Church of the Selfie

Reflections on Geneviève Thauvette’s LA FUGUE
An accompanying text by Lara Bradley

A tomb. A tunnel. A womb.

A blond-haired boy running hard slides through it on his socked feet. Squealing. Giggling. Whipping past the grown-ups, past the memorabilia outside the white oblong structure –framed school photo, fake flowers, crutch, cross, candle, bear mask, disco ball, stuffed animal, and trophy—back into its shimmery walls, lit by strands of lights traveling in one direction and then the other. He is fast and unafraid of this art.

Grown-ups, we hesitate at the opening of the installation. Fixated on that feeling of being a kid late for church (but, oh, what a church!), not wanting to leave the darkness of the vestibule before going in. We’re unsure about walking on its mirrored surface –being at the centre of all that light and attention.

For a split second, I’m back in high school chemistry class, playing with toxic beads of mercury on the black wooden desk, pushing them together into bigger blobs, then poking it and watching it skitter apart. Wondering about the ones that slide into the cracks. Could this be a pool of all that escaped mercury? No, it’s the mylar walls of a grow operation visited in my 20s. Feeling the heat from the lights reflected back on its silvery walls, inhaling the skunk of the pot plants, and listening to my friend’s grandiose plans before it all ends badly.

There is a smell to this installation – not of pot but the similar musky dankness of tomato leaves, mixed in with beetroot, pollen, honeysuckle, mushroom, incense, and that churchy wood smell. It’s a scent that the artist, Geneviève Thauvette, sprays into the air throughout the night. It’s her own Tom Robbins inspired Jitterbug Perfume — one trying to pin down that feeling of decay and decadence, mortality and transcendence.

The blond-haired boy makes another pass.

Adults, we go slower. First ducking our heads through the entrance (if we are tall) –below the skull affixed amid the flowers—and then reluctantly dropping to our knees, crawling forward. Awkward in our adult skin.

At the opening, it’s too loud to hear the recorded laughter and applause tinkling through the tunnel. But a low thrum can be felt in our bones and Mozart’s “Amen Fugue” is rising and falling, playing forwards and backwards. Some of us lie back and look-up at our fragmented image, lost among the flashes of coloured light. Leaving the tunnel, we catch a glimpse of ourselves –just barely a piece of you, yourself in motion– a delayed projection on the wall framed by a game show worthy curtain of tinsel.

Hey, you. You are the centre of it all in Thauvette’s Church of the Self; a joyous takedown of our selfie-absorbed modern souls. (There are Greek myths in the mix too, which I’ll get into later, like Narcissus and Echo.) It’s a “pop-rocks for the pineal gland” kind of experience– electrifying, sugary, and fleeting. The same secret thrill that comes from Googling your own name, catching sight of yourself in the grocery store TV, or getting all the “likes” after posting a new profile pic.

Me. Here I am having fun. (Even though we fought on the way here and didn’t say anything to each other at dinner, so busy on our phones.) But look at us eating our Instagram meal. See. Me. You. Happy! Not only happy, happy-face happy!

At the opening, Thauvette flits from person to person, camera around her neck. She is striking and beautiful, an embodiment of her creation.

Her legs look like those on a Rococo chair – slender and shapely in white stockings that end in the same coloured shoes –hooves, really– elegant and ornate. (I later learn that she’s all about the Rococo.)

I don’t notice the blue tips of her hair until the next day when we are outside in the sun looking for coffee. She orders three shots of espresso with steamed chocolate milk. Three shots. This scares me, as already she appears to be vibrating on a higher plane of energy, words and ideas circling her head like bees, her hands snatching them fearlessly from the air.

Although young, teetering on 30, she is not new to art or its worlds. Creating installations is part of her art but photography came first. Her photographs have been shown around the world including at Japan’s Media Arts Festival, the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia, and the Vie Jeux de la Francophonie in Beirut where she won the gold medal for Canada. You can also find Thauvette’s series, Les quintuplées Dionne, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Past installations by Thauvette have been featured at Ottawa’s Nuit Blanche. Similar to La Fugue, they have also played with ideas of death, pop-culture, celebrity, and self.

There was the white blimp anchored to a building with billowing smoke below it and the words “The World is Yours” which was inspired by the movie Scarface. In it, there’s a scene where Al Pacino watches a black zeppelin with those words float by and then everything goes to shit.

Technical Difficulties: On Air and Other Disasters was an installation set up to look like the inside of an airplane. With that one, you had the dichotomy of movie plane crashes being screened silently, while real black box recordings of the last minutes of pilots played out loud.

Then there was the time in Cake is Freedom when Thauvette dressed-up as a blindfolded Marie Antoinette in full Rococo splendour and stood in a birthday cake while singing the French National Anthem. That one played with a bunch of themes, including conquering a fear of public singing. The performance piece also became the subject of a Radio-Canada documentary.

“My friend laughs at me and says I’m Rococo. … It’s my favourite period of time. The painting of the girl on a swing and someone looking up her skirt. I like detail and I like symbolic meaning.”

The idea for La Fugue began with Thauvette’s love of churches and memorial sites – those found on roadsides after accidents and outside famous people’s mansions after overdoses.

“I like that spontaneous expression of sympathy and empathy that is displayed in public so openly. That is something very deep and primal and subconscious,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s for a person that they do not know, like a celebrity … They are saying to the world that they hurt. That they feel something. It’s not about the person dying.”

Right now we are living in a time that is all about the self and “the cult of self,” she said. The oxygen fanning these flames of self-promotion has come from social media. At the same time, for many, religion has become obsolete. With God declared “dead,” we are rushing to fill this emptiness with … ourselves?

“The self and the cult of the self that we are currently experiencing, is a very interesting time in society. How do we relate and what is community? Man cannot exist without religion but with the state of religion we are currently experiencing, where is our outlet? We have turned inwards to, I guess, find meaning,” she said.

We as a society are both channelling our vanity and mixing it with our need for something greater. So a new religion is being born and we are at the centre of it, she said.

“All that deep energy to the divine to the unknown is being poured into selfies and hashtags,” Thauvette said. “I see the importance of it but there is no depth to it.”

La Fugue is a tunnel yes, but it can also be a pathway to an altar. The entrance is shaped kind of like a gothic knave, she said. But there also is a tomb like quality to it, as well. The tunnel “shrinks,” bigger at one end and gradually becoming smaller at the other, forcing people to get down on their knees to leave.

“There is that forced piousness. They are looking at themselves like Narcissus — falling in love with himself,” she said.

Echo also comes into play through Mozart’s “Amen Fugue.” While there are many variations of the myth, in one, the nymph Echo falls for a young man named Narcissus, who loves no one but himself (he eventually ends up pining away, staring at his own reflection in a pool). Besides loving Narcissus, her other fatal flaw was her love of hearing her own voice and talking. So after crossing the God Juno, Echo is cursed, only able to repeat what others say.

“A fugue is musical composition where voices are repeated, which relates to the myth of Echo. She’s punished to never have a voice, just to repeat. So it’s vacuous and empty. It’s essentially the retweet of mythology,” Thauvette added.

Mozart considered the Fugue to be his funeral song and had a feeling that it would be the last thing he would create, she said. In the installation, it plays to the end and then plays backwards. So that the audio is mirrored to reflect the visual aspects of the piece as well.

Besides the fugue, there is the sound of laughter and applause heard in the tunnel, which speaks to our craving for praise and being liked, and a heavy bass reverb, “an audio presence” weighing down the entire room. Thauvette wanted people to feel the vibrations at a “deeper level,” in their knees and hands, as they crawl to the exit.

The final element is her perfume, fashioned to evoke feelings of decay and decadence, as well as memories of church.

“We’ve replaced God with this foolish self-obsession. I see the irony in talking to you about it right now. It’s all about myself and this piece. Just being an artist alone … it’s a very self-involved thing to do,” Thauvette said. “My mom has given her professional life to children who can’t thank her. I’m here making fanciful tunnels that speak to this nebulous idea … She’s trying to make society better in a tangible way.”

For her, the sense of the tangible comes from seeing people interact with her art and take something away. The little blond haired boy’s reaction made all the difference.

“I blew his little mind. That’s why you make art. You can make art to be serious and sober but that is not where my heart is. I want something that is a bit of a feast,” Thauvette said.

I come back later without the crowds. People have left more memorabilia and written on the tomb with markers. It now looks a little like a giant arm cast.

Rémi has been here. So has Kanye West. Cool.

Lying down inside the light show, I think about finding the cross from my stepfather’s funeral in a box at my mother’s house. How we wondered what to do with it. Where should such crosses go, other than in boxes that must-be-kept-forever, when you no longer feel right about hanging them on walls? Should it be tucked alongside this tomb with all the other pieces of memory and belongings?

As I hear the sound of recorded applause, I also think about how easy it is to force people to clap. Most of the time we clap out of a combination of peer pressure and politeness.

I feel a pressure weighing down my chest. It started this morning and hasn’t eased up; imagining the worst, I think of having a heart attack right here, right now. How wonderfully poetic would that be. And how narcissistic of me to imagine dying in this mini-pop cathedral, this disco-decked-out church of the self.


This accompanying text is sponsored by Laurentian University.

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