Raising Ghosts

There would appear to be at least two main entrances into the work of Simone Decker. One of them might take us through the porch at the Synagogue de Delme where, in 1999, the artist filled the entire exhibition space with over thirty miles of adhesive tape. This was White Noise. There were strips of various colours crisscrossing each other, so much so that you could hardly get in at all, and, much more to the point, until its own architectural reality approached meltdown. Like the electronic snow on a screen when there is no programme on, these strips saturated an area placed out of order, while yet creating in places spots of higher, inextricable density, kinds of nests in which the work sustains a life form from which the viewer is eternally cut off. Overall, the viewer found himself confronted with something like the web of a spider bereft of any sense of geometry drawing him into its sticky toils. Along with the physical obstacle taking up the space, a further threat came from the adhesive, namely the danger, once in, of not getting out again. White Noise is basically the deployment into three dimensions of De quoi occuper, a work done at Casino Luxembourg the year before, in 1998, where similar strips of adhesive tape crisscrossing in every direction covered the floor and walls of an exhibition room and formed a credible ceiling, but held back from taking over the space as well (1).

The second way into the artist’s work is through a series of photographs: a set strictly contemporaneous with White Noise and which depicts some odd plastic goings-on in the streets or on the quays of Venice. Dozens of pictures in which, in the shape of balls, bubbles, pourings and other liverings, a coloured substance —which the eye is quick to identify as common or garden chewing-gum, of the bothersome sort that usually sticks to the soles of one’s shoes—is obtrusively installed in various parts of the city. Chewing in Venice: monumental sculptures in bubble-gum for La Serenissima? The slightest visual attention, a minimum sense of reality and the aesthetic credit given to Simone Decker will lead anyone looking at these photographs to understand how a small shape made out of this same deliciously sticky confection of the kind that normally gets jaws wagging (2), has been photographed against a Venetian backdrop from such an angle as to appear to block an alley, flow along a house front, decorate a campo or embellish the banks of the Grand Canal. Such photographs address the question confronting the artist, on being invited to the 48th Venice Biennale: how do I go about producing a monumental sculpture on a shoestring? Answer, by taking something cheap like chewing-gum, and by picturing it from a particular angle so as to make the sculpture look bigger than it actually is. The chewing-gum sculptures thus, really and truly, albeit very briefly, took up their positions in Venice, for the pictures set before our eyes are no trick of photomontage. The only slight degree of deception is with respect to their scale.

The formal likeness between the two works is fairly obvious: a riot of pictorial colour and the adhesive quality of the materials used. More fundamentally, White Noise and Chewing in Venice both seem to have all the trappings of… traps. The body only just escapes falling into the trap laid by the web of adhesive tape; the gaze only just escapes falling into the trap laid by the fairly elementary ploy of the camera position. That space or the representation of space form a trap is actually something very few works by Simone Decker do not tell us in one way or another, something confirmed by a glance through her existing corpus.

On the photographic side, there were follow-ups to the Venice series. First, the chewing-gums continued their sculptural tricks in Monaco (Chewing in Monaco, 2000). Secondly, using various objects to exploit the potential to be drawn from relations of scale, there came into being several more series, which can be readily divided into three main groups.

As with Chewing in Venice, the object over the scale of which the camera angle leaves us dangling can take on the appearance of a sculpture. This happens with the photographs of 20 pavillons pour Saint-Nazaire (1999) which show large transparent parallelepipeds in the inner space of various locations: a hairdresser’s salon, a laundry, a funeral parlour, a clothes shop, a hotel lobby and other not so readily identifiable spots—picture some rather wobbly Larry Bell sculptures getting mislaid in some rather unlikely places. In fact, at the time of the photograph, these hyaline houses were no more than some cellophane packaging wrapped onto the outside of a display case. Combining this method with photography, the artist contrives to smuggle her sculptures into places to her unknown. Other items belonging to this sculptural register are this gob-smacking blob of red jelly photographed in a vast empty warehouse (Brugge en gelee, 2000), the cylindrical metal shape boldly planted on the Markt in the Venice of the North (Tower on the Markt, Brugge, 2000) or the transparent parallelepipeds, the big brothers of the Pavillons de Saint-Nazaire, set in mountainous scenery, with or without snow (Pavillons im Musterbau und drumherum, 2000). This review of objects turned into sculptures by photography would not however be complete without mentioning Glaçons 1-9 (2001). This time the setting is Paris (including the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the Place du Moulin Rouge, the Place de la Concorde, the banks of the Seine with the east end of Notre-Dame, the Arsenal dock or the Palais Omnisports at Bercy). Ice cubes ostensibly several metres tall are plonked down and start to melt, as ice cubes are wont to do. Here the scheduled disappearance of the object is the perfect excuse for the photographic expedient, which is alone capable of certifying what may have been these ice cubes’ existence, so brief and yet so huge.

These occurrences of chewing-gum, transparent parallelepipeds, ice cubes and other such things are disturbing because the nature of the photographic image as an indicator, namely the fact that it points to the existence, proves the existence of the thing it represents (3), tends to lend weight to the reality of the artistic achievement involved in obtaining such monumental sculptures from materials like these. The artist recalls how at the 1999 Venice Biennale, a visitor to the Luxembourg pavilion came to enquire as to the whereabouts of the odd few giant chewing-gums he had not yet actually seen, as he had been so thrilled with the ones he had seen! But these images of sculptural objects are also to be viewed in the context of the now rich and longstanding relationship between photography and sculpture. The two art forms have been building close and unusual ties ever since Brancusi, who chose to use photography to set the terms of an ideal way of viewing his sculpture and ended up converting his studio into an ad hoc environment, up to the so carefully arranged constructions of someone like Thomas Demand which had no sooner been photographed than they were demolished, and taking in the lines of stone which Richard Long photographed on the slopes of the Himalayas or in the plains of Bolivia prior to giving an account of them on the walls of galleries and museums in Europe and north America. Simone Decker’s pictures add a fresh chapter to this story—photography as a record of a kind of sculpture that never actually existed as such in the public space.

Photography can also indulge in scalar depravations in animal form. Thus, answering to the gentle name of Jérémy (1999), an octopus in its aquarium takes up an inordinate amount of space inside what is itself a huge building. The luminous caisson used as a display case for this picture doubles its impact in the way it functions as a replica of the represented aquarium. The series Seaworld Biel-Bienne (2000) shows, in these same glass tanks, large aquatic animals, stonefish, sharks or humpback groupers, disturbing the peace in that small Swiss town and its lake (one wonders, perhaps they were actually caught in the lake?). With the photographs of Brugge Turtles (2000), the animals are now free to move around as imposing turtles invade the streets of Bruges. Such images of course are all about the ancestral fear of the gaping beast, a myth immortalized by Hollywood with King Kong, even though in this case the photographed animals actually do exist, with the size they appear to have in the picture. Katharina Fritsch is another artist who has contrived to make striking capital out of this dimensional discrepancy in such well-known pieces as Mann und Maus (1991-1992)—an enormous black mouse sitting on a white bed with a man of the same colour sleeping in it—or Rattenkönig (1993)—a circular arrangement of sixteen enormous rats tied together tail to tail. Obviously the emotional strain is not so overpowering when looking at a photograph as when standing in front of the giant sculpture of the creature itself. But the photograph as authentication goes a long way towards achieving the disturbing strangeness of these images of colossal animals, in such a familiar setting after all.

Sometimes, the intrusion of oversized objects in a setting that had not catered for them takes a definitely narrative turn. Recently in Arnhem (2001) and Le va-et-vient du Mont Saint-Watou (2001) are examples of this. Here, as we pass through the different images of the work, a formation of ice or rock will appear in a geological or climatic context which on the face of it rules out the very possibility of its existing in the first place. The sudden appearance of an iceberg in the Gueldre or of a mountain in the flatlands of Belgium is an opportunity for the photographic image to play out its hand as testimony, to the point of absurdity. The long tectonic period spanning thousands of years is nevertheless coverable by one session with the camera, with everything pointing to its having been relatively short, since around the weird mount nothing changes, not the few houses in the neighbouring village, nor the church spire.

However, Simone Decker’s dimensional illusion is not restricted to the photographically laid trap, witness the seven images in the series entitled So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht (2001). Characterless buildings in Borken, a small town in Germany, pleasant enough but as dull as ditchwater, has some of its house fronts lit up by powerful spotlights like those used on a film set. This makes these architectures without quality begin to look like historical monuments, or at least picturesque in the way tourist sights are made to look, sometimes at the risk of turning them, flattening them into cardboard cutouts. How do we promote the sights in a town that maybe does not have many, apart from a vague château and a museum of sorts? How do we draw attention to the interesting features of a piece of architecture that does not seem to have any? Answer, by training ultra-powerful floodlights on some front or gable and by photographing the result of that illumination. The images thus obtained make an odd bunch, representing a wrong-turn as compared to standard practice in tourist communication, their profoundly insignificant quality ultimately verging on a kind of supernatural apparition.

So we see then how the photographic image according to Simone Decker is well and truly engineered to lay a trap. Before looking in more detail into the part of her work that does not involve representation, to see what further traps she has in store for us, we must first pause for a moment to consider Prototypes d’espaces infinis, for here we have a case of an object which, having first been the instrument of photographs taken from an angle such as to “create” large sculptures (4), has subsequently become the subject of a production, namely at the 1999 Venice Biennale. The object in question is a cube-shaped structure, made of shiny sheeting folded as if by some origami expert, and which, in its sculptural version, has room inside for one or more persons. Three specimens were on show in Venice, two folded up, the third being opened out into a kind of box. While in the photograph, the laws of optics conspire to produce a misleading effect as to the scale of the Prototype, in actual space, the material it is made of also relies on its optical properties to multiply our viewpoints and by the same token the number of reflections. A number of other non-photographic works by Simone Decker are similarly presented as genuine visual traps.

One such is Petite galerie des glaces (2002). This work comprises four large identical angle pieces able to swing freely through 360° around posts extending from floor to ceiling. These corner pieces are made out of fibre board, with no plastic quality other than its relative poverty, covered on the reentrant side of the angle by the curve of a mosaic mirror giving off a myriad of bright reflections. The four elements can be oriented so as to totally close off a space inside which one or two people can become ensnared. They can also be arranged in such a way as to mark off two lines to walk down, opening up two passages through the exhibition space. And of course all the innumerable intermediate positions are available as well, whatever catches the viewer’s fancy. The value of such a piece lies in its offering an object for people’s cardinal urges with respect to how they relate to space. In other words, Petite galerie des glaces offers common ground for claustrophobics and agoraphobics to come together and dialogue. However, should you fall prey to some overwhelming narcissistic urge and choose to stand inside the structure when it is in the closed position, i.e. inside the mirror, you are in for a disappointment. The perfect face-to-face confrontation with yourself is simply not going to happen, for, as with the material of Prototypes d’espaces infinis, the mosaic will only reflect back a fuzzy, short-lived, fragmented image.

With NY-space (2004) we come to another kind of visual trap. This is a cell that the viewer enters through a door which once shut leaves him facing an unusual sight. The inner walls of the cell, with invisible vertical neon lights concealed in its four corners, contain two elements. First, a one-way glass plate, transparent on the viewer’s side and reflecting on the other. Then, a few centimetres away, an ordinary mirror. So the viewer sees through the glass the reflections of the two reflecting surfaces reverberating to infinity. He also sees the pale reflections of himself that also come off the inner faces of the one-way glass in an interminable mise en abyme. This produces two sets of reflections on top of each other: the sharp reflections of the mirrors facing each other, digging four endless tunnels from which the viewer is absent; and the gradually fading reflections in which the said viewer ends up losing his image, like Dracula who cannot see himself in a mirror (5). In this way, NY-space affords an opportunity for a singular in vitro experience of having the feeling of being both present and absent, of being both here and somewhere else, of standing (a feeling one sometimes gets in the streets of New York) inside a completely enclosed and infinite space.

Another work by the artist, in an entirely different style, confronts its viewer with an equally surprising optical phenomenon. A couple of full moons (2003/2004) is a showing of a film shot on a night when the moon was full. As it turns out, there are two moons that appear on the screen. There is nothing very mysterious about this, as the camera has recorded both the moon and its reflection on the lens. As the lens is curved, depending on the angle of the shot, the two moons are not necessarily perfectly superimposed. Furthermore, to show this film, Simone Decker has designed a peculiar viewing contraption: a kind of large telescope several metres long at the end of which is the projection screen. Unlike the theatre set which adds depth to the stage scene by taking on a gradually shrinking funnel shape, this device gets bigger, so as to resemble altogether a tunnel and leave an odd question mark over the distance from the eye to the screen. You might almost think you were dealing with one of those scopic devices so common in the early days of show business. Be that as it may, with this faintly absurd effect, the experience of viewing the film with the two moons is dramatized and placed almost on a scientific footing. The film camera has produced a second moon in the same way as the still camera takes tiny sculptures and turns them into monumental ones.

However, Simone Decker’s non-photographic works do not all play around with optical effects like this. As we saw with White Noise or Petite galerie des glaces, sometimes all that she uses is the way the viewer relates to space. Jagdschlösschen (1998-2000) has got to be one of the artist’s more striking efforts (6). These are large parallelipipeds whose six sides are in translucent double-sided adhesive tape. You enter the Jagdschlösschen through an opening in one of the sides. Once inside, an odd experience awaits the spectator, whose feet stick to the floor, and not because of any discarded chewing-gum. In no time, the fingers and hands in turn feel the stickiness of the walls. Each person thus leaves behind traces of their visit, more or less accidentally in the case of footprints, fingerprints, hairs or fibres from their clothing, more demonstratively in the case of things like train tickets, photographs, scraps of paper and other odds and ends. From one standpoint, the Jagdschlösschen have something in common with Gabriel Orozco’s Piedra que cede (The Yielding Stone, 1992). That imperfect ball of grey plasticine, weighing a little over fifty kilos, with nothing special about it either morphologically or chromatically speaking, as it rolls, here again owing to the adhesive quality of the material, picks up some of the dust and bits and pieces it passes over. It too takes the fingerprints of the areas it covers; a smooth surface will make it smooth, a bumpy surface will leave a trace of each bump. The pollution of the sculpture by a context not all of whose aspects are noble is something the possibility of which was implicitly recognized by minimalism as practised by Judd or Flavin—since the work is no longer conceived as being placeless, outside the viewer’s presence—but without going as far as to accept that its own products should run that risk. Minimalist cleanliness as magnificently emblematized in the early 1980s by Jeff Koons’s glass boxes with neon lamp and vacuum cleaner is no longer the order of the day. The cube is coming in for wear and tear. It is losing its transparency. It is getting dusty. Being no longer reduced to the single dimension of a gaze which in any case has become glazed, seeing only ghostly shapes through the scotch tape walls, viewers are becoming vandals, although most of the time doing their best not to be. The hunter’s lodge of Jagdschlösschen is no longer somewhere to rest before or after a shooting expedition, it is actually where the chase takes place. And the prime target of the hunting manœuvre is the viewer, trapped in the desublimated reality of its presence.

Inside the Jagdschlösschen the public find themselves in a situation which, when you think about it, is rather like that experienced by the actress in the Air Bag video (1998). This soundless film, projected large on a wall, shows a close-up of the head of a woman with red hair and lips, enclosed in a transparent plastic bag. The young woman breathes rhythmically in and out as deeply as her lungs will go. In this way, the plastic bag alternates between being glued to her face and blown up like a balloon. Sure enough, such a film, of Nauman ancestry (7), soon leaves the viewer feeling decidedly queasy, naturally because he is watching someone in the process of suffocating, but also because it touches on the crucial twofold question of the delimitation and occupation of space. For all its singularity, Air Bag ties in closely with the rest of Simone Decker’s work. The inflated bag of course recalls Bubbles (1994-1995), latex bubbles of various sizes that the artist has obscenely germinating in architectural openings or on the corner of certain structures. Air Bag of course also recalls the bubble-gum sculptures, as well as the transparent parallelepipeds of the Pavillons de Saint-Nazaire, the Pavillons im Musterbau und drumherum or the aquariums of Jérémy and the Seaworld Biel-Bienne series, not to mention the Glaçons. When it comes and sticks to its prisoner’s face, it ties in with the sticky Jagdschlösschen. But the work to which it relates at the deepest level has to be Untermieter (1997), produced at the Beaumont Gallery (Luxembourg). Here Simone Decker lined one of the gallery’s rooms with red latex. After leaving it to dry, she removed this skin which had been moulded to fit every detail of the place, and then “sublet” for it (as the title suggests) a larger, adjacent room in which to hang it up again on a metal frame (8). Apart from both being red, Air Bag and Untermieter both consider the relationship to space in terms of the same duality: either stickiness (the plastic bag adheres to the face as does the latex to the wall), or distance (the bag is blown up and comes away from the face; the latex structure is reconstituted in another room from the one imprinted on it). To be touching or at a distance, that is the question.

In 2004, Simone Decker returned to this practice of the imprint she had previously experimented with for Untermieter, in an astonishing set of pieces entitled Ghosts (2004). For these the artist took imprints of a number of sculptures taken from a broad range of periods, styles and qualities, and all located in the public spaces of Luxembourg. She then used these to make casts with a photoluminescent coating which, when bathed in daylight, stores it up and emits that light once darkness has fallen. Some of the resulting sculptures have been lined up on the roof of the “Aquarium”, the architectural appendix on the front of the main Casino building, where they stand out at night in the eerie, ghostly yellow light. Others, perhaps even more strikingly, have been placed in the obscure cellars of the building where they play their role of ghosts to perfection, when the phosphorus starts to give off its glowing effect, once the eye has taken the couple of minutes it needs to adjust. A ghost is the double of someone who is dead. Are we to take this to mean that Simone Decker’s phosphorescent casts are replicas of sculptures which, whatever their respective merits, have died of exposure, if not overexposure, in public spaces? Despite the formal novelty they inject into the artist’s output, the Ghosts tie in with certain concerns seen in earlier pieces. Consisting in the distance, both physical and chromatic, set up between a cast and its model, the idea here is close to that of a work like Untermieter. Even more surely than with Untermieter, Simone Decker’s ghosts of sculptures are to be viewed while bearing the photographs in mind. The insignificant architectures of the So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht series become like ghostly apparitions of themselves under the camera lens and the beams of powerful spotlights. Like the Ghosts, they draw their chimerical new lease of life from the night. As for the photographs of Chewing in Venice, 20 pavillons pour Saint-Nazaire, Pavillons im Musterbau und drumherum or Glaçons, their aim is not so very different from that of Ghosts as might at first appear. The photographic images seek to establish the monumental reality of ghostlike sculptures; the phosphorescent casts turn sculptures that have actually survived long enough to outlast any significance they may once have had into ghosts, to restore them to reality. Producing in this way a replica of a city feature that people seem to have lost sight of is also the subject of a work like Water Tower (1998) by Rachel Whiteread, a translucent resin cast of the volume of water contained in one of those rooftop tanks that are a feature of the New York skyline (9). Its presence, at once familiar and enigmatic, makes Water Tower another kind of ghost. Like Ghosts, such a project possibly indicates that in our postmodern, post-utopian age, ghosts are really all we can see any more.


The viewer certainly has his work cut out. The image can be very misleading, persuading me that the great moon is made of a tiny green chewing-gum; it can trap me to the extent of making mountains appear and disappear. I also have a lot of problems with space. I can stand close up to the work or step back some distance away from it; sometimes I can even venture inside it, with the attendant risk of becoming stuck to it. In town, I might become blind to the work. In other words, there is nothing natural about occupying a viewpoint, even though it is something I am doing all the time—especially at night when the moon is full.

Translated from the French by John Lee

Michel Gauthier

October 2004

(1) Simone Decker again uses adhesive tape in Distributeur. A large container set up in town, in 2003 at Besançon, in 2004 at Neuchâtel, operating as a dispenser of sellotape which the public were invited to unreel and wrap round various elements in the surrounding décor and thereby produce a sculpture of their own making.

(2) One of the artist’s early pieces, Ma Chambre de Méditation (1994), involved an assemblage of several hundred yellow, orange, pink and red sweets that a little saliva had made sticky enough to be aggregated together.

(3) On this point the reader is referred to the enlightening analyses of Jean-Marie Schaeffer in L’image précaire. Du dispositif photographique, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1987.

(4) Three images in the public space at Monaco, in 2000 and, that same year, two indoor pictures at Vaduz.

(5) A future version of NY-space using of even less reflecting glass, ought to be able to neutralize the reflections of the viewer almost completely, so as to leave him face to face with four series of mises en abyme by mirrors from which he will be strangely excluded.

(6) To date, there have been Jagdschlösschen, in 1998 at Casino Luxembourg (“To be expected”) and at the Frankfurter Kunstverein (“8 x 8 x 8”); in 1999, at La Criée, contemporary art centre in Rennes (“Ex-change”); in 2002, at the MAC, Musée d’art contemporain in Marseilles (“Subréel”).

(7) Think for instance of a work like Pulling Mouth (1969).

(8) In the spirit, if not the form, the Rideaux designed for the 2002 edition of the “printemps de septembre” (Toulouse) are akin to Untermieter. The photographic imprints of buildings, transferred onto large curtains, used at a distance from their referents, to delimit and compartmentalize a space.

(9) See Louise Neri, Looking Up. Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower, Public Art Fund, New York City/ Scalo, Zurich - Berlin - New York, 1999.


Simone Decker
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