« Words for objects, Sacred Memory »
During the night of 24th and 25th November 2011 the church of Gerstheim was totally destroyed in an accidental fire. The Christmas Lights that were to bring joy have apparently thrown the entire community into mourning. When a blaze destroys a public building and all the more a sacred place, it is a whole collective memory that instantly disappears . Indeed, such a building remains day in day out in the minds of the whole population all along their journey from birth to death, from the cradle to the grave.
For everyone there are patches of their history engraved on those walls, permanent marks deeply cut into the stone from generation to generation.
Thanks to Gerard BRAND, a mosaic artist of Obernai, all those roots cut off for ever will again be able to be somehow rediscovered, relations will be reshaped through his work.
He was fortunately quick to react, otherwise this rich harvest might have been loaded into a few dump trucks. Therefore he sets to work quickly. But it is not a surprise for us who know him well because he always stays a step ahead of us on the road where we follow him being amazed and filled with wonder at such responsiveness and his eagerness.
Therefore Gerard sets to work very quickly .And this starts by means of gathering the precious remains in the mass of the entangled rubble. Once the first surprise of the smell of burning invading the ruins is overcome, you have to set immediately to work and plunge your hands into this charred mass of interspersed tiles, earth and beams. Looking like an archaeological search, step by step, the magma hands over its treasures. Of course no intact material - the fire having wrought its havoc – but charred wood, pieces of twisted metal, even molten, glass remains from stained glass windows often rejected outside. And then other more fragile, fainter relics, fabrics, papers and even a book largely intact inside. In order to locate and name those remains that would otherwise have stayed forever anonymous, you must take into account pictures taken prior to the fire. A few very significant and remaining items less damaged than others shall be available to the Parish Priest thus proving to be the testimonies of the church history. And the outcome of this gigantic puzzle in black design is going to be the very base of the achievement of the reliquaries that will be the final result of the mosaic artist’s work.
But previously a vital need emerges in his Obernai workshop.
Those hundreds of collected scraps and remains cannot be used under any circumstances in that state. Therefore a long amount of work is underway: drying the books and the paperwork, washing the fabrics, cloths, brushing the charred pieces of wood in order to get their original form back and to adorn them with a fine patina. Brushing the metal parts becomes the daily labour.
And each of those relics is given a new and most humble life: copper wire, nails, screws, hooks, streaks of tin, zinc debris extending to the most prestigious ones : candelabra stands , crosses, sculpted sandstone pieces , chasubles, precious linens , holy books. After the cleaning stage starts the manual sorting followed by the design of a palette, a gigantic colour chart where forms, colours and materials will be selection and classification criteria of all these finds.
Then it is also the beginning of the manufacturing of antique mosaic tesserae (cubes, dice), the basic parts of all mosaics, It is not just a question of restoring the materials discovered as they actually used to be before. The objects will be cut out, separated, fragmented to regenerate indefinitely. Experimentation is immediately required before finding out the way of bringing together this amount of tesserae: grout glueing, copper wire stitching or intertwined between two sheets of glass. Gerard Brand is a great discoverer of techniques that must develop according to the basic materials , since you do not join paper, cloth and glass together the same way as stone.
It is by means of adding small forms that the mosaic artist reaches monumental sized work. The aim is to give a new life to the objects that will find new meanings and values in that environment .You stop acting as an archeologist to clothe yourself in the garb of a creator.
And what will be the great principles of this new course? Which simple rules will achieve the structure of works to come?
Three types of objects will emerge:
- Sculptures often created out of large pieces of wood.
- Square panels, available for several options for sizes , containing the most fragile and rarest remains
- And finally a few monumental works to be built out of the noblest items found amongst the ruins: remains of a sacrificial altar, of a baptistery.
And then grammar rules are being established : care must be taken to avoid mixing all types of materials, because this mess would not be understandable Speaking a fluent and well structured language is required : it is necessary to make the sculpture look large and great , not by its size, but by arranging its form , colour and material .
Effects of such accumulation must result in an impression of small size and decorative effects. It is not just there to look pretty: an intangible and serene reality must be found Therefore the work will concentrate on one or two materials, more rarely three: wood and metal, solely cloth or metal and paper. Special care is required for each specific material and their accumulation prevents them from having the right to speak; you hear no more of them. Therefore there is a dialogue only between few participants so that each one may totally express his views.
Therefore all of this will conjure up objects rooted in our collective memory, reliquaries of a former life.
The aim is not to find again the initial functionality of these pieces but to make them available to the artist’s self-expression.
Those pieces will also allow the inhabitants of Gerstheim to appropriate a part - even a tiny one - of their church and use this one to follow the route to a renewal of the sanctuary which can’t help being different from the past one .A small genuine part to be kept within the little corner of their hearts, their memories “to freeze” their grief and set off for their next adventure being a new journey released from the painful memory of a November night.
How does the artist’s evolution fit into this type of work?
Of course there has been nothing about a break with the work but really a natural continuation. In technical terms, after the pavement and mural mosaic, Gerard Brand has been dedicated to the volume, to the very space. And this can extend as far as the monumental work. One has only to remember his exhibition in the church of Rosheim. But let us go further: one tessera has nothing to do with mosaics, but a couple of tesserae (cubes, dice) is part of mosaic arts, there is a link, a bridge between both of them, linking one to the other. In his latest works it is as though he wished now to get rid of that binder, that link. The tesserae get rigid on supports that gradually vanish. Often it is the glass plate that takes the place of the binder and because of its transparency allows therefore tesserae to express themselves independently far from any heaviness. And they move in relation to each other in total freedom and lightness.
A splendid job, the supreme outcome of a technique disappearing for the sole benefit of expression The artist is at present a master of mosaic arts as he is able to make progress as much as possible towards the arachnidan fineness of a cobweb in order to keep only the poetic side of the material .Any heaviness has disappeared, the new adventure proves now infinite “on the wing of lightness” . His great idea is the art of going from the mural mosaics, from a closed style to open mosaic effects.
In order to follow his stylistic evolution we must go back into the past of his early works where abstraction was part of the rules playing on reliefs of low amplitude in large decorative achievements. Then appeared to him Africa and his whole artistic achievement was irrigated by that tropical soul he discovered during his industrious, ingenious stays.
The reliquary statues, the ancestors ‘memory, these wooden blocks where metal, fabric, nails, mirror overlap and tie together so that they can talk to us about ourselves are the accurate basis of his work. However as usual he has to get past that, he has to go further deep into his personal story having still this will to develop at the same time the means of expression and the ultimate expression. His dreams are supposed to be filled with strange characters, beings half-man and half beast but also with technical problems to be resolved.
The absolute freedom of his work therefore only rests on a technique, an unwavering know-how.”The faber”, the craftsman is never far away from him but still at the service of a fabulous mythical character, an unprecedented storyteller who delights our own dream world.
Gerard Brand is an African-like « griot » teaching us our history, conjuring up our roots mainly to make us look ahead. It is about learning not to forget anything while at the same time projecting us into the future.
As such, this remembrance achievement on the Gerstheim disaster is quite an emblematic symbol of his work.
It is fed by all those insignificant debris of our past , those remains of distorted , molten candle stands , those scraps of religious attire, those fragments of the past in order to make us enter a seemingly weightless , dreamlike world making us float wherever our imagination leads us.