Pierre Guyotat

Cabinet, London, UK

You know your writing is extreme when Jean Genet is the voice of respectability campaigning against the censorship of your book. In 1970, Genet was amongst a number of intellectuals to sign a letter protesting the French government’s ban on Pierre Guyotat’s second novel, Eden Eden Eden (1970) – a scandal that secured the author’s reputation as a literary outlaw and, according to Edmund White, ‘the last great avant-garde visionary of the 20th century’. Cabinet’s second exhibition with Guyotat is accompanied by a fresh translation of the book alongside previously unreleased audio recordings and a new suite of drawings. A hallucinatory evocation of the horrors of colonial sexual violence, Eden Eden Eden draws upon the author’s experiences as a French soldier during the Algerian War of Independence. (He was, notoriously, arrested for inciting desertion and imprisoned in a hole in the ground.) The brutality he witnessed in North Africa propelled Guyotat to develop a form of writing that refused the association of literature – and the French language – with civilization. Instead, through deformed words, verbal onslaughts and obscene imagery, he has sought to treat language as physical matter, the better to confront the baseness of existence. In its most literal form, Guyotat’s project of literature as physical substance has involved him masturbating whilst writing. 

pierre-guyotat-cabinet-0040.jpg

Pierre Guyotat, 50 pages from the manuscript for Le Livre, 1977-1979, pen and ink on paper. Courtesy: Cabinet London and Collection Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Guyotat, Le Livre (pages from the manuscript)1977-1979, pen and ink on paper. Courtesy: Cabinet London and Collection Bibliothèque nationale de France

From early on in his career, Guyotat has exhibited manuscripts and the show at Cabinet is dominated by three large vitrines containing drafts of his 1984 novel Le Livre (The Book). These are peculiar pages: the whole book typed as one continuous paragraph in a single, overwhelming burst of furious energy, disrupted by scribbled redactions and afterthoughts. It’s difficult not to search the page for signs of semen – is that mark simply foxing
or a more suspect stain? – or wear and fatigue. (Guyotat’s intensive working practices at one point put him temporarily in a coma.) There could be clearer information on the author’s project of language as matter; anyone coming cold to this reverential display, each page marked with a stamp from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (which holds Guyotat’s archives), might have the false impression that the author sees his writing as sacred rather than profane. To find out more it is necessary to search the folders of supplementary material on the author at the front desk.

pierre-guyotat-cabinet-0003.jpg

Pierre Guyotat, installation view at Cabinet, London, 2017. Courtesy: Cabinet, London

Pierre Guyotat, installation view at Cabinet, London, 2017. Courtesy: Cabinet, London

Guyotat’s voice is more faithfully preserved in his reading from Le Livre, which can be listened to by donning headphones. White once said of Guyotat’s dramatic delivery that it made every word sound like he was saying ‘testicles’. In the section I listened to, it sounded more like he had balls in his mouth, with each word difficult to decipher and haltingly delivered in a way that owes something to Antonin Artaud’s 1947 radio play, To Have Done with the Judgement of God.

pierre-guyotat-cabinet-0034.jpg

Pierre Guyotat, Drawings, 2016-17, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper, 21 x 29 cm. Courtesy: Cabinet, London

Pierre Guyotat, Drawings, 2016-17, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper, 21 x 29 cm. Courtesy: Cabinet, London

Guyotat’s project is perhaps most easily understood in the pen and ink drawings on show, all made in the last two years and marking a return to the medium for the artist after a hiatus of 40 years. A work showing two figures engaging in a sex act has one partner pooling onto the floor, more puddle than person, gnawed at by rats: an unambiguous depiction of man as matter that doesn’t matter. Guyotat’s other great theme – that all life under capitalism, god and government is a form of prostitution and sacrifice to the will of another – is given visceral form in these images. The indistinct, contorted faces of those involved in erotic entanglements obscure whether their labours are enthusiastically or reluctantly undertaken; all pleasure is potentially transactional. If Guyotat’s recent books have become less formally experimental and more reflective, it is in his return to drawing that he pursues his ideas with the full extremity and immediacy of his early work.

Paul Clinton is a writer, editor and curator based in London, UK.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June - August 2017

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018