Editor’s Note: In the May issue of The New Criterion, Dominic Green reports from Paris. His essay includes an interview with the artist Pierre de Mahéas. Here, Green discusses further de Mahéas’s work.
Pierre de Mahéas, Acheiropoieton Squared, mixed media, 2014
For centuries, we regretted the disintegration of knowledge—the endless making of too many books, the wars of art and science, the mutual incomprehension of the academic secessionists and the professional specialists. The unforeseen consequences of the Enlightenment included a despairing parlor game, in which overwhelmed intellectuals attempted to identify “the last person to know everything.” Every Western nation has at least one candidate. Milton for the English, Diderot for the French, Leonardo for the Italians, Franklin for the Americans, and Alexander von Humboldt, Leibniz, or Goethe for the Germans, even though Goethe himself would probably have nominated Athanasius Kircher.
The Internet has reunited information, but not comprehension. The idea of a “knowledge economy” is a flattering fiction; it would be more accurate to say that we are developing an ignorance economy. Like the scoundrel schemes of Subtle and Face, the villains of Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), click-bait is a “pretty kind of game,” making more money than knowledge. There is no Philosopher’s Stone of the Internet. Indeed, it hardly has a philosophical tone at all.
In an earlier age, Pierre de Mahéas (b.1967) would have been an alchemist. Not of the mountebank kind—I’ve known him for more than twenty years—but of the creative, philosophical kind, like those masters of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment; not a Cagliostro, but a John Dee. De Mahéas, a sculptor by training and philosopher by inclination, turns ideas into aesthetic experiences, and verbal concepts into physical forms. Explaining one form of knowledge by another, his art unites ideas and objects in the viewer’s perception.
The 2013 “film-sculpture” Klein is a film created by the logic of a sculpture. The track of the camera follows the path of a Klein bottle. This key-shaped “geometric curiosity” is, de Mahéas informs us, “the only volume through which one can move indefinitely without ever encountering an edge,” and in which it is “impossible to define an outside or an inside.” Over the fifteen-minute film, the perspective slips from subjective to objective, from a woman in an apartment to a superb vista of the Paris skyline, and then, in a measured yet ecstatic upward sweep, to the heavens. The soundtrack is by Henry Mancini. Elevator music is transmuted into elevated music, and boredom into magic.
Pierre de Mahéas, Sculpture-Film: Klein, 2014
In his Memoirs, Casanova recalls that Louis XV was “a martyr to boredom.” So the alchemical Comte de St.-Germain created “a laboratory” at Versailles to entertain the king, who found “pleasure or distraction” in making dyes. In my Paris letter, I describe the Go Fast Catalogue (2014), in which de Mahéas used a series of wax casts of Karl Marx’s head to depict the half-life of thought. I also describe Pierre’s current variations on the theme of acheiropoieton, the self-creating relic, like the Byzantine icons that were “made without a hand.” Pierre pours amber resins onto a portrait, inked on plexiglass. As the resin dries into a slab, smoke-like tendrils of ink float outwards, to be fixed in three dimensions. The tendrils are like vapor trails, mapping a transformation that, like the recipes of the alchemists, is supposed to be secret.
If the Marx series depicts how ideas, like banknotes, become dirtied and frayed by exchange, the acheiropoieton images document the contrary process, by which human matter becomes spiritual iconography. This transformation is central to Christian theology, alchemical speculation, the Romantic ideal of the artist, and even to the modern sales pitch of self-actualization. In de Mahéas’s work, we see how even apotheosis is remade over time.
Phlogiston (2014) acknowledges alchemical inheritances. Hypothesized in 1667 by the alchemist and doctor Johann Joachim Becher, phlogiston was a fire-like substance that was released during combustion. The phlogiston theory collapsed with Lavoisier’s “chemical revolution,” which coincided with the American Revolution; Lavoisier named Oxygen in 1778 and Hydrogen in 1783. Early 21st Century Man (2007–2011) returns to Frankenstein’s laboratory, and the New Age of constitutions conjured from thin air. Its soundtrack, Over the Waves, is a gentle waltz for strings by the Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868–94). But the image that arises before our eyes is a “post-human,” and post-humanist, monster, fixed in a moment of dissolution and recombination, like the sacred emptiness of the alembic before the experiment begins.
As Athanasius Kircher said, “Nothing is more beautiful, than to know all.”
Pierre de Mahéas, Early 21st Century Man: The Making of, 2007–2011