‘Whenever people talk about you, they start with your death, then go back in time to explain it. Isn’t it strange how your final act has inverted your biography?’ These lines are from the novel Suicide (2008) by French artist and author Édouard Levé. Shortly after completing the manuscript in late 2007, Levé hanged himself in his Paris apartment, leaving behind a letter in which he expressed the wish that his last work be published. At the age of 42, he had merged life and art in a most brutal and complex manner.
Levé grew up in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly. A business school graduate, he briefly worked in the corporate world before switching to art in 1991. Over the next few years he painted abstract canvases in his Paris atelier, but burned most of them on returning from a long trip to India. Soon after, he reinvented himself as a conceptual photographer. For his first project, ‘Homonyms’ (1996–9), Levé scoured the phone directory for people who shared their name with figures he admired (such as Yves Klein, André Breton and Georges Bataille), and then asked to photograph them. Although the series lacks the visual éclat of his later works, Levé’s key themes are already in place: the notion of the double; the ‘fiction of identity’ (as he once put it in an interview); the fascination for generic codes of representation.
At the same time, Levé began to write under the influence of authors including Georges Perec and Raymond Roussel (another suicide). His first publication, Oeuvres (2002), is an imaginary catalogue raisonné of 533 conceptual projects, self-defined in its first entry: ‘1. A book describes the works the author has thought of, but never produced.’ Some of these ideas were later brought to fruition, reflecting the way Levé’s photographic and literary work bled into each other, ultimately to form a whole. His next book, Journal (2004), a collection of newspaper items with identifying references stripped out (‘A government has resigned and an outgoing minister has formed a new cabinet.’), perfectly complements his series ‘Actualités’ (Current Events, 2003), in which press photos of speeches, opening ceremonies etc., are reconstituted with anonymous models. In voiding the images of any specificity, Levé reduces them to uncanny archetypes, suspended outside time and place.
The objects of sexual desire are hidden; the rugby ball and kit are missing. Deprived of their focal point, the images induce a sense of oneiric unease.
In his few short years of activity, Levé kept up a dizzying rate of production, completing a dozen major photographic series and four literary works. He criss-crossed the US for his series ‘Amérique’ (America) in 2004, photographing heartland towns named after great world cities (such as Rio, Baghdad, Berlin). With their desolate streetscapes, huge, empty skies, cemeteries and war memorials, there is something deeply troubling about these images. Levé’s sitters assumed mortuary-like poses and impassive expressions for his portraits; with hindsight one can’t help reading them as autobiographical. A similar sense of disquiet emanates from the series ‘Angoisse’ (Anguish, 2001), in which the village of Angoisse in southwest France appears eerily depopulated.
Levé’s engagement with visual conventions culminates in the series ‘Pornographie’ (2002) and ‘Rugby’ (2003). In the former – which was also a performance piece at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris – Levé posed fully-clothed men and women in stereotypical pornographic scenarios. ‘Rugby’ has casually dressed men acting out a rugby match – in scrums, being tackled, reaching for a non-existent ball. Both series radiate a clinical coldness, with their blank backgrounds, inexpressive faces, geometric positionings, bland clothing and furniture; as with all of Levé’s work, they focus on absence. The objects of sexual desire are hidden; the rugby ball and kit are missing. Deprived of their focal point, the images are made strange and induce a sense of oneiric unease. One of Levé’s early series involved reconstituting his own dreams; ‘Pornographie’ and ‘Rugby’ point to the idea of generic representation as a form of collective dreaming. Like all good conceptual art, they pull off the trick of drawing complex responses from a simple idea.
At the end of his life, Levé was reaching toward new forms in both art and literature. ‘Fictions’ (2006) is his final and most mysterious photographic project. For a book-length series of tableaux vivants, Levé staged black-clad models against a black background with an eclectic array of objects, in what appear to be sombre ceremonial scenes. The settings are meticulously neutral, with no indication of place, period, culture or social circumstance. Once again, absence is at the heart of the work – only this time the play on established codes is abandoned and we cannot guess what is missing. The actors of this photographic theatre are obeying a rule known only to themselves; we feel the emotive power of the images without ever grasping their semantic content. Like Levé’s other work, ‘Fictions’ evokes a dream-world, but one which is now definitively unmoored from the real.
If ‘Fictions’ rejects realism, at first glance Suicide appears to engage with it. Gone are the conceptual trappings of Levé’s earlier work: the novel takes the form of a memoir, in which a shadowy narrator recounts in stark prose the story of a friend who killed himself 20 years earlier. There’s a certain poker-faced humour in Levé’s previous work, but with the slow-burning intensity of Suicide, this disappears entirely: we are now truly in the land of the last things. The book’s more conventional form is a red herring; it’s impossible to judge it as a novel, given the author’s own suicide. At the same time, it’s too easy to look for clues to Levé’s death in its pages – or indeed clues to the book in Levé’s death. Suicide resists straightforward interpretation, leaving us with the feeling that the closer we look, the further we are from understanding.
All early deaths are tragic, but suicides are peculiarly unsettling. Levé’s death has left a troubling space in Paris’ art and literary worlds. His work has been bought by national collections and continues to be exhibited, most recently in the ‘Dreamlands’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris this summer. Two of his books have been adapted for the stage; Suicide has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German, and an English edition will be published next April. Fictionalized portraits of Levé have appeared in two novels published this year alone. They are unlikely to overshadow his own masterly autobiography, Autoportrait (2005), which consists of 1,500 self-descriptive sentences organised as non sequiturs. The final few are as follows: ‘The age of 15 is the middle of my life, regardless of when I die. / I believe in a life after life, but not a death after death. / I don’t ask if I’m loved. / I will only once be able to say “I’m dying” without lying. / The most beautiful day of my life has perhaps passed.’
First published in Issue 134