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Frédérique Nalbandian’s Vanished Mold

The Boulevard des Anglais is a seaside promenade in Nice frequented by a surprising gamut of humanity. Europeans of all stripes and colors, Americans, North Africans, Arabs, and Far Easterners armed with maps and cameras, traverse this thoroughfare, studying fellow tourists and Niçois alike. More hedonistic visitors quietly imbibe sun, sea and sky on their stroll beside the sea. Just off this busy corridor is a plain, neo-Classical building called the Galerie des Ponchettes, which, in simpler days, functioned as an enclosed fish market. Today it is a public exhibition space and during my recent visit, it was graced with an exhibition of work by Frederique Nalbandian called À creux perdu or “Vanished Mold.”

Précipité and Savon de Marseille

Nalbandian views the long rectangular space of the Galerie as analogous to the nave of a church, and she created an altar piece called Précipité. Three-dimensional wooden arches lie on the floor, defining a circular space in the far end of the gallery. Embraced by these arches is a circular flat black tray, some six feet wide. Above the tray, spanning the forty foot width of the gallery ceiling is a white net, bolted to the stone walls. The net sways under a powdery burden of hundreds of pounds of Savon de Marseille. Savon de Marseille is an olive oil based soap that has been produced in France since the time of the crusades, and its fragrance fills the nostrils of gallery-goers from the moment they enter the installation.

Frédérique Nalbandian, Précipité, mixed media, 2006, installation view, Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice, France.

To one’s right is another piece made from Savon de Marseille. Contenance consists of twenty five vessels, created from sheets of soap, wrapped into cylindrical vessels and placed upon wooden rafters. The delicacy and near translucency of these sheets of soap, set up heavy wooden beams, challenge our expectations of a vessel, presenting us with something ancient, like empty canopic jars, and contemporary, as their fragility insists upon recent manufacture. Tissu, to one’s left features a sheet of scrim onto which the artist has cast cement, suspended five inches from the wall. Track light focused on the work, creates a woven matrix of light and shadow and transforms the cement drippings into a silvery substance closer to mercury than concrete. The result is a surprising rich and complex tapestry of chiaroscuro, absence and presence, and geometric and free forms.

Ordalie consists of broken shards of what was once a mold. The interior, concave space was leafed with gold before it was shattered, driving home the point that for Nalbandian, process holds tremendous importance. The exhibition is titled “The Vanished Mold” and though in Ordalie the mold is broken, by way of its destruction, the mold itself becomes an artwork, defying utility and transforming itself into something more rich and complex.

Frédérique Nalbandian, Contenance, soap, 2006, installation view, Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice, France.

Memories of Armenia

Frederique Nalbandian is of Armenian descent, and through her work she explores themes of the Armenian exile and genocide. In 1915, at the onset of World War I, the Ottoman government of Young Turks forced Armenians living in Anatolia to leave their homes and march to what is modern Syria. Hundred of thousands and perhaps more than a million Armenians perished during this journey, falling victim to massacres, disease and famine. This tragedy is regarded by many as an early form of ethnic cleansing and precursor to the Nazi Holocaust.

In this context, Savon de Marseille takes on a different, darker meaning. Like human skin, soap has an amber supple quality, and during the Nazi Holocaust it was made from murdered human beings. Two figurative pieces in the exhibition, ges blancs and Recommencement speak particularly to this experience. Ges blancs consists of approximately one hundred plaster life masks cast from the artist’s face. They are placed one in front of another along wooden beams that are themselves perched atop concrete cinderblocks.

Frédérique Nalbandian, Tissu, scrim, cement, plaster and metal, 2006, installation view, Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice, France.

To me this work speaks to a frightening tendency that we as people have in times of war to dehumanize our perceived enemy. As though cast from the same mold, this population is believed to conform to preconceptions, rendering one face like any other. At another level, since each casting is an image of the artist, this work seems to reflect historical memory and Nalbandian’s empathy with her forbears. Recommencement depicts an infant, crafted from Savon de Marseille, who sits perched atop an awkward chair, build from scraps of wood. This infant may be an orphan survivor, but she looks to the future. With myriad possibilities this child represents the artist’s life yet unlived and artwork still to be created.

© 2006 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.

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