In the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot displays clinamen v.3. It is showcased in Soundtracks, the museum’s first large-scale exhibition on the relationship between sound and space in contemporary art. Boursier-Mougenot experiments with the musical potential of objects to create what he describes as “living and moving sound forms.” He is both an artist and a composer, with experience in theatre. He served as the writer, composer and director of the avant-garde Pascal Rambert theatre company from 1985 to 1994 and rejects the static in art, stating, “I come from the tradition of the theater, so live action and movement have always fascinated me.”
Clinamen v.3 is an indoor installation where white porcelain bowls float on water. The floating crockery double as percussion instruments, and the heated water amplifies the porcelain’s acoustic resonance. Spectators sit on the wooden spiral-shaped ramp surrounding the blue pool to watch the movement of the bowls and listen to their subtle chimes. Spectators enter the spiral construction from all angles, and their assembly within the wooden perimeter creates a physical space in which the art can be communally experienced. The round ramp echoes the circular movement of the bowls, encouraging spectators to walk around the installation. The floating bowls vary in size and their dispersions and collisions, though unpredictable, are prompted by an underwater current (speed determined by artist). Boursier-Mougenot provides an opportunity and framework for sound to exist, but the sound is produced by the laws of nature.
“Clinamen” is the word Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus used to describe the perpetual swerve of atoms in his poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). It establishes the freedom of the will, as well as the unpredictability of actions. The slight deviation of an atom affects the movement of another. Boursier-Mougenot’s clinamen v.3 is an artistic manifestation of its own title. The sound is a consequence of action, trapping the sound of “swerving atoms,” and the movement of the crockery visualises the unpredictability.
I encountered clinamen v.3 first though sound- a serene chiming- and my curiosity prompted me to discover its source. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian contemporary philosopher and writer, argues that poetry lies in the “disjunction that brings the mind to expect a meaningful analogy.” Similarly, the disjunction between sound and the expectation of a source (action or object producing the sound) in clinamen v.3 creates tension that requires resolution. In clinamen v.3 Boursier-Mougenot uses opposition to prompt spectators to approach the artwork and to reinforce a sense of harmony when spectators see the bowls floating like lotus flowers in a pond. The bowls colliding visually signal when and why sound emits, unifying our senses. This introduction to the artwork brings immediate comfort, from which spectators can begin to access the work.
Superficially, the visual and aural are unified, but spectators realise neither the pattern of the movement nor the sequence of sounds are directly arranged by the artist. The bowls move as a result of the collisions and currents, drawing attention to what was absent from my senses, and planting the question: Are our actions mere reflections of something already predetermined by our surroundings? Boursier-Mougenot introduces this tension between nature and design to highlight the complexity of patterns in the rhythms of life. Just as Agamben states a beautiful ending to a poem re-immerses itself in silence by “linking itself closely to its rhyme-fellow,” objects that we might not perceive as having movement or sound can be engineered to reflect one by linking itself to the pattern of another (sound dependent on physical movement) or by constructing one within a framework (physical movement dependent on underwater current). Agamben observes that poetry can be philosophised because it draws on a lapse of meaning. Similarly, Boursier-Mougenot introduces a contradiction between the controlled and the predictable to create disjunction which enables audiences to interpret and philosophise his work.
Agamben argues the end of a poem should “lace” back into the silences and ambiguities of the body of work to maintain opposition “between a metrical limit and a semantic limit.” Just as Agamben views poetry as a dynamic structure, Boursier-Mougenot’s artwork has no definite end. For Boursier-Mougenot, the lack of ending is indicative of the movement innate to humans and our environment. We are constantly moving, despite structures (e.g. the end of an exhibition) that provide illusions of an end. Additionally, with regards to the term “clinamen,” atoms and our environment are constantly moving in unpredictable, and not always visible, directions. Boursier-Mougenot emphasizes the infinitum of motion in his piece in which neither the current nor the movement of the crockery repeats in a sequence that can be revisited or marked as a beginning or an end.
Agamben argues all poems are dynamic, but the way in which they collapse into an ending is individual. Boursier-Mougenot sidesteps Agamben’s fears by allowing the “collapse” to occur in the hands of the spectator. Additionally, when spectators move away from clinamen v.3 they leave with the awareness that the artwork continues moving despite their presence; Clinamen v.3 has a dynamism that transcends the immediate experience. This is parallel to literary critic Michael Warner’s understanding of one sense of the word “public” in his book Publics and Counterpublics: “the concrete audience of hearers [when an essay is read aloud] understands itself as standing in for a more indefinite audience of readers.” The continuousness of Boursier-Mougenot’s work is reinforced by the chimes spectators can still hear after leaving the immediate visual form.
The spectator’s movement in clinamen v.3 visually highlights the unpredictability and control that permeates the artwork. Spectators are drawn into the spiral and navigate around its perimeter. They move freely but are also silently dominated by the conventions of the museum. For example, they do not touch the water or stand in the open space between the ramp and the pool of floating bowls. Just like the crockery, there is an underlying current that motivates action.
Agamben states “poetry lives in the unsatisfied tension between the semiotic and the semantic.” In a similar vein, Boursier-Mougenot uses the tension between nature and control to create a multi-sensory experience. The use of water and its seeming transparency gives the illusion of naturally occurring sound and movement, but the movement is intentional. Without the current and pumps under the surface, the bowls would eventually congregate. Yet Boursier-Mougenot doesn’t want clinamen v.3 to come to an ending because it would suggest there is a finality in the sounds we hear in daily life. Instead, he coaxes sound from an unorthodox object to highlight that we live in a complex landscape of sound.