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Portrait of the artist as a heterolopologist


by Michel Gauthier


There are disturbing works. If we easily discern in them the objective reasons for loving them, for appreciating them, if we can state without too much difficulty why they matter, we nevertheless know that these arguments do not exhaust our interest in them. The Maquette project is one of these works.


It was in 2002 that Hassan Darsi launched the said project. It was a question of drawing up the report of the state of abandonment in which was the park of the Hermitage, in Casablanca. Developed between 1917 and 1927 by the urban planner Henri Prost[1], these eighteen hectares of greenery had the ambition of offering Casablancans a place conducive to daydreaming, with designed gardens, a body of water and a space wooded. A certain administrative sloppiness allowed the gradual reduction of the park to a quarter of its initial area with the establishment of various constructions (fairground attractions, ministerial delegation, communal deposit of equipment, housing for civil servants). Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, the park of the Hermitage no longer offered city dwellers in need of foliage more than a dry pond and trees rooted in rubbish and rubble. The dream lung of the modern city had turned into a place of insalubrity and insecurity.


In 1967, in a text written on the occasion of a stay in Tunisia, Michel Foucault put forward the concept of "heterotopia" to designate "real places, effective places, places which are drawn in the very institution of society, and which are sorts of counter-locations, sorts of effectively realized utopias in which the real locations, all the other real locations that can be found within the culture are both represented, contested and inverted, sorts of places that are outside of all places, although they are nevertheless effectively localizable”[2]. As examples of heterotopias, Foucault notably cites prisons, nursing homes, psychiatric clinics, cemeteries, but also theaters and cinemas, libraries, museums and gardens. The Parc de l'Hermitage is a heterotopia that had gone from happy to dysphoric. The pleasure garden, the place to stroll had been transformed into a vacant lot and a dump.


Such a situation of course did not fail to arouse disappointment and protests. Faced with this urban and social disaster, Darsi was looking for the most appropriate response. The artist then considered the realization of a model of 17 m2, with the sole concern of showing the park in the exact state that was now his. At first, a precise survey of the park was made from countless photographs. Then Darsi invited whoever wanted to participate in the construction of the model. About thirty people having answered the call, the work began in the fall of 2002 and ended the following spring, in the studio opened for the occasion by the Villa des Arts. The model, once finished, was exhibited there for the first time, in April 2003. Petitions, public meetings, articles in the press accompanied the project in such a way that, on the day of the opening, the wali of Grand Casablanca publicly committed to rehabilitate the Hermitage park. This rehabilitation has actually taken place since – without prejudice to its aesthetic and urban success.

Here is the chronicle of the Project of the model, told several times[3], which marks, without a doubt, an important date in the recent history of Moroccan art, as was able to do, in 1969, the famous exhibition of the Jamaâ El Fna square, in Marrakech, which saw Mohamed Melehi show in the public space his works as well as those of Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chabaâ and Mohamed Hamidi.


The Model Project is of course not the first work to bear witness to the artist's social commitment to the city. We could, for example, compare it with certain works by Lara Almarcegui[4] which also show a purely political concern for urban changes and their architectural consequences – restoration of a hall doomed to destruction or publication of a guide to vacant lots remaining in a European metropolis. The Model Project stands out, however, for the process adopted. It was important to Darsi that not only the purpose of the work but also its mode of elaboration manifest a democratic will. With The Model Project, it is just as much and perhaps even more of a political practice of art than the practice of a political art. The work was therefore intended to be participatory. But participation is not solicited here at the exhibition stage. It is not one of the springs, one of the arguments of the show. It was during the development and production of the piece that the participation of actors other than the artist was organised. The work is also relational[5]. The Model Project has functioned as a platform for social relations and exchange that has brought together a number of people for several years.


Participative, relational, Darsi's piece is also characterized by its refusal to respond to the demand addressed today to artists from non-Western countries, and especially to artists from the Arab world. To satisfy the old drive for exoticism, the Western art market shows a fondness for works enhancing, by means of a refreshed palette, the local colors of the former colonies. A new orientalism is thus born, which has all the characteristics of that of which Edward W. Saïd produced, more than thirty years ago, the masterful archaeology[6], except that the essentialization of the differences between the north and the south, the west and the east, the west and the east, it is no longer Western artists but Eastern artists who accredit it through their works. The globalization of the art market will have succeeded in this feat of having non-Western artists themselves endorse the Orientalist discourse. And the eloquent formula of Victor Segalen – “pimps of the sensation of diversity” – finds more and more often the occasion to return to our memories. In such a context, which certainly deserves a more in-depth analysis, The Model Project stands out for not yielding to the sirens of this neo-Orientalism. Local, very local – the rehabilitation of a park in the El Miter Bouchentouf district of Casablanca – but without the slightest hint of exoticism, and notably at a distance from the Islamic theme to which the Western art system would like to devote contemporary Arab artists.


This is what, too briefly stated, gives Darsi's model a strategic place in the artistic production of the time. However, the work goes beyond the specific circumstances of its genesis and its value as a manifesto in the present process of “globalization” of the artistic scene. Moreover, Darsi did not wish to restrict the possibilities of its reception by not imposing that the exhibition of the Model be imperatively accompanied by the documentary set which contextualizes it: press kit; video delivering images of the collective manufacturing process; silkscreen on photograph of the project statement; or text of the petition then put into circulation. The Model can be presented alone in the exhibition space, delivered to the unique powers of its materiality and the singular representative exercise from which it proceeds. Unaware of the citizen dispute about a garden in Casablanca, the gaze can scan the parts of the model reproducing the areas of the park that have become dumps; they may remind him of the surface of Dirt Painting (for John Cage) that Robert Rauschenberg produced around 1953 by encircling an agglomerate of dirt and mold with a wooden frame. The eye can also linger over such other parts of the model: small more or less dilapidated constructions, "café du caïd", pedal boat garage, pig carousel, turtle carousel, torn striped tent bumper cars or a large dry basin, of which he will appreciate the astonishing precision of the restitution. Randomly on his way, he will still discover the white building of the Culture Delegation or the tiny replica of a sculpture representing a lion[7].


The contemplation of its detail in the ignorance of the conjuncture which presided over its realization, it is undoubtedly the reception to which the exhibition, museum existence that it is called to live destines the piece of Darsi. Since its production, it has already traveled, with or without its documentary apparatus: to the Artoteek in Schiedam-Rotterdamen 2005, to the Biennial of Contemporary Art in Seville (BIACS), in 2006, to the Mukha in Antwerp, to the occasion of a retrospective devoted to Darsi in 2007, or even at the Triennial of Contemporary Art in Prague in 2008, “Re-reading the future”. Over the course of this existence, the links between the work and its original context will gradually become weaker. And when the spectator forgets the rescue project of a park in Casablanca, he will then observe the combined action of a poetics of the model and a poetics of ruin. It is the very great strength of Darsi's piece that it combines the prospective dimension which is usually that of an architectural model with the decay of what it represents. The models are indeed intended to materialize a future, to give a first body to a project. They even often constitute the only possible language of utopia, the only space for a realization that reality will ultimately not allow. Darsi superbly reverses this usual function, by modeling not the future development of a place, but its dilapidation, its ruin. Thus a temporal tension is established between the project value attached to the model and that of reminder, of commemoration, specific to the representation of a ruin. The vehicle of utopia has turned into an image of an unfortunate heterotopia. Such a reversal makes the Model Project a kind of monument. The monument of the failed destiny of an urban facility and also, if we are willing to take into consideration the role played by Casablanca as a laboratory of modern architecture – the debates of the famous International Congress of Modern Architecture of Aix-en -Provence, in 1953, revolve very largely around the projects of Casablanca – the monument of a modernist architecture and town planning which will have withstood very badly the confrontation, over time, with political and social realities.


The poetics of the model implemented by Darsi"s piece is not unrelated to a series, undertaken in 1992 by Didier Marcel[8], which consists of demolition models of architectures heir to the principles of functionalism – the ruins in a manner of vernacular modernism. One of them, from 2004, features the former Seita factory in Dijon, whose unfortunate fate, as in the case of the Darsi model, is also linked to specific circumstances: the Dijon factory having been "sacrificed" by the government of the time, at the cost of a social tragedy. To further accentuate the paradox of a ruin model, Marcel has chosen to place each of his small models of dilapidated architecture on a revolving base. The display of the ruin. In 1967, Robert Smithson produced a series of photographs, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, offering various views of a small, decrepit industrial town in New Jersey: Passaic. The “monuments” photographed – bridge, pipes, pump or sandbox – betray the entropy that affects human organizations. Like what Smithson proposed to consider as the vestiges of Passaic's present and which he called “upside-down ruins”[9], Darsi and Marcel's models harbor a deep melancholy. Urban vanities. With Le projet de la Maquette, however, melancholy is coupled with concern. The park has deteriorated, it has lost its soul and its function. The heterotopia he embodied has ceased to be happy, but at least it has been preserved as such. Isn't it possible to see in Darsi's large model a monument to heterotopia in general, and not only to that of a specific place, the park of the Hermitage. And if the alterity of the ruin and the vacant lot were not worth more, all things considered, than the deployment of a homotopic space, an articulated sequence of locations without counter-locations? It is all the ambivalence of the feelings that the model provokes. It moves us because it illustrates the decadence of a garden. But the meticulous depiction of this ruin does not fail to release the poetry of a space that resists, even if for the wrong reasons, the irreversible, constantly renewed scrutiny of the world.


Despite its name, The Model Project has come true. Such is not the case with Point Zero, another Darsi city-related project which, since its conception in 2009, has remained at Point Zero. The artist proposed nothing less than to retract, under a golden parallelepipedic cover, the statues installed in the public space of a city. Mechelen and Thessaloniki refused this remarkable project. In this public space, which is not mainly given over to artistic spectacle, two main modes of functioning of statuary can be distinguished. Either the decoration: the artistic intervention embellishes the urban landscape, bringing that extra aesthetic soul that is often supposed to be lacking in urban sites. Either the commemoration: the work then fulfills a mission of monument, that is to say, to use the words of Aloïs Riegl, of "a work [...] built with the precise aim of keeping always present and living in the consciousness of future generations the memory of such an action or such a destiny (or combinations of the one and the other)”[10]. Hiding from view, as Darsi projects, the sculptures that a city has placed in its streets or parks carries a critical charge, not so much with regard to the works concerned as the gesture that put in this situation. Indeed, in the public space, the work of art is subjected to an accelerated wear of its effectiveness, because of the pitiless competition which the daily events of the urban life make to him. Quickly, very quickly, the ornamental virtue fades and the memory of the people or events commemorated is lost. In other words, the work ceases to be visible, a miserable element of a setting on which the eyes hardly focus. With his caches, Darsi would thus only ratify the destiny of statuary in the public space and, in the same movement, would give it back a form of visibility. Absent, concealed, the work becomes paradoxically present again. In 1980, Daniel Buren carried out a work with which it is interesting to relate Point Zero, because it consisted in fixing a fabric with white and red stripes, ten centimeters in height - the usual "visual tool" of the artist – on the bases of all the statues of the cities of Lyon, Villeurbanne and Caluire. Proposed in Edinburgh in 1976, the Ponctuations, Statue/Sculpture project suffered the fate of Point Zero in Mechelen and Thessaloniki. The two proposals of Buren and Darsi are worth problematizing the presence of the statue in the city and, to this end, calling the attention of passers-by to it, either by directing the gaze to its base, or by simply making it vanish.


The cover imagined by Darsi is, as we have said, golden. Why ? Darsi is a gilding practitioner. This is even one of the distinctive elements of its vocabulary. Television, garden chair, facade of an art gallery, water spilled on the floor of an exhibition space, even the concrete blocks of a dike in Tenerife – since 1999, the artist gilds. In 2008, he proposed to gild the somewhat faded globe, whose architect Jean-François Zevaco[11] had wished to "crowned", in 1975, the tunnel between the new town and the old medina, place des Nations-Unies , in Casablanca – an opportunity for Darsi to produce another model, Le Passage de la modernité, and to reaffirm his concern for the work in the public space. Gold is both the traditional color of ornament, the dream of alchemists and the universal monetary standard, the emblem of junk as well as that of value. A study would lead to the avatars of gold in the art of the last decades – one thinks, among others, of Yves Klein or Joseph Beuys. With the Point Zero formwork, Darsi suggests that gold could advantageously replace sculpture in city squares. By its ornamental abilities, by its ability to symbolize this value that commemorative statuary celebrates, in short by its brilliance, gold is without rival. If, in placing sculptures in the parks and gardens of a city, it is a question of nothing more than to decorate or enhance, then gilding may suffice.


It is also possible to see in the golden caches of Darsi like the coffins of the sculptures which they cover. Since these sculptures are dead, reified, become invisible, they must be coffined. In 2004, a work by Simone Decker[12] conveyed a similar vision. From the imprints of a certain number of sculptures, periods, styles and very different qualities, located in the streets of Luxembourg, the artist had casts made with a phosphorescent coating, which stores the ambient light to restore it in darkness. Some of the sculptures thus obtained were lined up on the roof of the architectural appendix in front of the main building of the art center Le Casino, to profile themselves there at night in the spectral luminosity of a fishy yellow. Decker calls these nocturnal sculptures Ghosts. A ghost being the double of a dead person, should we understand that phosphorescent casts are replicas of sculptures whose exposure, if not overexposure, in the public space has, whatever their respective merits, caused death? ? Are we to understand that today only the ghosts of sculptures or their coffins are really visible?


Among the examples of heterotopias that Foucault cites in his famous article are cemeteries. By proposing to install a cemetery of statues in a city, Darsi not only seeks to stigmatize their death, but to give them back the disruptive force of heterotopia. In the public space, the work of art basically only has true meaning if it defines one “of these different spaces, these other places, a kind of contestation that is both mythical and real of the space where we live”[13].

[1]- Henri Prost (1874-1959), proponent of culturalist town planning, was in charge, throughout his career, of the development of large cities including Casablanca and Istanbul._cc781905-5cde-3194-bb3b- 136bad5cf58d_

[2]- Michel Foucault, “Other spaces”, Sayings and writings II, 1976-1988, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Fourth, 2001, p. 1574-1575).

[3]- See Martine Derain, Echo Larmitaj. A construction site in Casablanca, Casablanca, Ed. The Fennec, 2007.

[4]- Lara Almarcegui was born in 1972 in Zaragoza. She lives in Rotterdam.

[5]- See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational aesthetics, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 1998.

[6]- Edward W. Said, Orientalism The Orient created by the West [1978], trans. C. Malamoud, Paris, Seuil, 2005.

[7]- The concrete lion sculpture in the Parc de l'Hermitage has given rise to various actions since the launch of the Project. See M. Derain, Echo Larmitaj, op. cit., p. 84-88.

[8]- Didier Marcel was born in 1961 in Besançon. He lives in Dijon.

[9]- Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, Berkeley/Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1996, p. 72.

[10]- Aloïs Riegl, The modern cult of monuments (its essence and its genesis), translation D. Wieczorek, Paris, Seuil, 1984, p.35.

[11]- The French architect Jean-François Zevaco (1916-2003) spent most of his career in Morocco where he was born. Heir to modernism and Frank Lloyd Wright in particular, influenced by Oscar Niemeyer, Zevaco will gradually evolve towards an architecture-sculpture and a language close to brutalism.

[12]- Simone Decker was born in 1968 in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg). She lives in Frankfurt.

[13]- M. Foucault, “Other spaces”, op. cit., p. 1575.

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