Massinissa Selmani. Between Comedy and Tragedy

25 March 2016

© Copyright 2016 Artpress. Ingrid Luquet-Gad

A sheet of tracing paper, a lead pencil, a few swaths of color and some incongruous elements make up a montage revealing the absurdity of certain situations. Press photos — illustrating wars, politics news items — are transformed in disturbing skits that oscillate between burlesque and tragedy, poetry and lies. Works by Massinissa Selmani are on view at the stand of the Selma Feriani Gallery based in London and Sidi Bou Said (Tunisia). 

“A modest medium invested with a potential for action that very much exceeds it.” These few words were said on the occasion of the awarding of the special jury mention to Massinissa Selmani at the 56th Venice Biennale. The modest medium is drawing, the only one this artist works in. He sticks with its basics, as tenuous as those limits may be, unlike the practice of many other artists these days whose work could be described as expanded drawing, leaping up from the sheet of paper to approach the spatial explorations of performance and sculpture. Just paper and pencil, and at most a few color highlights, a bit of blue or orange, and the effects produced by using transparent tracing paper. Groups of people are defined by a clean, cautious line. These hyperrealist figures appear here and there on a largely white sheet of paper.

There are no extra pencil marks or anything else that would indicate the physical existence of the artist, and no expressivity. Instead, it feels like the image was directly produced by thought, operating with the spontaneity that is the mark of drawing. Selmani uses snatches of images he takes from the media. Images of war and other forms of violence, or simply news items, convey the bizarreness of reality, a few fragments of which remain durably embedded in our memory. What Selmani seeks to reproduce is not reality but the images it generates and that we make of it. What he draws so stubbornly and minutely, what he intensifies, is the act of recording, in his use of press clippings and also in the representation of the recording devices themselves — microphones, televisions and various other screens.

TWO FACES OF A SINGLE MASK

Consider the series A-t-on besoin des ombres pour se souvenir? (Do We Need Shadows to Remember?, 2013-15) awarded a mention in Venice. Each sheet is a montage of juxtaposed images: speechifying politicians, soldiers in uniform marching two by two, concrete walls that seem invulnerable. But here and there something incongruous appears, like a red giraffe or a shark washed up in what seems to be a negotiations room at some highly important congress. This initial irruption of the absurd at the heart of scenarios that seem plausible because, taken individually, they are familiar and even banal makes us pay attention to other incongruities. The verisimilitude cracks: the placid animals lead to the disturbing awareness that these images are lying. Whereas before we tried to fill in the gaps in the narrative from one group to another, we slowly realize that the shadow of each element indicates that they were photographed with a different light source. This confronts us with the deceptive character of these staged scenes. Nevertheless, this artist’s aim is not to fatalistically point out our credulity when it comes to photos. On the contrary, the situations are always both poetic and lucid. With these incoherencies and discrepancies, the drawings call upon us to collectively comprehend and marvel at the complicity of the real. Selmani does not make collages of press clippings, he draws them; he does not put us face to face with established fact but indicates paths so that we can deal with it — to make compositions. In another series, entitled Les Métamorphes (2012-15), images of uniforms are arbitrarily superimposed by the use of tracing paper. They cease to be clear signs conveying a belonging to a defined system of references; now they indicate nothing at all. These works give off a floating feeling, vacillating between comedy and tragedy like two sides of the same mask.

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