

Further research shows that there are a number of conceived works in this book which Leve later does realise, but as we go through each of the conceived works we stumble across a number which are highly unlikely to come into being.

95. An artist creates ten paintings on his fingernails. Those on his left hand are painted with his right hand, and vice versa. The exhibit takes place in the home of the viewer. He is given a ten-sided die and is asked to throw it. The artist shows him the fingernail corresponding to the number on the die for as long as the viewer wants. He keeps his other fingernails hidden. The exhibition ends after then throws of the die. The viewer has a chance of thirty-six out of a hundred million to see all ten nails in the same session.

I am pretty sure there are a number of works in the book which other artists have realised, and as this book is translated into more and more languages, maybe a few “original” artists will be found out. Personally I thought there were a quite a few descriptions of works that would not be out of place in the MONA Gallery in Tasmania:

186. A black sheet of paper, with the outline of a figure perforated onto it, is stuck to the only window in an exhibition space. Light only passes into the room via the paper’s small pinholes.

331. An object in put on a pedestal in a dark room. A narrow orifice in the ceiling allows sunlight in once a year – at the exact hour when a woman’s life ended. The object was in the woman’s packet when she died.

This is a book that covers all of art’s grand themes, death, sex, creation, art itself and of course writing:

 247. The paragraphs of a novel are replaced by black rectangles whose surface area corresponds to the number of letters used in the paragraph. Spaces and line breaks are not counted. The top of each rectangle is aligned with there the corresponding paragraph started. The narrative is reduced to a sequence of geometric paintings.

This is a work which questions art itself, it questions reality, it questions fiction and it questions you as a reader. With no clear narrative structure or plot, you find yourself rereading entry after entry, so even though this is only 104 pages in length it is a much deeper work.

I should also point out that although it contains a number of typos (generally two words melded together) this is hardly a distraction as each entry requires you to refocus throughout anyways.

383. Caesar’s Rats. Each begotten by the next, eighty-four stuffed rats are displayed in single file. Though the twenty-five years separating the oldest from the youngest is witnessed by a single human generation, in rat terms they correspond to the gap between humans living now and their ancestors at the time of Julius Caesar.

Of course I’ve only shown you a few random samples from the book itself, however there are numerous examples that make you stop, double back, reread, check yourself, question the reality that we perceive before moving onto the next revelation.

Can a novel (?) be a performance piece? I’m not sure, but what I can tell you is this work makes you redefine your beliefs of fiction.

Works (French Literature Series) Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

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