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01 May
Tue / 2012

Keep It Simple

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Rachel Withers reflects on her time at the Dora Maar House and her current project with Swiss artist Roman Signer:

Ah, it’s the artist’s familiar complaint. Somehow this piece seemed so much wittier and more entertaining in conception than it does now, in execution. Maybe the spectacular sceneries that the Ménerbes area offers can have a distorting effect on one’s thought processes... I started writing it in my head yesterday afternoon as I bumped along a dirt track on the hardy wee 27-speed vélo I’ve borrowed from Dora Maar’s garage. The text was coming along nicely as I pedaled past an immaculately laid-out little vineyard wedged between two spectacular, towering, vertiginous spurs of rock: near-vertical slopes bristling with pines and crowned with blue limestone crags. (How inspired those lucky grapes must be, I thought.) Arriving at the base of the afternoon’s main attraction – the 20 kilometer-long, 715-meter-high slug of rock that dwarfs even the blue spurs – I thought I had it sorted. I’d explain how the Brown Foundation Fellowship allows you a great, an invaluable, overview of the project in hand; and how you can work, work, work at it during the day, then have a sneaky four o’clock nap, then scoot out into the wilds and climb, climb, climb. And after thirty minutes’ steady, solitary uphill trudging you’re not just feeling on top of the world, you’re actually standing on the summit of the Petit Luberon, with Ménerbes and the Maison Dora Maar shrunk to minute proportions way below and views stretching out to Provençal towns and landmarks tens of kilometers distant.

And in fact it’s all true: my month here chez Dora has helped me not just to deal in detail with aspects of my current project with the Swiss artist Roman Signer, but to resolve some more foundational questions about it. Without giving too much away (it’s not scheduled to surface in the U.K. till 2014) Roman and I are working together on a project concerning his addiction to books. It’s a seemingly incurable condition that broke out fifteen or twenty years ago, he reports. The consequence is a house-full of books: thousands of them, purchased all over the globe, covering a deeply eccentric variety of subjects and groaning with bizarre, beautiful, strange, sometimes even rather alarming illustrations.

Roman’s key concern is that people understand the proper relationship between his work and the books. They are absolutely not the source or starting-point for his ideas. They come after the work; they are the place where he escapes, to relax, speculate and dream. So the books have an intriguing role: they are both a counterpoint to and an odd correlate of the marvelously simple, poetic sculptural experiments for which Signer has become world famous. And therein lies my challenge. As the project’s editor, fabricator and “curator” I must allow that relationship to spread out clearly like a remarkable and complex landscape, and not let the books shroud people’s views of Roman’s elegantly simple – in his word “elemental” – works of art, with a damp, clammy fog of false intellectualization. 

In addition to this, for a few days this April, my surveying activities have – and here, you must promise not to breathe a word to the folk at the Brown Foundation! – strayed a little off piste. I’ve been stalking through my own archive of writing, making decisions as to what to post on my (long overdue) website. Rachelwithers.com will be a selective archive of fifteen years of publication. It’s a considerable wordage, and let me tell you, staring across that terrain is a good deal scarier than peering over any cliff in the Luberon. Lurking among the more presentable tracts of verbiage are some deep, dark, dismal quagmires, and the common denominator in almost every case is over-intellectualization: clever theories bandied around for clever theories’ sake. Time to take a lesson from the Swiss master and the Luberon landscape: keep it simple, stupid!

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