Issa Samb’s space in the centre of Dakar. There is an enormous tree in the middle from which cords are strung that criss-cross the whole yard and surrounding buildings. The lines are connected together and hundreds of objects hang from them: clothes, old photos, dolls and a wide variety of knotted things. In the corners, there are sculptures and assemblages. Everything is covered with dust. Paintings hang inside the arcades that surround the yard and there are other relics from the activities of the group “Laboratoire Agit Art”.
Issa Samb slowly sweeps the ground and forms heaps of big leaves that keep tumbling down. I sit with Abdou Bâ on some old chairs under the tree. Nearly every day, friends come by and often sit here for hours, talking with Issa Samb. Abdou Bâ is a long-time friend of Issa Samb and a member of the Laboratoire Agit’Art. After a while, Issa Samb puts down his broom and sits next to us.
A: Okay. Did Abdou tell you a bit about why I have come?
I: Yes. Tell me, I’m listening.
A: I’ve come because I have some objects that I found in various places.
A: There are some objects I found in China.
A: One object from Paris is of Moroccan origin. They are all objects that have to do with nature. They are either natural, or imitations of nature. And personally I feel that there is something like a force in these objects‚ a certain kind of magic that I don’t understand, which I can’t read. And I’m very glad that Clémentine brought me here, because when I listened to your conversation the other day you said that there is meaning in objects, which one can tie up in knots and also…
A: Undo the knots. And that’s my question. Is there something inside the objects in my possession that I don’t understand? Is it possible for someone else—you for example—to understand this or does it remain something unknown to us? Is it simply something that we interpret— that depends on our understanding of the cultural context—or is there something in the objects that is completely alien to us?
I: In any case, from the moment you pick up an object, the moment an object reaches you, or the moment that something draws you towards an object of your own choice, and you have the impression that it is the object itself that attracts you…
A: Yes, that’s it…
I: …Yes, and you head towards it and pick it up, it’s already a word.
A: It’s already a word.
I : Now, is it necessary to know whether it’s you yourself that has a certain view on the object, something that comes from inside you, a certain interiority that pushes you towards the object? Or does the object itself contain an intrinsic energy related to the same energy that is in you and that works outside of you—both exterior to you and to the object?
I: All that is possible. It’s something to be resolved…
Let’s say that there are always several possible approaches towards an object that we have in our possession. Always. Once we have an object in our possession, we begin to realize that there has to be a relationship between that object and ourselves. Trying to find out what kind of relationship this is means beginning to cross-examine ourselves and this attraction, which has been exorcised from within us and has steered us towards the object. Or about the relationship that exists between ourselves, the object and the hands which crafted it.
I: Hands. For example, let’s imagine that object over there is a present.
I: Let’s imagine it’s a present. It’s a hand: one hands over a present.
I: The present acquires meaning, has meaning.
I: But is it what we think the object says that helps us to relate to it? Or is it the meaning that we give to the object ourselves, which provides it with meaning? Or is the meaning of the object to be found in the hands of the person who chose it and handed it to us? That is a question which can be found on the level of three axes. But personally, when faced with such a situation, I immediately undertake a quest to research the word of the object, for and of itself. What the object says. Says. What the object says.
For example, if you say that it’s an object that comes to us from China, then—even if we have a perspective on the object that helps us to better understand it—it is necessary to go deeper into its meaning in relation to the place that it originates from. As a socialized cultural object.
A: That is also the reason why I did not want to come here with African objects. I don’t have a single African object. In the end, what interests me is the question of whether there is a meaning or a language of objects beyond their cultural significance. Because in terms of the objects I bought in China—as a European I don’t understand them, and I shall never understand them in their cultural context. Even if the person who sold me the objects were to try to explain, I would not really understand what they mean. Because I never lived in that culture. No—I lack all the subtler and broader connotations of the words.
I: That is not essential, it’s only part of the issue. What is important now, starting with this trajectory, is the meaning, the existence, the function that you will give to the object from now on. It is not ruled out that when giving it meaning—perhaps new meaning—you will take the cultural meaning into account that people, an individual or the culture that produced it, gave to it as a social function. Let’s imagine that the objects may be lead soldiers or Buddhas—there is always a cultural polysemy, a possibility that is offered to you. At any rate, today, when it comes to objects and their circulation, it is important—very, very, very important—for the understanding of people and cultures that every object that is imported from one country to another, from one hand to another, from one sector or territory to another, and yet another, should be considered charged with an entire history: the history of the individual who made the object if it is a manufactured object, or the history of the people, nature, country or space from which the object reaches us, if it never experienced the human hand on the level of manufacturing.
Each meteorite says something. Says something about nature and the whole history of nature. Each one. Likewise each leaf that may fall in this garden here, and that passes from the situation of being a natural leaf to becoming an object, moving from here to there, adopts a position, which participates in the definition of the whole ensemble in front of us.
I: And beyond this location, the whole peninsula of Dakar, and beyond the peninsula the whole continent, and beyond the continent the whole world. It is not a question of interactivity, neither is it even a question of interference. It is a question of the inter-relationships of living things…
I: …of living things, which are inexplicably related to one another today. And objects are there, I think, simply to help people to understand one another better. To understand better. Your object, wherever this object comes from in China, brings all of China with it. Even if it is the tiniest of objects, it carries all of China within it. So, you hold in your hands all the possible and imaginable means for getting to know China and beyond. Now, you’ll need to go into detail.
A: I have two other questions. You say that a falling leaf changes relationships not only in this courtyard but ultimately in the world…
A: Yes. I’ve noted that every time I come here, the objects at first glance appear to have been in the same position for a long time because they’re old and dusty, aren’t they?
A: But I notice that each time I come here, they’ve changed place. And sometimes I find that the entire ensemble has changed meaning. For example in that area over there…
A: On the first day, there was a sculpture with a head of—what’s that?
Abdou Ba: Nails.
A: Of nails. And then it became a sculpture of a man. And the next day the head had gone and it became something else.
A: One day, there was a sculpture on the ground, and it was like a burial mound. And the next day, it stood erect. And I wonder how in doing this, by arranging things in this courtyard, how this changes the world?
I: It is a natural, creative process. Every day that God makes… Every time an individual moves an object from one place to another, he takes part in changing the world, the order of things. On whatever level, wherever he is. There is no human who, in his movements or daily activities, does not take part in, or perhaps change—but there are too many connotations in that word—the evolution of the world, its movement, the movement of the world.
I: Because actually, those who think that the world always turns on the same axis would be well advised to review that theory as everything turns all the time on the same axis. In the case of the world, the world had a beginning and has evolved, and people participate in its progress to the very end. And when a leaf falls in spring, it indicates more than the seasons. When we move the head of the sculpture over there, it’s because an event has taken place over here, has been activated here, and that means one has to give a head to the object, a nailed head to another object in iron with a whole body in stone, a head. That cycle is about passing on to a further stage. It’s by following a daily activity that creation continues. Man is thus a creator by nature, natural man. Being an artist is a lowly profession, a bourgeois profession, but man—creation, the artist—exists in all men, in all human beings, who do something every day, which we are used to calling development. I prefer to speak of fulfilling oneself, the community, and beyond that, mankind.
A: So, here is another more personal question. When I do art, I have the impression that it doesn’t depend one hundred per cent on me. Instead, I have the feeling that there is something that passes through me. I’m more the means…
I: You are not simply an intermediary, but a mediator. You’re not a ferryman, you are the means by which something superior can express itself. Perhaps you are even a tool.
A: Yes, that’s it.
I: You have to accept that. Anyone who accepts that—the artists who accept tha t, are in a good position to make work.
A: Yes. I have the impression I’m moving in that direction, but one really has to disavow one’s ability to choose.
A: And coming here is also a story like that of what happened to me rather than of what I did, if you know what I mean…
I: Of course, man has to create his past in order to project himself into the future.
I: Create it. The way a snake casts its skin. You don’t have to undo yourself, but you have to create your past. You have to accept it as it is. And when you are an artist, you have to work the process of your transformation, because it is through this transformation that the future is born. It is this metapsychosis, this metamorphosis or this meta—or rather, this transmutation. Everyone needs to mutate, especially those who create, and they have to accept that. This takes place from the start through socialized cultural objects. A direction is taken, a difficult, complex one for sure, but it is perhaps one of the best directions to take because it allows for an understanding of the Other. That sets us free, it gives us an attitude on the world that says, ah, we, we are not alone in the world.
I: I, who thought I was the only daughter of my mother, I realize that my father is in fact the mother of my father, and so on. And objects, they allow for a lot of things…but respect is necessary and that is the most difficult thing to achieve from a Western perspective. It is very, very difficult to consider the object in and of itself, to grant it another energy charge over and above a superficial one, or the one that a machine may have given it. Because we know it to be fortuitous that we are unwilling to grant that stone this energy, this word that force without seeing a god, a unique creator in front of us. And even with the death of God, mechanical or industrial civilizations don’t want to go that far. Because it would mean facing up to a unique creator. And this brings us back to polysemy. We would like to give objects a new meaning, several meanings. We would want there to be several meanings. But there is still the refusal to accept that beyond the meaning we give or that people give to socialized cultural objects, there is the meaning that objects give to themselves, which we haven’t created. But we have to have the courage to take that step. To recognize that beyond the fact of being able to charge up the object, to charge it up ourselves, the object in and of itself possesses a force, a life that signifies, and does so independently of our volition, of our needs, of our wishes and our aesthetic concerns to make objects go in those directions that we indicate to them.
That is why if we leave them in their place, they remain in their place. But since we know this, we now have to help them to change place. If we don’t help that object there to change place, it won’t do it by itself. And even the most powerful wind that exists won’t be able to lift it. And the most destructive fire that exists won’t burn it because, even if it burns to a cinder… This will just take us back to the arguments between the creationists and the materialists. But these are rear-guard arguments.
Those contemporary artists who think they know their past and who know they are too late with regard to this past, and later still with regard to their future—because they’re waiting for a future that they themselves have to create—find themselves in a situation where they have refused until now to treat an object for what it is in the simplest way, through the corporeal, by incorporation, by decorporation, by getting hold of matter, and by handling it. If we understand objects merely through a promotional sales pitch, we hear a lot of words. But that’s the salesman speaking, even if he is doing it in the name of science. Okay, so he improvises a little, makes up messages and codes for the object beyond the meanings given to the object by the initial producer. The more the object passes from hand to hand, the less it will be charged and the more it will discharge, like a briefcase, an object which carries the tale of all the hands that have held it, all the people, all their looks, and all the locations. Let’s assume that you are going to place your objects here. They’ll acquire meaning from here, they will share this meaning with the things that are here, and this goes right into the heart of the object. Inevitably. And wherever you will place them—in your studio, in an apartment, on the street, or mislaid somewhere in a station—this object will carry meaning with it, the history of this country, the history of the men of this country, the women of this country, the history of the birds that will migrate soon and perhaps take the same trajectory they took either before or after the object arrived. That’s normal. Yes.
A: And when you move the object, you said it brings all this history with it, didn’t you?
A: And on the other hand, doesn’t it also—how should I say—lose something? It seems to me that if I moved the object several times from China to my apartment, from my apartment to the studio, and I even moved it on to the street…
A: …I placed them on the street in front of my house. I hid them in corners there ….and moving them again from Germany to over here… I spoke to a friend and said that it’s a bit like a washing machine, like a washing machine that purifies them of meaning.
A: This object, and detaches it more and more from the meaning it once had.
A: Yes. That helps me to see whether the object is finally emptying itself of meaning. If it is getting me closer, how can I say, to a mute meaning that is in the object itself as you said earlier, and this mute meaning is definitely not a word in our language.
I: The fact that the object is mute—who says so? You do. You’re the one who decided that the object didn’t speak, didn’t articulate and said nothing. But if all this is true, then why do we need to carry objects with us in our lives? Why do we hold on to sandals that we’ve had since we were fourteen? Why do we keep these sandals of our teens if they don’t speak to us any longer? And never have spoken anyway? No, they do speak. Objects speak. But speak their own language.
I: Objects speak their own language. The wind speaks. It speaks its own language. Birds speak. They speak their own language. There you are.
Personally, I think that with an object that was born in China, and that makes a trip from China to Europe, from Europe to Africa and from Africa to Europe, you can’t say that this object is meaningless. Even if you wanted to deprive it of meaning and make nonsense of it. Even if you felt like doing that, you couldn’t. Or if you did, it would be an arbitrary, scientifically inadmissible decision. And if you did it simply for an intellectual peer group or for some kind of aesthetic snobbism then you would be doing something very fascistic and dangerous.
I: Because through the object you would be denying the culture of the Other. That is terrible. You would be denying all its charge. Because no matter how small an object is, even if it is an object that breaks quickly—because which of the mass-produced goods by the Chinese, Japanese, or European market wouldn’t break quickly—it still brings with it the whole of China and beyond China, all of humanity. So the problem is not that the object breaks quickly; the problem is that the object that breaks quickly, that has come to us from China—what moment in the historical time of China does it bring with it? It brings that moment in which China heads off into a new direction down the capitalist road of development in the face of globalization, a globalization which doesn’t permit the polite rivalry of deferential bows, the story of nice people. It is a ferocious rivalry. An object has to be ready to get onto the market quickly. You have to go in there fast to sell it. It has to break fast, so you sell it quickly in order to make money. That object there carries meaning. It teaches us about ideological situations not just in China but in the globalized world system. Globalization as the dominant ideology of the current world.
A: So, I’d forgotten that when I said I had no African object, I had forgotten one object. But at the same time as being African, it is also a natural object; that’s why I didn’t really think about it, but I’ll show it to you.
I: If you wish.
A: So that’s it.
I unpack the shell and show it to him. Abdou Bâ picks up the video camera and points it at me.
I: Put it on the table and bring it into relation to the objects you brought from China.
I put the meteorite on the table.
I: Relate them to one another. Have you related them to one another?
A: Yes, but there is…
I: But there’s what?
A: There’s another Chinese object.
I put the Buddha Hand on the table.
I: Very well. Relate them to one another. Now. The object with the object that comes from Africa, open it and put it to your right ear. The object you got from Africa. Open it.
I: Put it to your left ear. Listen to it.
A Yes, I hear the sea. I had a shell like that when I was a child.
I: Speak, speak, speak, speak.
A: My father had brought it, and I always liked that so much, to listen to the sea.
I: Speak, speak, take your time, listen to it and speak aloud. Speak, we’re listening.
A: Yes, but that, that’s the sea, and I always loved the sea.
I: Speak, speak.
A: It talks to me very easily.
I: Speak, speak, say what it tells you, tell, tell…
A: It says comforting things to me.
I: Tell, tell. Tell us these things.
A: Comforting and at the same moment a bit detached, remote.
I: Tell us about it.
A: Detached from us. It’s like something…the sea is always there and then not really… It’s reassuring because it doesn’t change. The details are not important at all. All the fish that are there. Yes, there are fish. There are all the animals of the sea that move in different directions. They do, don’t they? That cross the sea or move around in large shoals. And there are so many of them that you can’t count them.
I: Then it’s not necessary to count them, but tell us what they say. No one will ever be able to count them. But you can tell us what they say to you, the shoals of fish, if you see them.
A: Okay, they say they’ve been there much longer than we have. And they move very easily in the water.
I: Lots of them? Can you see them? Can you see them moving?
A: Yes, they move like this. Then they move like this. And then like that, don’t they? (gestures) They make very quick movements and then they change direction and go off in that direction there. There are large groups of them.
I: Speak about that. Tell us what you can see!
A: Yes. Their colours are very mysterious to us. There are fish that are translucent, and you can see small skeletons inside them, and there are some very large fish, there’s all that. And everything moves with an ease unknown to us. We are here with this weight, with our bodies on the ground, we are obliged to walk on two feet, to walk slowly because of gravity.
The sound I’m hearing is also the wind, it’s not just the sea. It’s the wind that crosses all this vast expanse of the sea. And that finds almost nothing on it, because there are waves, but apart from the waves, it’s very uniform, isn’t it? There are small wave movements, there are large waves, small waves, but there is no diversity of materials such as you get on land. So all the diversity of the sea is hidden inside it. And it’s not visible to us. These days you can dive down using instruments but normally, for human beings, it’s a physically prohibited terrain. I think that in many cultures it’s also forbidden culturally. In countries where there are fishermen, swimming is not so popular.
A: I always liked swimming in the water. It gives me the feeling of lightness, of losing myself a little. Of moving more easily.
A: And I always loved… But here, one is only touching the edge of the sea, no? In comparison with the vastness of the sea that we…
A: We only touch…
I: The edge…
A: The smallest edge, if you throw yourself into it. It’s like touching only the toenail on the foot of an enormous organism.
A: There’s a book by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, in which he describes a large ocean on another planet, a thinking organism, which is capable of forming all objects itself, of forming all the objects in human memory.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: In this book, it is like a substance that can take any imaginable shape.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: And I find that very appropriate because I get the impression it’s like that over here, too, isn’t it? It is all made up from very basic elements.
A: That can arrange themselves into objects or destroy themselves to form other objects, or in the end disappear into the universe, isn’t that how it is? So it’s like a perpetual transmutation.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: But it’s like that with fish as well. The smallest ones get eaten by the larger ones, but in the end, that isn’t a cruel thing; it’s simply a change of constitution. Okay, that’s it.
I: Carry on, look…
I: Speak about what you can see.
A: Okay, everything I said up to now was true, but I have the impression of telling lies.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: Because that sounds good, but perhaps I don’t understand it properly. I don’t really understand what I said there. If I say what really comes into my head, then it’s that the sea is like a thing, like a feminine being.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: That sings. Very sweetly.
I: Hmm… Hmm… All the time?
A: Yes, it’s very gentle. Very clear, with a very clear voice. There isn’t really really a tune, it’s more like… but there is a great attraction to it.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: Something very supple and pure.
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: Very beautiful…
I: Hmm… Hmm…
A: And I feel connected with that.
I: Hmm.. Hmm…
A: It’s like a connection that comes from here.
I point at my solar plexus.
I: Hmm.. Hmm…
A: Or which comes in from there and comes up here.
I show how it comes in through my head and reaches down to my solar plexus.
I: Touch the area where it comes from. Touch it.
I: Press it! Press it!
A: Yes, it’s here.
I: Press it, press it now!
I: Yes, press. Press it now!
I press my solar plexus with one hand.
I: Tell me what she says to you.
A: Yes, it’s getting stronger, it’s not a tune, it’s more like a single note—she doesn’t speak with words, it’s only—hmm…
I try to sing but without coming out with anything, it’s just an ‘aah’.
I: Hmm.. Hmm…
A: Aah, like that—it’s very pure. But I can’t translate it.
I: Hmm.. Hmm…
A: I’m very tired now. Shall I stay?
Issa Samb moves around on his chair. He is a serpent. The lenses of his spectacles reflect the light. A surge of great energy passes from him to me, I fall into a trance.
The trance is black, empty and cold. Waves pass through my body, it’s very hard. After a while, Abdou Bâ taps the table rhythmically with his fingers. I wake from the trance.
I: Hmm. Put it down.
I put the shell on the table, open my eyes.