Robert Cahen, the video between two sleeps…

My encounters with Robert Cahen’s work have been somehow accidental but deeply enlightening…  At the end of last year, after one of the busiest seasons of work in my life – the end of the 10th Biennale de Lyon, I was trying to have a break from curating biennial shows and writing last-minute catalogue essays. However, an email from Robert Cahen and his producer arrived in my mailbox, asking me to write an essay for his collection of his video works. Days later, a package of DVDs of his work covering his trajectory for the last decades arrived in my office in San Francisco. I started watching them. And, immediately, I was totally caught up by them – brief and intriguing, they were taking me completely out to a realm far from what I usually focus on. Soon, I started noticing that this far-away place, in spite of the seeming distance, is actually extremely close to my concerns of today’s world, a world in drastic transformation prompted by border-crossings and encounters between peoples, cultures and visions… The encounter with Robert Cahen’s work not only evokes resonances of some key elements in the depth of my mind. It also opens up a new horizon for my vision – often, they are results of the artist’s travels to various parts of the world of which I’m familiar. But, systematically, they show the most estrange scenes of life in those locations, and turn me into a stranger in my “own” lands…




Travel is a typically contemporary way of living. It has also the oldest root in human history – it’s through travel – displacement, migration and nomad life, and even exile – that human beings have written its history and formed its identity – humanity.


Life is a continuous travel, between the original location and final destination, between the past and the future, between memory and reality, between emotion and imagination… Robert Cahen’s work is one of the most interesting incarnations of such a process – it’s also truly contemporary, not only it resorts to the most up-to-date techniques (electronic ways of producing images and sounds), but also explores and demonstrates the very essential aspects of our life today – permanent oscillation, or passage – in the artist’s own word, between stability, settlement, locality and change, displacement, globality… and the very state of being generated in the negotiation.


From the early workL'invitation au voyage (1973), Robert Cahen has embarked on an infinitely expanding travel across the world, as the very entrance towards the endless travel through the realm of creation. This is a rather simple and brief film starting with a small railway station –Mézidon station . With endlessly back-and-forth repetitions of the images of the train coming in and leaving the platform, in a dreamlike effect rendered by the negative-effects of image manipulation, juxtaposed with images of childhood portraits… Everything is ghost-like, but beautiful and poetic. They are not simple contrasts between opposing visions, feeling and sentiments, but a poetically chaotic, ambiguous and complex “lump” of everything provoked in-between…


From this moment on, Robert Cahen has not ceased his travels. And the scope of his displacements has gone far beyond the hometown and reached all corners of the planet – from France to Asia, from the Antarctic to Middle East…


While the extraordinary landscape of the Southern Pole attracts Robert Cahen’s passion and makes him take the pain to travel across the globe to record it’s beauty in Voyage d’hiver(1993) and Le Cercle (2005), the douceur of Asia’s mountains and waters, and especially the everyday life which so smoothly mixes hard working and harmonious embracement of nature, are certainly more intimately linked to his most profound emotional needs, both personal and cultural, hence artistic. In a way, the encounter with Asia makes him attain the real highlights of his artistic production: in different periods, Robert Cahen visited this part of the world and expressed his emotion and love towards the continent in his oeuvres: Corps flottants (1997), referring to the famous Japanese concept of the real world as a floating one (Ukiyo浮世), he came up with his own Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) to record the bathers body in a Japanese Onsen (hot spring). In Vietnam, he created Plus loin que la nuit (2005) that transcends the most banal everyday urban scenes into a real theatre featuring fragments of la comédie humaine in this part of the world. This theatrical featuring, however, is not spectacular. Instead, it’s always fluid and fugitive, at once demanding our concentration and running away from our grasps. They are eternal passages, “betraying” the real significance of travel itself. But this is the contemporary way of living. The most intense examples in Robert Cahen’s engagements with such a seemingly contradictory state of being can be found in his several works about China – Hong Kong Song (1989), Canton, la Chinoise (2001), Sept Visions fugitives (1995) and L’Etreinte (2003). Here, intrigued by the constant movement in-and-out of street noise, opera singing, heart-beating and silence… or the best materials for Musique concrète, and images of cities, nature and people, alternatively appearing and dissolving, one is brought into a veritable floating world navigating between reality and fiction, a quasi bodily experience of travel itself. This mode of representation is highly metaphoric and even metaphysical while so close the “trivial moments” of real life. In a way, it reminds of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo (China) (1972), a long documentary about China’s everyday life during the Cultural Revolution,  that provoked a real political and cultural polemic in and out of China at the time, because of its determination to embrace “the real” rather than the propaganda cliché of the “truth”… Going even further from Antonioni’s sympathetic gaze – remaining somehow distant – of the other, or the Chinese in this case,  Cahen’s methodology, or attitude, of recording his experiences of travelling emphasizes , above-all, the merging of the relationship between the self and the other, between the vision of those “out there” and the heartbeats inside the self.


Beyond exoticism


The invention and proliferation of video as an medium of artistic creation has provided an unprecedented wide range of possibilities to artists who travel much more frequently –  as abovementioned, in need, today, transnational travels are, for many, a form of everyday life. Video has become more than a tool of perception and recording for them to document and explore their travel experiences. For many, it’s already a part of their bodies, an extension of their bodies that produces constantly new relationship between the self and the outside world, namely, the other. And this relationship, with the support of the technology and instruments (camera, microphone, post-production facility, exhibition and distribution, etc.) functioning like new members of the body, or a new interface of the self, is fundamentally modifying the nature of the body, and hence, the self of the artist, while impacting in various ways the local communities and culture of the locations to where the artists are travelling. In the age of globalisation, video art, among other media, plays a significant role in the inevitable transformation of local, and further on, global, cultures. A great number of the artists involved in such a process utilise the video as a handy tool of documentation while others invest more in its “second degree” – more abstract, imaginative and transformative – in order to probe into the realm of travel as a complex system that not only modifies the exterior relations between individuals and communities from different parts of the world but also deeply shifts the interior worlds of those involved in the displacements and communications, and hence, their identities. Starting his adventure in the 1970s when video was still a rare and highly experimental medium for art, Robert Cahen is no doubt one of the pioneers in this trend. And he has been persisting on such an endeavour and produced not only a great number of travel-log like video works but also a consistency of such an engagement between the self and the other. Through the encounters with the other – both geographic and humanistic, he has found a new base for his artistic work, and, more importantly, the reconciliation and reformation of the self through such an interactive communion with the other through the particular mediation of the video. Ultimately, it signifies a crucial departure from the old fashion, and inevitably colonialist, exoticism that was founded upon the absolute separation between the superior self of the White Man and the inferior and “curious” Other, namely the coloured sub-human.


Robert Cahen’s work can hardly be seen as documentary films of the daily life of places he travels to in spite of he obsessively records images of the particular landscapes and people. Instead of constructing any linear narratives of the daily scenes, he prefers to treat his objects as radically brief and distant images, or signs. The beholder is constantly drawn into the passage between the distant landscapes and the approximate memories as if he was endless surfing on and under the waves of the oceans of imagination. And this kind of surfing needs a certain structural and even methodical skill. This somehow recalls Roland Barthes’ approach to Japanese culture in L’Empire des signes: he systematically saw the trivial but vivid life phenomena as a system of signs in which a kind of universal order of things and common structure of narrating are revealed. I believe that, applying a similar intellectual strategy, Robert Cahen intends to demonstrate a universality of construction of signification and communication behind the overlapping, momentarily shifting scenes of the other – landscapes and people – mixing with those quasi-abstractions of images haunting his memory… It’s here that one can start understating the very significance of travel itself – whether locally or globally. It’s a convergence between here and there, between the self and the other. Eventually, it signifies certainly a rupture with the presumption of “beauty of distance” claimed by exoticism as its foundational condition.


Video, between two sleeps.


Robert Cahen’s works have been widely exhibited. Besides showing as video projections in screening programs in various international art institutions and film festivals, they have also been exhibited as site-specific installations in museums and other public spaces. Installed in specific sites, these works have gained a new life through diverse strategies of spatialisation to expand the power of their expressions through the radiation exerted by the images and sounds.


On the other hand, more interestingly, these works are also shown in a more private and personal format – DVD – to be watched at home, or the better, on travels. I have personally approached and appreciated most of his work on planes flying between continents. As we have observed, Robert Cahen’s work, while demonstrating his open and incessant trajectories across the planet, always involves the audience with the swirling spiral of ghost-like memories. Between the real scenes and the fictional worlds, we are invited to contemplate a new realm of existence that spans across all geographic and psychological domains. And all this can happen within a tiny screen held in one hand in the most private settings. Perhaps, the most memorable moments that I could dive into the particular realm created by Robert Cahen’s work are those when I woke up between two sleeps on a plane soaring across the Pacific… Often times, this proves to be the most affective and effective moments for the works to express their deepest implications and embrace the largest dimension of cosmos. And it’s totally emotional and spiritual, accompanied by the mysterious silence floating over the noise of the plane engines


Gazing at the moving images shifting between the traversing landscape distorted by the speed of a forwarding train into a kind of abstract painting and the beautiful face a woman sitting quietly in the coach, as in Juste le temps (1983), or the complex and contrasting mixture between ink-painting like mountain views and unfathomable faces emerging from the unconsciousness in L’Etreinte (2003), I suddenly notice there is a kind of similarity between Robert Cahen’s work and a remotely ancient Chinese theory of landscape painting, or more precisely, an aesthetic and existential utopia: Woyou (卧游) – travelling across the world while lying down in one’s bed and enjoying watching the paintings in hand. Zong Bing, the famous landscape painter from the fourth and fifth centuries (375-443), painted the landscapes of places he travelled to during his whole life on the walls of his house at the end of his life. Lying in his bed and scanning through the details of the landscapes resurged from his memory, he was finally enlightened and comprehended the very truth of artistic creation: it’s all about attaining the very joy of communicating with the highest spirit. This is the ultimate achievement of an artist. To arrive at this summit, one must do everything to render one’s heart pure, and contemplate the universe via Tao. It’s the highest dream. It’s the very moment when reality and fiction, life and dream, no long separate. It’s no surprise that Woyou is often translated as Dream Journey. Zong Bing’s theory has been widely considered as an avant-garde one in his time. It initiated a totally innovative view on the meaning of artistic creation in the Chinese (as well as neighbouring cultures) history of art and continues to act as the foundational concept for many Chinese painters. And Robert Cahen’s work, using the most contemporary media – electronic and digital images and sounds, echoes such a claim for perfection: he loves “slow-down” in his work, just like the slow movement of Zong Bing’s eye scanning across the realm of his memory. Or more precisely, this is actually a state of passage between two sleeps – half awake, half unconscious, but totally enlightened. And Robert Cahen states:


The choice of slow-down, for example, that traverses all my work, remains one of the primordial points of my writing: it attempts to recount, among other things, those that cannot be seen, the invisible, but also in its stretching, to propose a new partition, a new open reading for the spectator who is going to project himself into the slowed images and who can then tell his own story. There is also the tension, the suspense of those that should arrive, contained in the “slow-down”, and then, like what Roland Barthes phrased so well: there is the “slow-down for having the time eventually to see.” (in his book La Chambre Claire).(1)


Hou Hanru

(1) Robert Cahen, statement: je cherche dans ma mémoire… (maniscript from the artist) 

 « Le choix du ralenti par exemple, qui traverse toute mon oeuvre, reste un des points primordiaux de mon écriture:  il tente de raconter, entre autres, ce qui ne se voit pas, l'invisible, mais aussi dans son étirement, de proposer une partition nouvelle, une lecture ouverte pour le spectateur qui va se projeter dans les images ralenties et qui alors peut se raconter sa propre histoire. Il y a aussi la tension, le suspens de ce qui doit arriver, contenu dans le "ralenti",  et puis comme le disais si bien Roland Barthes , il y a le" ralentir pour avoir le temps de voir enfin"(dans son livre"La chambre claire"). »