One approach returns again and again with Hains: distortion or explosion. He deconstructed things in order to see them differently, to perceive a new reality. Distortion first came through the hypnagogoscope*, a camera/machine with a lens of fluted glass, which Hains developed in 1950 with Villeglé’s help. In 1953, it was the turn of language to be deconstructed; they distorted the letters of Camille Bryen’s phonetic poem, Hépérile, in Hépérile éclaté (‘Shattered Hépérile’). The theme of deconstruction runs through Hains’s entire corpus, from the earliest photos of Breton towns bombed to pieces in 1944 to the tearing of posters by passers-by and so on.
* from the Greek hypnos (sleep), agein (lead) and skopein (observe) – the visual effects felt in the transition to sleep.
PERMANENT CONSTRUCTION SITE
Hains loved the metaphor of the construction site with all its associations; it returns in many of his works. He first exhibited a construction-site barrier (palissade) in 1959 – thus creating a scandal. The object has a symbolic function: it tells us to go and look elsewhere or get over it. This was also the crucial juncture at which Hains discovered the homophonic fertility of language: ‘from palissade [palisade, barrier, fence] to lapalissade [truism or tautology]’. In an unlikely coincidence, Hains further discovered a cake called ‘les entremets de la palissade’ (the sweets of La Palissade), met a descendant of the Seigneur de la Palice, who named the truistic genre, and visited the village of La Palice, whose speciality was, he discovered, a pastry named ‘Les vérités de la Palisse’ or ‘true truisms’. It inspired the observation: ‘Something crazy happens with language, something bizarre and deeply suspicious. Something has happened. There are extremely strange coincidences. That is why I became a moustachist structuralist and a dialectician of palisades. I try to put the whole thing in order.
In the 1950s, Hains took up his stances: vis-à-vis art history through the freedom he granted himself (declaring himself an ‘inaction painter’), vis-à-vis the artist (claiming to be the agent of fictive artists who made gigantic matches) and vis-à-vis art criticism (proclaiming himself the ‘Cicisbeo of the Critique’).
He was perfectly clear about what Nouveau Réalisme, the art movement orchestrated by the critic Pierre Restany, could offer him: ‘With the Nouveaux Réalistes, we move from the world of painting to a world of truth. Artists stop making art and become abstract personifications.’
‘I’m not so much the creator, encounters are more my thing. I stop in front of a poster because it’s love at first sight. (...) It was a sort of archaeological kidnap; my contemporaries found themselves swept away and looking at the “yeses” and “nos” of a referendum the way we look at inscriptions in Pompeii.’
Raymond Hains, quoted by Otto Hahn, Beaux-Arts Magazine, April 1986
TRAVELS AND ENCOUNTERS
Hains’s art was fuelled by travel – which was complicated because he had no identity card – and encounters in his favourite cafés in Paris and Nice, while criss-crossing his native Brittany and exploring regional France and Italy or the cities where he exhibited: Kassel, Barcelona, London and so on. Thus he discovered the pastries of La Palisse in the eponymous French village. His works were born of felicitous discoveries and his camera was his way of ‘taking notes’. In the late 1970s, he decided to continue his research from his own room through reading. The innumerable books that he read, sometimes copying out passages in the margins, were then sorted into thematic suitcases: ‘I succumbed to a frenzy of reading and it suited me to put the books in metallic suitcases.’
‘There is the manifest and the hidden: there is what you see in the exhibition and there are the facts, which I don’t myself know but someone is sure to discover them one of these days.’
Raymond Hains, interview with Aude Bodet, 27/05/1985
THE WAY THE WORLD WORKS
Macintoshages are emblematic works produced with the computer. Hains prepared images, categorised them (the dossiers of images are strangely like the suitcases in which he stored his books), then opened them one on top of another before using ‘screen capture’ when things came right. This composition can be decoded thus: in Portugal, Hains decided that the colour of azulejos (blue tiles) was close to Yves Klein’s blue. In the Prado, when he saw Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda, the figure on the far right of the painting reminded him of his friend Yves, who wore the same hat. Klein was associated with one of Jean Tinguely’s machines because Tinguely had had an exhibition at the same time and Hains considered the members of Nouveau Réalisme as cogs in a machine. The Centre Pompidou is an exemplary machine, one of whose ‘pipes’ is also present in the composition, etc.
Raymond Hains said that he made ‘an art of combinations rather than doing combine painting’. There are many vague connections in the world and Hains set out to reveal them: ‘I’m working at a kind of Web. Life is like a novel, or a piece of Britanny lace.’
DISCOURSE AND MATERIAL
Hains based his work on different corpuses, referential universes that he was constantly expanding. One such corpus was Brittany, his native land in which he felt strongly enrooted; it supplied him with a matière de Bretagne from which he forged a discourse,and works came into existence in reference to it. Psychoanalysis was another of his materials. The last works that he made, in 2005, were a series of neon sculptures based on Lacan’s Borromean rings. A Borromean knot is made up of interlocking circles or ellipses that cannot be detached from each other, though if one of the figures is removed, the other two are also unhitched. Lacan took these forms as a topology of subjectivity, with each ring representing a fundamental component: the real, the imaginary and the symbolic – the three primordial elements of the Hainsian universe.
Like deconstruction, framing is a recurrent process in Hains’s work. To choose a piece of lacerated posters in the street is already to frame. ‘My works existed before I came along but no one saw them because they were too blindingly obvious.’ Framing in the photographic sense too, where it is decisive for the meaning of the image: ‘I seem to think right through photography, it’s as if I were having a cup of tea, it’s very nice... it allows me to make stills of my ideas.’ For example, this image from the series Picasso in Dinard refers to the celebrated series of Baigneuses de Dinard painted
by Picasso between 1922 and 1928. Hains regularly walked the length and breadth of this Breton resort town looking for traces of Picasso’s stay; had his family in Dinard perhaps even sold Picasso his painting materials?
‘I’m more of an image gatherer or an art speculator in every sense of the word.’
Raymond Hains, interview with Bertrand Lavier, 28/03/1986, ArtPress, May 1986
Several objects acquired the role of blazons or emblems in Hains’s work, notably the palisade-barrier. They are coded representations. La manna di Sant’Andrea, made in 1970, is a sort of catch-all object, a visual symbol rich in meaning and born of an Italian journey. On visiting the town of Amalfi, Hains saw a relief representing the cross of St Andrew, a motif very like the ‘X’ of the magazine and gallery XXe Siècle, which was owned by one San Lazzaro. When Hains was simultaneously invited to exhibit at the Studio San Andrea in Milan, where he was scheduled to show after the sculptor San Gregorio, he naturally thought that he should create a show of saintly overtones. The X-shaped cross of St Andrew became the principal motif of his works for the exhibition. This wooden relief imitates the back cover of San Lazzaro’s magazine. Its title comes from the Hebrew – Man Hû? (‘What is it?’) – a question that in Exodus 16 is suggested as the etymology for the mysterious substance manna.
READ, CLASSIFY, TALK
‘I am a natural dis-organizer.’ With his suitcases of books, boxes of index cards and his thematic dossiers, Hains’s entire life was spent constituting a treasure of thought, a grand œuvre put to work in both his exhibitions and his ‘interpretative logorrhoea’ – interminable monologues in which the maxim ‘only connect’ attained hyperbolic dimensions. He could not see a Frank Stella painting through a glass of Stella Artois without remembering the French art critic Claude Rivière, who wanted to be called Stella, her codename in the French Resistance. A myriad of stories is now confined to artworks, books, recordings and films – an entire universe in search of decryption.