Just under the glass dome of the Bourse de Commerce runs a panorama, it depicts the glory of global trade (North, East, South, West) painted in the Romantic academic style. The Pinault Collection of contemporary art is housed below, as a gallery it is eclectic with a design that feels at times disorientating. Yet even with the confusion of the space, Edith Dekyndt’s exhibition L’Origine des choses strikes a clear and unwavering note.
Dekyndt’s works are set in the honey-toned lacquered wood of the vitrines which follow the contour of the Bourse. Her twenty-four bizarre and arresting compositions showcase materials that come from across the world. They are textural and sensitive: hair and fabric (dry and wet), stone, mineral, plastic and plant. For example, boiled cotton canvas stretched on a frame, dyed with an oozing calcium chloride and copper powder from a Congolese mine, ambient humidity. Strands of bleached Indian hair submerged in ozonated water below an Eastern-inspired Lyon silk brocade. Raw white earth from the island of Martinique on burlap, industrial white bread half-soaked in lampblack ink, pebble from the Libyan Sea.
The works are spare, careful, they create visceral reactions in the body and often rely on environmental conditions and/or natural chemical reactions … condensation, fermentation, rot. They draw you into their materials, which are detailed in the exhibition labels by their side, making clear a script behind the simplicity of the facade. The choices are made carefully, they are powerfully sensory and provoke a longing to touch, smell, taste, hear. That the art is staged in curiosity cabinets is important. It’s immediately apparent that the curiosity cabinet, the vitrine, the window, is responsible for a transformation of one’s relationship to the work. Firstly, the compositions seem to move from sculpture to still life because of how they are presented. Behind the vitrine they are not three-dimensional, mobile objects but tableaux, there is a fixed vantage point, they are to be regarded face-à-face. Secondly, the vitrine constructs a relationship of difference which conditions how one thinks about the composition, particularly given the history of the cabinet of curiosity, in the Bourse specifically, which was reconfigured in 1889 on the occasion of the Exposition Universelle where colonial goods and lives were displayed, at times behind vitrines. The instinct therefore is not to look on L’Origine des choses passively, but to interrogate it and to ask “What is this Other? And why is it so?”. Dekyndt’s work has a scientific feel which plays into the history aforementioned, the history of the curious and the titillating Other. The spectator then is asked to look with fascination, curiosity, at something which is materially different.
Dekyndt’s postcolonial vantage point is immediately clear with the first item on show. Indigenous Shadow (2014) is a video presenting a black flag waving independence or victory in the wind, the flag is made entirely of human hair, it looks like a track of hair extensions. As you progress through the exhibition this theme is further explored, with the canvas soaked with minerals from a Congolese mine or the platinum Indian hair in water. Under the colonial story painted luxuriously onto the roof — where, on the cardinal points, Europe is represented by the arts and architecture, Africa by a lion and the hunt, Asia and the Middle East by hookah and elephants, and the North by a polar bear — the work clearly seems to be talking back. But it is undoubtedly playful. It’s perhaps not talking but laughing. The oxymoron of platinum blonde “Indian” hair for example is nothing if not ironic; the flag of hair is whimsical perhaps facetious, so too the roses wrapped in sellotape coupled with sugar starched cloth. A coolness, a cynicism is required to spot the buffoonery of colonialism and its seemingly perpetual echo; Dekyndt understands what Wole Soyinka understood, particularly in his play Death and The King’s Horseman, that the tragedy of colonialism is awful but the comedy is golden, there is nothing more ridiculous than a pink faced Englishman in Nigeria, after all.
Dekyndt has described L’Origine des choses as a “theatre of objects”. These objects often stay in her studio for long periods of time before she decides whether they are to take centrestage. She has also described how many of her materials have had a first life before becoming art works, and that they continuously dance between objet and objet d’art for this reason. Perhaps this is the source of the arresting power and impish charm of her installations: a certain life force imbued in her subjects. They undoubtedly have a sort of a presence, a nerve. Dekyndt’s objects are a playful attempt to distil the world down to its elements, to look at things from every angle, pull things apart with curiosity, laugh at them, move them around, stare intently, put them behind a glass, pull History’s pants down by its ankles, search to find for the origin of things.