And, speaking of all the various ways in which one might complete a sentence in French beginning with the words, “Ceci n’est pas…”, consider Dries Verhoeven’s 2013 artwork, entitled Ceci n’est pas…
A small glass booth in the middle of the city displays a different scene each day; images we usually do not encounter in the public domain.
Each day, security shutters on all four sides of the box roll up to reveal a different scene, nine of which include a live person. Each of the 10 scenes is given a different title:
day 1: Ceci nest pas de l’art (This is not art)
day 2: Ceci n’est pas une mère (This is not a mother)
day 3: Ceci nest pas de l’amour (This is not love)
day 4: Ceci nest pas le futur (This is not the future)
day 5: Ceci n’est pas de l’histoire (This is not history)
day 6: Ceci n’est pas la nature (This is not nature)
day 7: Ceci n’est pas notre désir (This is not our desire)
day 8: Ceci n’est pas notre peur (This is not our fear)
day 9: Ceci n’est pas mon corps (This is not my body)
day 10: Ceci n’est pas moi (This is not me)
The video above is a compilation of these 10 scenes. (Longer, separate videos of each of the scenes can be viewed on Verhoeven’s vimeo channel.)
Verhoeven discusses the project in an interview with Robbert van Heuven (after the fold…)
How do you choose a topic you want to make a piece of art about?
For me it is about exposing the assumptions in our thinking. I often choose topics that make me feel uncomfortable; the uncharted ground in my own head. If I notice I have an opinion about something, but cannot clearly express it, then that is the sign to start digging.
With Ceci n’est pas… I wanted to place an object in the public space that would activate a discussion, one that would change the street back into an Agora for a while. I hoped that by showing the exception people would start talking about the rule, about what they consider as desirable and undesirable. In that, I allowed myself to be led by images I had to explain to myself. I used the display case a bit like a studio where I tried out various images. I invited performers and then I added props and a museum caption explaining why, in this capacity, this person is seen as socially undesirable. Then I took a step back and asked myself: does this image make me doubt the way I look at things? At that point the process of removing and adding starts. Then the painting begins.
The display case stood in the middle of a square or a busy shopping street in various cities. How did people react to that?
It yielded a remarkable number of nuanced conversations, but also strong reactions. With Ceci n’est pas d’amour, the image of a father and daughter in underwear, there was always someone who yelled: “child rapist.” What was striking is that there was also always someone who started advocating for the father. I think the fact that we did not label the piece as art helped to start a discussion. There were no festival banners. It was precisely because there was no organisational framework that people felt responsible to hold others to account.
In a video conversation with Maija Karhunen (who performed in the Ceci n’est pas notre désir scene), Verhoeven mentions the Magritte connection.
In a way, the connection to Magritte is tenuous to the point of being a bit unnecessary. In the “Scratching Where it Hurts” interview, Verhoeven talks about the benefits of having not labeled the piece as art. The association with Magritte’s work might tend to belie this “fact” — even though the first day’s performance was entitled Ceci nest pas de l’art (This is not art).
Not that Magritte is necessarily the first thing that you think of if you actually speak French.
One Frenchman in the video below responds angrily, vehemently decrying the Ceci n’est pas notre désir scene as “aberrant!”
Ultimately, the most interesting responses to Verhoeven’s piece, have little to do with The Treachery of Images.