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Marcel Dinahet – Sculpting in Video, 2009

















A few words—disconnected, paradoxical,
contradictory—to try to formulate the initial
impressions generated by Marcel Dinahet’s
video projections. Subjective impressions,
true, but important in that they identify how
hard it can be to “appreciate” the Dinahet
oeuvre at first glance. “Appreciate” in the
sense of a personal reaction, but also of an
objective, discursive, analytical evaluation
on the formal level.
The images the artist creates with his camera
seem to collide with, and even empathetically
penetrate organic, mineral, vegetal, aquatic
and industrial matter in its raw state—rock,
steel, ice, faces, seaweed, sand, torsos,
ships—which divulge purely and simply their
appearances, movements, formation and

changes, however tiny. Thus it is that the video
images offer themselves to the viewer as
radically frontal, almost insolent visual images.

This results in the collapse of the entire con-
struct of visual attachment to the seductively

absorbing formal qualities of an installation or to
the art object as narrative composition.
And then there are the films’ annoying time
frames. They might be short—as a rule
between three and eighteen minutes—but
they can seem long to the viewer: either
drawn out by the relative immobility of the
camera within a given setting, or repetitive.
Frequently the camera is maintained at a given
point in space to record an endless, varied
flux—freighter, kelp, car, frost—or is shaken
by the continual jolts, rotations and lurchings
of a body subject to material forces.
The sound is another source of perceived
irritation. Never played down, it emerges raw
from a mass of crackings of ice, gusts
of wind, ceaseless comings and goings of cars
on a bridge, muffled or metallic undersea
sonorities. There can be silence, too, sometimes
enveloping, sometimes tense and ominous.
This powerful, omnipresent material quality
endows Dinahet’s images with an unusual
harshness and abrasiveness. Which is not to
say that it puts the artist in the category of art

brut shot through with all the expressiveness
of subjective pathos. Let us say, rather, that
the frontal materiality at work in the oeuvre is
the underpinning of an intransigently complex
artistic quest founded on the collision between
the act of sculpture and the making of the video image.

To affect this video-sculpture encounter,
Dinahet took up an impossible challenge: water
as material for reinventing sculptural space.
Obviously the Brittany-born artist’s geographic
and cultural background have shaped works
permeated by ocean, shoreline, seascape, port
and frontier. Anyone with his roots in a coastal
or island environment, immersed since childhood
in the marine world and nourished daily by the
visual sweep of the ocean, is going to construct
his own very distinctive representation of
space: not as boundary or configuration, but
as endless expanse and extension, as elusive,
shifting, indeterminate form.
The importance of this observation lies less
in its biographical detail than in its pointing to
a fundamental given in Dinahet’s artistic
practice: the fact that water, prior to being
explored or reworked in video, is intrinsically
matter without form and, as such, matter out
of which any form can be brought forth. It is,
then, in no way a metaphor for space and
cannot even be considered the constituent
element of a filmed landscape. In other words,
too-hasty identification of water as the
“subject” of Dinahet’s works will blind us to
simple but crucial questions: how can we
“make space” or “shape things” out of absolute
open-endedness, perpetual flux, permanent
instability? How can we form volume and mass
out of matter which, when not contained,
restrained, channelled, crystallised, is utterly
formless? And how is it, despite all the
damming and irrigating, that this instability
and mutability of form remain inevitable and necessary?

For Dinahet, then, sculpting in video consists
in breaking with a certain idea and a certain
practice of sculpture. Where Marcel
Broodthaers marked his entry into the visual
arts by sealing up his previous collections
of poetry inside a shapeless mass of plaster in
Pense-Bête (1964), Dinahet in 1986 set about
taking his sculptures to the ocean floor and
filming them as they lay on the sand. So the
performative act of drowning sculpture and
recording it on video consisted in displacing
the sculpture towards an “other space”,1 a kind
of sculptural out-of-shot. This made the sea an
uncontrollable, uncontainable heterotopia, but
one whose breakouts, influxes, interstices,
gushings, leaks, opacities, sedimentations and
retentions are the very locus of sculpture.
Obviously there was no question for
Broodthaers of abandoning the act of writing,
nor for Dinahet of calling a halt to the act of
sculpture. The issue for the former was to cut
free of certain literary postulates—the notions
of authorship, composition, narrative linearity—
and for the latter, to disregard certain sculptural
codes: modelling of volumes, exhibition in a
predetermined space, creation of site-specific
works. And what the viewer finds at the root
of these gestures is no nihilist proclamation
of the end of an art form, but rather the
experience of new modalities of image creation
and exhibition. In the “expanded field” of
sculpture2 this openness had been extensively
addressed and utilised by the artists of the
60s and 70s, among them the practitioners
of Land Art. It should be said, however, that the
Land artists had rethought sculpture in the
light of such landscape-marking procedures asexcavation

(Michael Heizer, Rift, 1968),

displacement, accumulation and the pouring of
sediments (Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty,
1970), activation of natural phenomena (Walter
de Maria, Lightning Field, 1977) and punctuation
via arrangements of different materials
(Richard Long, A Circle in Africa, 1978).

1 / Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, trans. Jay Miskowiec,
Diacritics 16, Spring 1986, pp. 22–27.
2 / Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, The
Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,
MIT Press, 1986, pp. 276–90.

In Dinahet’s case, however, the sculptural work
is quite different in that the procedure it
involves is a dual one:

– elimination of any attempt at inscribing,
stratifying or inserting a form into the
landscape. The first videos still showed signs
of marine landscape-marking, with the
submerging of the sculptures in the ocean,
followed in 1993 by use of a large pebble taken
to the sea bottom. From 1996 onwards,
however, the artist stripped his videos of any
showing of an artefact in a specific space.
– reduction of the creative act to absolute
receptivity on the part of the artist to any
manifestation of the living world: friction,
dragging, resistance, spasm, floating, rotation,
immobilisation, etc. This receptivity led him to
consider the recorded performative act not as
an imposition, intrusion or authoritarian
gesture inflicted on the space in question—a
landscape, a body, a building, etc.—but as an
act of optimal perception of material entities
whose encounter and confrontation would
trigger movement and a performative process of change.

The sculptural power of the Dinahet oeuvre
lies, then, in this elimination of the art gesture
from a given space, with the dual intention of
neither establishing a volume nor of imprinting
a form on the landscape.
Which for a sculptor is either a culmination
or a total aberration.
So where does the act of sculpture lie, then?
The answer is right there before our eyes,
but it blinds us: the sculpture-creation

procedures have been displaced in their entirety
into the business of shaping the video image.
In the first place, when Dinahet films water
he always proceeds via collision and balance
of power between the body/mass and the
eye/camera and a heavy, ponderous, compact
mass. Here we are a long way from the
pseudo-poetry of the artist using sculptural
artifice to represent the evanescent, filmy or
crystalline translucence of water. Whether in
the ocean, a river, a stream or a marsh, water
is, of course, flow, outpouring, flux; but it is
also a density shot through, burdened and
impinged on by a mix of elements: sediment,
seaweed, ice, mud, sand. Above all, water is
the matter that strikes, covers and supports
the body/mass, and out of this friction, fusion
or floating, the eye/camera will create the
image of a shape taking shape. To put it
another way, anything can happen when the
image is on the threshold between control and
disintegration of form.
So the second sculptural quality of the videos
lies in the unstable, fragile interstice—which is
also an aesthetic balancing act—between
control and letting-go, between receptivity and
closure, between extension and contraction.
The artist’s limitless openness to the events of
the living world absolutely does not mean that
the image does as it likes. While Dinahet lets the
image go with the flow, the process is subject
to extreme stringency in terms of execution and
to image-making rules he sets himself: rules
that, later, are very often bent or contradicted
by minor, unexpected events, while remaining
essential to the shaping of the image.
One of the artist’s recurring, self-directed
injunctions is that of placing the camera at the
median intersection of a body of water,
between its above and below. In many videos
—among them Flottaisons (Waterlines, 2000),

Château-Gonthier (2001), Les Danseurs
immobiles (Motionless Dancers, 2006),
Strasbourg (2008) and Fleuve (River, 2009)—
the camera held half in the air and half in
the water, brings together in one image the
inside and outside, the liquid and aerial,
the texture and opacity of what is filmed. But
fundamentally, looking beyond these sensory
interpretations, the division created by the
video camera provides a radically masterful
reformulation of sculpture’s codes of inherent
three-dimensionality. Strangely, this line cutting
through the image does not just separate two
planes: it is the axis around which disturbances,

distortions, agitation, flux and multiple vibra-
tions become manifest. The first consequence

of this is to reduce the surface effect of the
water—and that of the video image—to
an indeterminate perception of an inner and
an outer three-dimensionality. The waterline
becomes an axis around which there fold
and unfold events that provide the image
with density and depth. Filmed in video, then,
a simple waterline allows boldly unlimited
experimentation with the body/vision
relationship with space. In Dinahet’s work
this opening into the three-dimensional has
nothing of neutral, pure, objective space about
it: contrary to what we find among Minimalist
sculptors, the spatial reality he is trying
to convey via video is a full-time source of
destabilisation, unpredictability, reversal,

perturbation, shiftings. These signs of three-
dimensional entropy are rendered particularly

evident in the image through:
– the resistance of the body/mass and the
eye/camera to the force of the current and the
unsettling eddies of the water (Falaises
[Cliffs], 2009).
– interference from the sediments and
fragments of ice that obscure and sometimes
totally cover the lens (La Rivière [The River],
2003; Svetlogorsk, 2006).
– the partial view of what is below the

surface and the way it distorts body shape
(Les Danseurs immobiles, 2006). It should be
pointed out here that the artist’s self-imposed
obligation to create a horizontal axis with video
in fact addresses another human subject
whose face is half in and half out of the water:
a shared, dual posture which brings tiny
movements and rustlings of forms to the
surface of the image as expressions of the
body and the subject.
– the view of a building or a landscape
which, instead of being anchored to the
ground, seems buffeted by the choppiness of
the water (Berder, 2006; Strasbourg-European
Parliament, 2008).
– the face-to-face between the unstable,
floating body of the artist and a rocky cliff
firmly rooted in the ocean out of which it rises
with disarming gravity and massiveness
(Falaises, 2009).
The actual or virtual presence of an axis has
always been fundamental to Dinahet’s creative
process. Like his clay modules, the early
volumetric sculptures contain steel wire
spiralling upwards around an invisible axis;
and he has also strung clay pancakes together
on rock. Many of his other video works detail
different axial situations: in Paysage frotté
(Scraped Landscape, 2001) the artist’s body
turning on itself constitutes the vertical axis
via which the camera records the horizon
separating sea and sky, a line itself twisted into
a whirling, unstable, uneven, vertiginous spiral
by the revolving of the body on its own axis.
In every instance the horizontal axis
functions as a cut, a line of demarcation,
a threshold, a border; but Dinahet’s choice of
position is deliberate, and consists in always
holding to the boundaries in order to articulate
contradictory spaces and shapes better, blur
spatial cues, break free of aesthetic codes and
transcend territorial limits.

Men may seek to control the seas as economic
and political zones, but oceans and rivers can
never go along with this: demarcation is
contrary to their nature. Allan Sekula, another
major artist of the sea, has given a masterly
description of the artistic challenge in the light
of social and geopolitical issues involved:
“In an era that denies the very existence of
society, to denounce the scandal of an ever
more grotesque worldwide ‘connectedness’,
and to denounce the ruthless destruction
endlessly going on beneath the smooth, liquid
surface of the markets, is to put oneself in the
situation of an ocean swimmer attuning his
movements to the waves, one ear in the water
with each breath, listening to the rumble of
the stones rolling on the bottom. To insist on
social practices is simply to submerge with a
clear idea in mind.”

While not directly concerned with social
practice, the Dinahet oeuvre shares Sekula’s
desire to deterritorialise the sea, to dive in with
the exigency of “a clear idea in mind”. Art has
this ability to stand for the absolute necessity
of a critical approach to space that looks
beyond possession and the power to exclude.
The crucial issue for the artist, then, is to
formalise what cannot be formalised. This is
the challenge that Dinahet seems to be
confronting repeatedly, in a perpetual tension
between video and sculpture.

3 / Allan Sekula, Titanic’s Wake, Paris, Le Point du Jour,2003, p.14.