Cocteau Essay

July 26, 2015


Cocteau essay

The roots of civic sculpture are long and deep. The felt need for memorial stones, carved marble and cast bronze sculpture has strewn these kinds of objects across time and space. In sites as distinct as the Jordan River, Pearl Harbor and downtown Manhattan they collectively constitute a huge lake poured from the human need to give formal expression to the memories and aspirations of the communities that they have served. Gesso Cocteau¹s contribution to this lake, Endless Celebration,  located in downtown Bellevue WA., is audacious in scale and, fronting a smartly designed office complex at Bellevue Place, refreshing in conception. In many respects, endless Celebration is simply Cocteau writ large. Her works participate in the deep streams of the Modernist philosophical and aesthetic tradition, as articulated by Henri Bergson and given form by Constantine Brancusi and Henri Matisse, in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. These were the early masters of reductionism, the search for archetypal forms that often accompanied the utopian imagination of Modernism. I think that Cocteau¹s comment that she had “always wanted to sketch the ‘everyman’” is resonant with this reductivist ethos, and has allowed her to achieve a ‘universal¹ quality in her figurative sculptures. And yet, it is reduction with a difference. She talks about ‘remembering nature’ as a feature of her deeply instinctual approach to creation. Indeed, she has, and works with, what dancers call a ‘physical memory’. It is how a dancer’s body remembers extended phrases of movement that the intellect could never encode. This is evident in the anatomical details that remains visible, though rendered with the elasticity which characterizes all of her work.  The resulting sense of ‘felt’ rhythm serves as a wonderful extension of key elements in Bergson's¹ philosophical thinking.

 For Bergson, the whole universe is a conflict between polarities, as described by two opposite motions: life, which climbs upward, and matter, which falls downward.  Life (the elan vital as Bergson expressed it) is a single great force, which was imparted once and for all at the beginning of the world, and it continually meets resistance in matter, struggling to break through. Only gradually does it learn to use matter as a formal expression of its own inherent joy.  Understood in this context, Endless Celebration is the counter-balance to the ‘sterile’ world that Cocteau has worked against all of her life. In more current jargon, it is a world of flatness, recalling the title of Thomas Friedman¹s bestseller, The World is Flat. Freidman's ‘flatness’ is the result of numbers and a web of International Corporations, phenomena that Bergson would characterize as the triumph of the intellect over intuition; the preference for the ‘inorganic solid’ over the sensation of Life. Like Matisse, who sought to capture his ‘sensation’ in regards to the object he was painting, Cocteau has consistently sought to “energize my art with a sensation of living”. It is the pursuit of this sensation that causes her to retain viable, if exaggerated anatomical structure within her figures; to leave ‘warm’ association with our bodies available. It is also what drives her to be able to accomplish a transformation of material that verges on the alchemical in its synthesizing of opposites: cold bronze to warm, elastic flesh.


In fact, it is flesh on flesh, and it is this dynamic of relationship in Endless Celebration that separates Cocteau’s vision from that of Bergson. For him, the elan vital is an impersonal force, while for Cocteau, the sensation of living is realized through contact, touch. It is about the reconciliation of polarities, the archetypal community of male and female and of the ecstatic union of the two. It is an eternal celebration of relationship, the need for it and the exuberance of it. The common experience of relationship is the space travel of the ‘everyman’, and the metaphor for it is weightlessness; curvilinear and fluid. It is life in motion; the dance of Shiva, the motion of wind in grass.

In its expression of THE essential community, Endless Celebration returns us to its role as public sculpture. What is it the collective expression of? What are the aspirations being articulated? Being situation in a commercial/retail district might have required nothing more than an enjoinder to ‘have a good time’, the mantra of MASS culture. However, it is people who will fill his square with life and it is the idea of harmonious community that is clearly imagined by Cocteau. Although history makes cynics of us all in this regard: failed communes, revolutions gone sour, perhaps the measure of it is simply our ability to imagine it. Whether or not Bellevue, or any city, will realize that enduring dream may not be the point. Just as the figures in Endless Celebration defy gravity, the myth of utopia defies the gravity of human nature.

Even public works of art are seen by individuals; each of us, one at a time. What kind of aspirations can this soaring piece articulate for the individual gaze? Bergson observed that ‘the intellect always behaves as if it were fascinated by the contemplation of inert matter’. As St. Paul put it, “we hold this treasure in an earthen vessel”. We are strangely bound to our clay and the gravity of its downward spiral. And yet Cocteau observes that “we create to remember who we are”. So, who are ‘we’ that Endless Celebration calls to? I remember having dreams of flying as a child. They seemed to continue for a few years and then fade as the cumulative experience of terrestrial gravity extinguished their possibility and the world indeed became profoundly flat. So, we swim and delight in our re-found buoyancy; the fluidity of limb. We crane our necks to peer down from our tiny windows at 30,000 ft. and wonder at the space between. And we gaze up at the bronze figure flung high into the air, or perhaps given the gift of lightness by gift of touch.



Duncan Simcoe, M.F.A.

Associate Professor of Visual Arts


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