It’s hard to explain, even to myself, why an artwork from more than fifty years ago can speak to our time without resorting to clichéd notions of the timelessness and universality of artistic language. I try to think of concrete experiences that can constitute a right mindset to write about Jacques Villegle, a Parisian artist born in 1926, and I often come up short.
This is not the case with 122 Rue du Temple, which stands out in his body of work mainly because of two words torn off from protest flyers that dominate the upper portions of the canvas: Mai 1968. Plenty of works were made from affichées at the eponymous street in Paris but this one was made in the aftermath of a protest movement that continues to reverberate with our present reality. As we are also living in an event that put a major world economy to halt, I increasingly reflect on the period of civil unrest in Paris and the rest of the world in 1968 and the immediate years that followed.
Let me start with a story from my professor about these glorious weeks in French history. Professor Z was defending his dissertation for a doctorate in Ethnology at the Sorbonne when the police entered and closed down the campus. On the first week of student protests, he recalls feeling whimsical, like attending a pep rally, walking with a mass of students, who were more or less clothed like him, in herringbone tweed and neckties. Led by the beat of a Conga drum, they marched demanding that they be allowed to retake the campus and cross the river after it was blocked by state security forces. This event which happened on May 10th was broadcast on radio and television the next day and the account goes something like this:
More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd dispersed, some began to create barricades out of whatever was at hand, while others threw loose cobblestones, forcing the police to retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and charged the crowd again. The police finally cracked the barricades set up by the students at two in the morning after negotiations floundered.
The confrontation resulted in hundreds of arrests and injuries and lasted until dawn of the following day. In a twist of fate, Professor Z who eluded arrests by hiding on a rooftop that night came home to Manila confronted by a belated aftershock of May 1968. In the midst of a major protest against the looming dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the Vietnam War, he was jailed in a military camp and imprisoned for ten years.
“Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt,” is a famous and often misunderstood quote by Wittgenstein that roughly translates to “The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.” As much as the quote points to an interesting feature of language and translation, Wittgenstein points to the essential part of language. He believes that language is everything that can be said using elementary logic. The limits of language, therefore, are simply the limits of logic. And while the language of Villegle is foreign, the logic is not.
Let’s get a sense of this logic from the artwork: the images in 122 Rue de temple have been stripped of their context and all pretensions to meaning have likewise been erased. They have been clothed instead with language. It’s a work with images that each have a story to tell. They might not be all meaningful, nor their subjects interesting on their own but because of the work’s specific milieu (a few weeks in Paris or an initial wave of a socio-political tsunami) it’s almost impossible to recreate the work. Not even Jacques Villegle has been able to recapture the ineffable quality of 122 Rue de temple. Indeed, his later attempts at the decollage seemed not only anachronistic but a poor rehash of previous works. I used to think the explanation was simple: that the quality of printed matter on the streets just didn’t age as elegantly but it was really the specific political timing of the work that made it so powerful.
I feel a deep critical vertigo observing the work of Villegle now. Seen as art, the images tell their stories from behind the grand narrative of social upheaval and urban renewal. Seen as a critique of art, these are merely images from the street that were meant to be discarded after they have served their purpose. It’s consideration as art is an aberration because it draws meaning from its ephemeral character which in turn challenges the notion of what art or a museum object should be. It is perhaps only with a bit of luck, that these images, over time, acquired a certain patina that has allowed us to comprehend its presence in a museum. I doubt this was the case in 1968 when nostalgia wasn’t at play.
Following this logic, the real descendant of Jacques Villegle’s decollage, may not hang comfortably in museums and galleries of the present, not even in the inadequate practices of installation art, but back in the real world where printed matter is often repurposed.
In Manila, where I come from and several places in the Third World, billboard images on tarpaulin end up as sleeping mats, or as roofs and walls of shanty houses. I once visited a community initiative of urban poor senior citizens that turns these polyurethane coated tarpaulins into school bags for children.
Just as Villegle took protest flyers and movie posters by casually walking the streets, these women can be seen walking around the city in their pushcarts gathering tarpaulin posters from small businesses. The most opportune time to get these materials is during election season. Campaigns are treated like fiestas and images of politicians are hung as banderitas. These women make a living by turning these urban detritus into something even greater than art, something that is not only useful but reduces the carbon footprint of the human race.
The practice of repurposing election banners is not an exclusive practice of cooperatives like the one I mentioned. It is not unusual to see the faces of politicians long after elections because their banners become roofs and walls of what I can describe now as a collage that has become a semi-permanent shelter. It’s a boon for recycling that reflects the resilience of people in poverty but it is also a mark of the abandonment of social welfare, not unlike what Villegle in Paris must have encountered in the aftermath of World War II.
When Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines, he launched an aggressive war on drugs that continues to rage even in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Advertising banners that were turned into school bags were also used to cover the corpses that were left on the street. I was particularly struck by a photograph of makeshift body bags made from banners advertising a discount rate for a motel. A CNN feature shows these body bags were used in so-called “pauper burials” (a pun on “proper burials”?) in mass graves in public cemeteries with cramped spaces didn’t allow for costly coffins. The corpses that they wrap have floated in a pool of formaldehyde at a funeral home for months after being found on the streets of Manila with pieces of cardboard containing messages identifying them as drug pushers.
This is how Villegle’s decollage speaks to my time and place, it holds up a reflection of the very real world where I come from; from the street to a gallery, or from offices of power to shantytowns. If they weren’t turned into art, the images would’ve been a silent witness to mass murder, as they have been for conversations in the factory and the rumblings in the university of Mai 1968.
With a very deep sense of irony, these images make me question what I initially wrote as the role of art in salvaging and making life better in the aftermath of total destruction. Does repurposing them into school bags symbolize hope that poverty can be overcome? Does repurposing them into art heal the wounds of a new reality?
Since this is initially the work of the common man, the printer, the worker, it naturally speaks with their voices, the growling of their stomachs, the sharpness of their tongues, the pungent smells of their armpits, their fetid breaths, the sweat that knots with particularities of their experience. They hold the weight of their bare existence along with the symbols with which society expresses itself and utters its lies.
Villegle’s decollage serves as a portal to understand why such images exist, why revolutions come to fruition, and why works like this need to be made. The decollage takes me to places that I haven’t been or have been but have not really known, the people and places I used to know but wish to forget or have forgotten but want to recall, the sights familiar to me but are renewed because the presentation is new.
We learn from Roland Barthes that the charm of the out of fashion is its truth from yesterday, not his falsehood of today. The icons of the 1960s that go along with protest flyers from Mai 1968 may no longer be as recognizable, but our belief in them—which Villegle was concerned with—are still at work in various equivalents of these images.
What Villegle left us in this decollage is the readability of the signs and their logic. He drew our attention to these symbols of everyday life, which in the case of 122 Rue du Temple are remnants of a violent dispersal of an uprising, but made them readable and logical as art so that we can preserve and recognize their significance in our current reality.