Lode Laperre



Anyone who has ever strolled along a tidal beach, such as those at the Belgian coast, will be familiar with the ripples in the wet sand when the tide turns and starts ebbing away. The sight is so ingenious it seems designed in some way. By nature, as more prosaic thinkers might put it, or by a higher being, as those who think on a grander scale might suggest. While the characteristic pattern is instantly recognisable, the process or the structure that gives rise to it is a complex matter. The back-and-forth flow of the water, the texture of the sand and the wind all play their part. Inspired by the works that have been included in this catalogue, this is the theme of this essay, which has no intention of ‘explaining’ what these works mean. Not only would this be presumptuous, but it would above all give rise to the vexed question of what the reader and viewer is supposed to do with such an explanation. So what does this essay set out to achieve? Standing before an artwork, the first question to spontaneously arise seems to me to be how we can speak about a work, including to ourselves. This essay, in other words, is about the quest for concepts and words that might succeed in capturing aspects of the artwork. This might be a single concept that serves as a key, but could equally be a coherent collection of concepts. In no way am I arguing for a unique answer to the question. Quite the opposite, in fact: there are multiple ways of framing a work and the challenge is to create translations. The frames should not be reduced to just a single frame; on the contrary, countless dialogues, trialogues and more should be begun, to allow us to see together what is impossible for us to see separately.

One example of a core concept that helps us understand Laperre’s work is the intriguing thought in Willem Elias’ vision, presented in the neXXus catalogue, which sees Laperre’s oeuvre as a sample card: instances of a single larger work that corresponds to the oeuvre. This vision sees the artist as working on a single, non-existent painting of which each specific and concrete work is a partial elaboration. Only if one were to have the opportunity to see all his works together would one be able to catch a glimpse of the ‘master’ painting, which we may reasonably suppose can never exist itself. Another, equally powerful example, also cited by Elias, is the idea of the palimpsest. An entirely defensible theory, because this concept emphasises stratification, a kind of chronology: what is written on the parchment must inevitably be the last, or rather the most recent text, until such time as this text too disappears. But the chronology is not a linear order, not a question of counting layers as one counts tree rings, because one has attempted to remove the underlying layers, to scrape them off, a process that will always leave visible traces behind. It is above all the latter aspect that bears a strong similarity with Laperre’s paintings: the stratification that is scraped away, sometimes right down to the bare canvas, so that fragments of a ‘past’ become visible here and there. To illustrate what I meant by a translation, it is already tempting at this point to try and establish connections between a sample card and a palimpsest. Just as a sample card never reveals the original, the palimpsest does not tell us for sure what the original text might have been. Both leave us guessing with regard to the origin or source. Equally, both emphasise that unknowabilities are at play (whereby I shall not offer an opinion as to whether or not this is a matter of principle). We do not know how comprehensive the ‘sample card atlas’ is or ever will be, just as we are equally uncertain as to what the final text (for now) will be on the palimpsest. Both reveal an open-ended oeuvre whose completion is not of this world, as it were. 

In this essay, however, I should like to test out another possibility. Gazing at Laperre’s works – and my discussions with the artist have confirmed this for me – I had the strange sensation that through the abstract, something concrete came to the fore. (I imagine that the opposite movement is regarded as more self-evident.) Was it a landscape I was looking at after all? A portrayal of contours that hinted at water, earth or sky, or something different entirely? It took me some time to understand that it was not these questions that truly mattered, but rather something deeper. 

The key concept I wish to put forward is that of phase. Many of us are familiar with the concept, namely when we speak about ‘states of matter’, the three best known of which are solid, liquid and gaseous. Seen in this way, it seems to be a rather trivial concept, but that is far from the case. Because once two or more phases are at play, the possibility of a transition, or transformation, arises. Water that freezes becomes ice; ice that thaws becomes water again; water that boils evaporates; steam that condenses becomes water again; and ice that immediately evaporates sublimates, while the opposite process is known as deposition. The very notion of a transition or transformation immediately raises questions of identity: I fill a bowl with water and place it in the freezer, and after some time I take out a block of ice. Is the ice the water in a different state? Or is it the other way around? And if the ice and water have nothing in common apart from the fact that one has transformed into the other, does this mean that the water has disappeared and ice has appeared in its place? To get to the heart of the matter, we must ask ourselves whether what we are witnessing is a continuous conversion from one thing into another, or the destruction of one thing to make room for the creation of another. The answer that science offers us today is all about continuity. If we look at the water at an atomic level, at the scale of water molecules (commonly referred to with the formula H2O), we see that these molecules are preserved either way. Not a single hydrogen atom (H) or oxygen atom (O) changes. So what makes the transition between phases visible? The answer is structure. In ice, water molecules are ‘imprisoned’ in a highly symmetrical crystal lattice; in water, they move freely in relation to one another, though not entirely arbitrarily; and in the form of steam, there is sufficient in-between space to regard the molecules as independent of one another. 

Thus the concept of phase leads us rather rapidly, and almost spontaneously so, to the concept of structure, observable in patterns such as the ripples in the sand on the beach with which this essay began. With these ideas in mind, it became clear to me that I recognised underlying structures in the works exhibited here, not something specific or concrete. Allow me to briefly examine in greater depth that curious process of recognising structures and to explore the concept of phases. On the one hand, one is inclined to believe that structures are an abstract concept, closely linked to mathematical structures. On the other hand, our evolutionary development as humans suggests that we should be highly sensitive to structures, as they provide so much information about the phase state. We know that water is liquid, not because we somehow notice that the H2O molecules move more freely, but because we can move our hand through it, which then becomes wet. This freedom of movement immediately indicates that walking on water is a skill granted only to the select few. We recognise the solid phase by the hardness of the material, which we tend to experience as abrasive and stubborn; by its impermeability and sometimes also its opaqueness. The invisible also has a role to play here, because while we cannot see the air that surrounds us, we continuously breathe it in. The diver and the cosmonaut wear a helmet and take the invisible oxygen with them. So the fact that we are highly attuned to what I would call ‘phase recognition’ – a sensitivity in which all the senses are involved – is in line with expectations. It is important to understand, however, that we do not necessarily experience a structure itself, but rather the way in which it presents itself to our senses. To avoid losing sight of this distinction, I introduced the term ‘pattern’ above. A pattern is the sensory recognition and experience of a(n underlying) structure. 

These rather theoretical reflections call for a concrete illustration. Consider the patterns on the skin of animals, especially the black-and-white stripes that make up a zebra’s coat. A very distinctive pattern, but the underlying structure is a biochemical process that is genetically controlled. It is tempting to interpret this process all too literally as a set of rules: (1) begin with a black stripe, (2) then add a white stripe, (3) then a black stripe, (4) return to step (2) unless there is no more space available, in that case stop. What is genetically controlled is how cells grow, how they are distinguished from one another, and how they group themselves in order for white and black stripes to ultimately appear. So there can be a considerable gap between the underlying structure and the discernible pattern. It is even conceivable that a minimum structure that consists of a single local rule establishes a global pattern. Imagine a round table that has been laid for a meal. The side plates for bread are set equidistantly between two plates. The arrangement is symmetrical, because anyone sitting at the table can reach out to either their left or right. But if a single person decides to take the plate to their right once everyone is seated, the guests beside them are forced to also take the plate to their right; thus a globally visible pattern emerges as a result of a single decision by one person who intervenes in the structure. Phenomena of this kind, such as patterns in the coat of an animal or the decision about the plate, are related to what is known in physics as ‘symmetry breaking’. Without going into detail, physicists describe the development of the universe up to the present day as a series of cases of broken symmetry, which allows us to distinguish forces such as gravity and electromagnetism from one another today. 

To the extent to which this brief analysis makes sense, it has a number of important consequences that are relevant to the way in which we interact with Laperre’s work. I will list four of these.

Firstly, one can expect that not all possible patterns (and, by extension, underlying structures) will occur. Recall the animal coat. It is reasonable to argue that the striped zebra skin offers an advantage in an environment with plenty of light and shade, for example a wooded environment. The light filtering through the canopy creates a complex pattern of light and dark in which the zebra becomes invisible, as it were. Given the presence of sufficient predators, we can assume that a bright red zebra would long since have disappeared in a green environment. This is not unimportant, as it means that there are both patterns that spontaneously set something in motion within us because there is a form of recognition, and patterns where this is not the case at all because they did not occur in our prior evolutionary history. Is this what causes the great misunderstanding that mathematical structures and patterns are experienced as abstract? Not because they are independent of this world, but because they have not yet been produced in it, which is an entirely different matter. 

Secondly, unlike structures, patterns are always interpreted. There is either (to a greater or lesser extent) recognition, upon which the pattern is then imbued with all the connotations it carries, or there is no recognition, which gives rise to the strangeness of recognising something one is not familiar with. The latter may sound paradoxical, but isn’t. A classic example are chimaeras: they appear strange to us despite the familiarity of each of their constituent parts. We recognise the griffin because we are familiar with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, yet the creature is still strange to us. In fact, without this degree of familiarity with the parts, the griffin as a whole would seem to us completely unrecognisable rather than merely strange. The chimaera is not a generic example; there are many paths one could go down to awaken a sense of strangeness or unfamiliarity in the viewer. Strange but not unheimlich (‘that which one literally cannot place’), because there is a form of recognition, even if one is unsure as to why something feels familiar. 

Thirdly, structures can interact with one another. That is precisely what phase transitions reveal: water with a fairly loose structure transforms into ice with a tight (crystal) grid.  
So depending upon the external conditions, structures can flow into one another. But this is not the only possibility: spatially too, structures that interact with one another can give rise to new structures. One particularly simple yet extremely powerful example is an object that lies on a table. We perceive the object as not moving, as being ‘at rest’ as the physicist would put it. But the underlying structure tells a very different tale. There are at least two forces impacting upon the object: there is the structure of gravity that pulls the object down, and then there is the resistance of the table that causes an upward force (itself a very complex process), which compensates for gravity. Two opposite forces of equal magnitude result in a gravitational null point, which manifests itself to us as the absence of all forces. Hence being ‘at rest’ is in reality a delicate balance of many movements.  

Fourthly, in the universe in which we live, continuous ‘maintenance’ is necessary. Every movement demands energy, every structure needs to be maintained by adding energy to it. Without maintenance, structures erode, decay and eventually disappear. It is intriguing, to say the least, that this seems to hold true not only for a chair, a house, and a cathedral, but also for human beings and societies. There is no escaping, it seems. But a crumbling structure is still a structure and can also be regarded as a kind of transition, often even within the same phase. The bookcase whose shelves are sagging under the weight of books betrays something about its age, as does the somewhat bent, hobbling human being. When the original structure gradually disappears, we search for its remains, which we like to call ‘traces’: signs that lead us to what has been, but which themselves have remained present. The lined face reveals a history, the crumbling façade reveals fragments of the past that cause the façade to act as a kind of palimpsest – which then links to the vocabulary of Willem Elias, whom I cited at the start of this essay.

Where is all this leading? I believe that, with these reflections, I am finally able to put my finger on why I experience what I experience when I view and contemplate the art of Lode Laperre. Take, for example, his work Subaru (Manga). Regardless of how the canvas is presented to the viewer (it can be hung in four different positions, each at a different ninety-degree angle), two key patterns can be discerned. The long, relatively straight lines that fill an important part of the canvas suggest a layered whole, which can be experienced as either liquid or gaseous. Is there a stiff breeze or some other force that creates a pattern of straight lines in the sky, or is there in fact a rippled water surface, which might lend meaning to the light and dark grey contours that shine through and evoke the idea of (possibly) reflected rock formations? But the meandering, thicker white lines also leave considerable room for interpretation. Could this be water eddying above a coral reef? A weathered rock formation whose colourful patterns reveal mineral structures? Here too, the background hints at greater solidity because more sharply delineated forms can be made out. Is it a landscape? No, because the underlying structures that have spawned these patterns are not clear. Too many scenarios can be imagined, and this introduces a certain freedom. So is this abstract art? That is not the case either, because, as described above, the patterns want to be recognised and identified to a certain extent, even though this can only partially be done. Is it enigmatic, then? Perhaps that is the best description, provided we refuse to see the enigma as a mystery that is solvable or needs to be solved. 

Let it be clear that this short description is merely the beginning of a longer-lasting, expanding and unending analysis, as indeed is appropriate for an enigma that replies in the negative to both the question of “Is it like this?” and any subsequent question of “So is it like this?”. 

This modest attempt to understand the work of Lode Laperre calls for an as yet unmentioned term that I have reserved for this moment. Much like Willem Elias, Etienne Vermeersch has suggested twin concepts of a totally different kind (in the Pictorion catalogue) to analyse an artwork, namely the coupling of information and redundancy. Redundancy ensures recognisability – in my analysis the patterns that we can interpret – while information results in surprise – which should here be understood as the patterns we cannot place. Sample card, palimpsest, stratification, information, redundancy, phase, structure, pattern… putting all of this together, we witness the formation of a conceptual framework that is anything but uniform, but which affords a central role to change in space and time, both physical and mental. Viewing a canvas by Laperre is like gazing at a Heracletian river: regardless of the time we spend staring at it, we will never see the same thing twice. Because at a second glance, the first glance has already become the underlayer of a palimpsest, waiting for a third, a fourth glance to form a never-ending structure. Should we then call this an eidolon? No one image is the ultimate image, but neither are all images together, because in both cases, change would be halted if this were the case. Images side by side that might be one another’s image but absolutely not of necessity; images on top of one another, like a palimpsest, with openings, tears and holes, which conjure up the vanished image like the spectre of a phantom; images that merely ask to be images pure and simple, food for the human imagination whose hunger is insatiable. And fortunately so. 

Jean Paul Van Bendegem