Milk, by Viet Le
It’s a Wonderful World
Sandrine Llouquet creates unassuming drawings, site-specific installations, and Flash animations which are simultaneously playful and evocative, hinting of wonder and wounds. Her practice embraces these contradictory impulses, culling images and references from mass media, her personal narrative, collective memory, literature, and so on. Her images are at once familiar and unsettling—disjunctured, surprising, decontextualized, the presentation of her drawings and animations within complete environments point at the complexities of memory and representation, desire and lack, jouissance and despair.
Referring to her body of work, Llouquet writes, “Each piece is a tentative . . . combination of the contradictory feelings which animate me, particularly violence and sweetness.” Violence and sweetness, ambivalence and liminality are at the heart of the artist’s practice. Trauma and kitsch, play and pathos are not polar binaries for Llouquet; they inform and transform each other.
Of Mendacity and Monsters
Caterpillar: Who are YOU?
Alice: This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. I –I hardly know, sir, just at present–at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.
— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
In Llouquet’s latest solo exhibition at Galerie Quynh, entitled Milk, the” tentative combination” of sweetness and violence takes on complex, disquieting permutations and themes through seemingly simple, disparate elements. On the ground floor of the gallery, there is a cluster of individually framed, tenderly executed drawings with touches of watercolor. There is also a “playground” of five large free-standing objects which the artist refers to as hybrids between sculpture and drawing—white silhouettes painted on clear Plexiglas supported by white framed boxes. The whole effect resembles large vitrines, perhaps a parody of Damien Hirst’s disconcerting formaldehydes—instead of suspended animals, they are children.
On the second level, the viewer sees an ersatz red/pink puddle; enigmatic medium-sized drawings on Plexiglas hang at eye level. An almost life-sized Plexiglas cutout of a girl jumping, arms akimbo, is suspended from the ceiling. Turning the corner into an enclosed gallery space, one is affronted by another giant red/pink puddle cascading down the walls, oozing diagonally through the space. Within the same space, there is also a nearly life-sized wall graphite drawing of a seated human figure with a jangled black and white video projection for a head. In another separate area upstairs, an intimate red/ pink colored room features another medium-sized Plexiglas drawing, a desk lamp taped to the floor, and a small window which emits an eery twilight. In the lower diagonal corners of this room, the paint has been chipped off, resembling gaping wounds. An ambient, ominous soundtrack by artist Thierry Bernard-Gotteland envelops the upstairs gallery like fog.
The title of the exhibition conjures a host of associations: dairy milk, mother’s milk; extraction and exploitation (“to milk a situation”); opaqueness (“milky”). “Milky”is also a synonym for spiritlessness, tameness or timidity. As a new mother, childhood wonders and maternal preoccupations may be covertly addressed in Llouquet’s work. A tenuous combination of wistfulness, foreboding, and childlike awe tinges the work. As Freud noted, tenderness and trauma underscores familial relations (think Oedipal drama, family traumas). Again, this violence and sweetness, trauma and tenderness oscillates in Llouquet’s oeuvre.
Llouquet notes that perhaps as the result of being a child of divorced French-Vietnamese parents, she has always felt like a nomad, occupying a liminal space, constantly reinventing herself. As an adult she writes that she is in a state of “permanent detachment,” forever in between, in flux. Transformation and adaptation are recurring motifs in the artist’s work as well. Her installations “adapt” to the strictures of a given location. The work also transforms the locale through interventions upon the physical space (e.g., drilling a “river” into concrete gallery floors [Bleu presque transparent, Cortex Athletico Gallery, Bordeaux, France, November 2004], or painting directly onto windows [Troi Oi! Galerie Quynh, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, November 2005]).
Her working process itself is spontaneous and intuitive, responsive to the physical space. The artist writes, “adaptability to a place and to a context is not only a quality necessary to a person in their daily life, but also to the contemporary artist in their work.” Nonetheless, Llouquet’s adaptation and transformation of a given space shifts that environment, causing the viewer to feel simultaneously at ease yet out of place and out of bounds, an uncanniness.
The artist is a longtime fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale in which ridiculous juxtapositions of the familiar abound. Within this childhood classic, the protagonist Alice undergoes repeated change and transformation. It is this state of limbo and disorientation which Llouquet’s work conjures. Milk itself is a surreal wonderland of sorts.
I’d like to explore the idea of wonder further. Strangeness, surprise, and curiosity underlie wonder. Suspension of disbelief may be another facet. During the Renaissance, “wonder cabinets” were immensely popular. These wunderkammers were collections of curiosities, microcosms of the known world; they serve as predecessors to contemporary natural history museums. In short, these wunderkammers were also wonderlands, miniaturized, contained. However, their purpose was to present a controlled, rational universe which its owner surveilled and controlled. The“wonder cabinets” and “wonder rooms” (rooms instead of cabinets filled from floor to ceiling with artifacts) of the European gentility expressed a curiosity about the known world and its dark recesses, a wanderlust to explore and exploit. The cabinets inspired wonder and morbid fascination. Llouquet’s “playground” (as well as the other components of Milk) can also be seen as a contemporary “wonder cabinet,” although the belief in a rational and moral order has been displaced by a postmodern disbelief, a questioning of (meta)narratives.
Enlightenment rationality and the quest for truth through categorization and representation—as exemplified by the wunderkammers—has been upended since the postmodern turn (Jay, Friedberg). During the Renaissance, paintings were seen as truthful windows on the world. The views from these “windows” were from a single vantage point. Using linear perspective, generations of artists attempted to faithfully represent three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional plane (Jay, 5-20).
Llouquet’s “playground” also formally resemble freestanding windows (if not cabinets or vitrines). Conceptually, however, they do not provide accurate “truthful” representions of the world at large; any notion of Cartesian truth is called into question. Linear perspective is merely a game. The lines upon which some of the “playground” figures rest (conjuring a road, a perch, a horizon line) are actually three-dimensional elements. The viewer’s initial grasp of the image becomes altered as these lines shift in space; the original image cannot hold, things fall apart.
Although a strand of narrative can be traced within Milk, as well as Llouquet’s other works, it is fragmented, disjunctured, nonsensical. Yet in its illogic lies a logic, a fantastical topsy-turvy realm, much like Alice’s wonderland.
More Human Than Human
Desire, despair, desire
So many monsters . . .
And people are being real crazy
And you know what mommy?
Everybody was being real crazy
And the monsters are crazy.
There are monsters outside.
— No More I Love Yous, Annie Lennox
The two dominant colors of the exhibition—white, and what I have been referring to as dark fuchsia—take on different reads within Milk. The gallery walls are painted white and a light grey. One is not quite sure if the light gray areas are architectural shadows of the white walls; this subtle intervention adds to the sense of unease. Within Western contexts, white often conjures innocence, purity, and so on. However, within Asian cultures, white is also the symbolic color of mourning. The recurring reddish-pinkish blobs on the floor and walls register as syrup or melted candy, an otherworldly waterfall, or anthropomorphic shadows. The shiny blobs may also be outsized pools of nail polish or blood. The saccharine becomes sinister. The red/ pink room with the gash in the paint—perhaps these are traces of trauma, abuse. There are monsters outside (and inside).
The monstrous and mundane are inexplicably bound in Llouquet’s work. At first glance, Llouquet’s work appears lighthearted; the subject matter banal. Upon closer inspection, the mundane becomes monstrous, mutating as the viewer’s perception shifts. In the cluster of small framed drawings, a black rabbit with red eyes balefully stares out among the other mostly “sweet” yet mysterious images. Figures throughout the exhibition are in some way injured, or perhaps they are mutants. In the “playground” of white silhouettes, figures are disfigured, disjointed, limbless, headless. White upon white. The limbless, disfigured figures throughout the show bring to mind the spectacularized images on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City of those affected by Agent Orange doing everyday activities, or victims of war one encounters in urban and rural Viet Nam. The white silhouettes in Milk recall Kara Walker’s black antebellum cutouts. Yes, gender, sexuality, and violence also surface in Llouquet’s work like Walker’s, but in a more obtuse vein.
Llouquet’s anomalous, anonymous figures in her other drawings are in the process of becoming, transforming, mutating, healing. Theorists Deleuze and Guattari conceive of “becomings” as mutants (they use vampires and werewolves as examples). Llouquet’s humans are also mutants, “becomings”:
A becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification…To become is not to progress or regress along a series…becoming does not occur in the imagination, even when the imagination reaches the highest cosmic or dynamic level…[Becomings] are perfectly real.” (238)
Llouquet’s silhouettes and figurative drawings of “becomings” are not merely figments of the imagination, they are real, archetypical. They are uncanny: familiar and unsettling (Freud, 247). These human representations are neither progressing or regressing within fictional, scientific or historical narratives; they simply are.
Planes of Existence
With deft visual wit, Llouquet plays with form and content. She views the exhibition space as a blank space, a piece of paper. In the White Noise series of drawings on white Plexiglas presented as part of Milk, the artist deals with spatial relations. Using the planar surface of paper as a subject matter within the drawings, the artist cleverly comments on representation and reality. The surface of paper becomes a subject within the drawings, transforming within the series into a platform, a ledge, etc... with which human subjects interact. Llouquet is interested in visibility and invisibility, voids and gaps. Negative spaces within a picture plane or empty spaces within the gallery are also important.
The tensions between representation and abstraction is also a concern in Llouquet’s work. As noted, figures and objects disintegrate, mutate. Picture planes shift. Illogic prevails. Deleuze and Guattari similarly question linear notions of logic, history and progress, noting that “Creations are like mutant abstract lines that have detached themselves from the task of representing a world . . . ” (296). In Milk, these “mutant abstract lines” hint at imagery, then implode, detaching themselves from the burden of representation. The wall-drawn figure with the video projection head illustrates Deleuze and Guattari’s sentiment. The projected jumble of black and white lines are mutant abstractions, released from the tyranny of rational imagery. The “white noise” of the projection also signifies a break down of representational logic. Linear perspective, linear logic, and linear narratives are scrambled.
Llouquet’s subtle, contemplative work straddles—and questions—the borders between sweetness and violence, form and content, fantasy and nightmare. Indeed, it is a wonderful, wounded world.
Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. With a proem [sic] by Austin Dobson (London, William Heinemann; New York, Doubleday. Page & Co., 1907).
Cathy Caruth. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ; translation and foreword by Brian Massumi (London: Athlone Press, 1988).
David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, eds., Loss: The Politics of Mourning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Ann Friedberg. “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity,” in Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Sigmund Freud. “The Uncanny,” (1917). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17, 247. Trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955).
Avery Gordon. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality, edited by Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).
 As a sidenote, the name atelier wonderful, an experimental artists space in Ho Chi Minh City which Llouquet ran with her partner Betrand Peret, references Carroll’s novel. Every week, for five months in 2005-06, atelier wonderful showcased a different artist project, including visual artists, architects, graphic designers, and musicians.