Thomas Cimolaï’s reflections at cross-purposes

Through his pieces connecting screens and objects, Thomas Cimolaï makes the spectator look at themselves differently, offering another experience of our relationship back and forth between physical reality and its representation. In his recent Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) this experience of ‘reflection’ at cross-purposes transpires again.

What happens when the narcissist function of the mirror no longer works, and your reflection seems to escape you when you approach it? This interesting reflection is driven by the piece Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) by Thomas Cimolaï, produced in coproduction with Digitalarti and notably exhibited at La Laiterie in Vern-sur-Seiche as part of the Bouillants Festival, or more recently at the Pavillon Carré de Baudouin as part of the exhibition Miroir, Ȏ Mon Miroir (Mirror Mirror on the Wall) put forward by the city council of the 20th arrondissement in Paris and L’Extension.

Small version of Miroir Fuyant exhibited at the pavillon Carré de Baudouin in Paris

Situated at a crossroads between object, sculpture and media technology, the piece testifies to artist Thomas Cimolaï’s continuing interest in this relationship between screens and frames situating the spectator on the brink of a new form of exploration. This principal of creative hybridisation between a plastic form and a more technological screen medium is fairly typical of his very individual approach, favouring a form of offbeat humour.

At the beginning, my approach questioned our relationship with images and their production due to dissatisfaction or incomprehension,’ explains Thomas Cimolaï. ‘What is presented and how is it made? This is semiology. Then, given that today we experience more screens and means of browsing dynamic content, I stopped to think of the repercussions that a certain type of object intended to give access to content may have on its user.’

In his career that led him from the Beaux-Arts in Rennes to the Centre de créations pour l’enfance, from decorative arts to producing a dissertation on La Jetée by Chris Marker and a post-graduate course in multimedia, Thomas Cimolaï has brought his various areas of interest into play, focusing for example on some philosophical works like those by Vilém Flusser about design and photography techniques. This intellectual stance has led him to address certain principles in his work, such as mnemonics.

 ‘It is a subject that I have been very involved in,’ he says. ‘It is the history of storage techniques, a very interesting point from the point of view of the relationship with ‘data’, its organisation and use. In this history, there are recording methods as well as transmission methods and methodologies for invention before the advent of the printing press. For that I studied the writing of Frances A. Yates. Today, these questions are the background to my work. This has allowed me to locate changing motivations and methods for recording and transmitting. Technology and systems are very informative regarding understanding all kinds of interfaces. They are the ‘code’ that enable a flow of audio-visual events that are just the tip of the iceberg.

Trophées du Sixième Continent

This rigorous and methodological approach has not prevented Thomas Cimolaï from positioning his sculptural work on objects in often elliptical, or even symbolic dimensions, as is the case in his collection Trophées du Sixième Continent (Trophies from the Sixth Continent) or in his piece Réacteur (Reactor) that he presents like a computer-generated model of a video game.

fiction collection , Trophies from the Sixth Continent , syntheses objects printed on tarpaulins, sewing

In Trophies from the Sixth Continent - a collection of ultra-powerful ‘skins’ - the symbol is situated in a fiction staging an explorer in the world of screens and special effects,’ he adds. ‘This explorer is animated by the acquisition of computer-generated reproductions of war machines. The use of symbols has evolved. I am not interested in symbols as a means of conveying ideas. This installation is penetrated by the symbol as in this story there is something to decrypt, code to break down, powers to be stripped but I do not use symbols as a means of expression in any circumstance.’ In this work, there is still sign of this link to our relationship moving back and forth between the screen and tangible reality, between what is tangible and its substitute. ‘But I am not seeking to translate my vision of current technology,’ specifies Thomas Cimolaï. ‘It is a proposal in which I use material found in screens and in which I have taken an interest as it gave me pleasure in owning it, almost a childish and regressive pleasure.

With Thomas Cimolaï, attraction for objects can also be seen in his photomontages, video collages and other trompe l'œil videos like  Paysages Augmentés (Augmented Landscapes), where we can see for example a steering wheel rotating with mountains as backdrop or placed on a rock, as if to invite the spectator to take control of this environment.

Thomas Cimolaï, Depuis la Terre (2013) 

 Also in Depuis La Terre (From Earth), where a computer animation embedded in a video of the sky makes it rain with Google markers– a piece produced as part of the project "copie copains club" by Caroline Delieutraz. ‘These pieces combine things that are typically not combined,’ outlines Thomas Cimolaï. ‘Collage causes a chain reaction of meanings making fixed and obvious things resonate. These steering wheels emptied the landscapes. In some versions, they even replace it. The impression of mobility is reduced to what is found at the end of our noses: a steering wheel. The landscape is absorbed in reflections on the object cladding or remains still. The object takes precedence over what it enables.

In these objects, the mirror has a special, recurring place. In Cabane (Hut), it comprises a visual ‘shrinking’ game between two huts, one is full-size, able to accommodate up to four people and the other is a smaller version. In Boucle (Loop), it invites the fan to confront its screen representation.

Cabane, observation hut, miniature replica, spotting scope, camera and miniature screen

The link between the mirror and the screen somehow becomes symptomatic of our age of technology and media. ‘For me, there is a strong correlation between our screens and the mirror and even more so since the reputedly ‘interactive’ screen’ he acknowledges. ‘Both bear witness to our existence and propel and manipulate us. The common idea in several of my installations is to offer a ‘reflection’ experience that takes our viewing habits by surprise. I have the impression that our world suffers from a symptom: too much presence due to the fear of disappearing. It is interesting to shatter this deadly phenomena.

Thomas Cimolaï, Boucle, (2014)

In this approach, a piece like Capture Collection de Peaux de Montagne (Capture Collection of Mountain Skins) appears to link Thomas Cimolaï’s collection pieces and the use of the mirror, by translating this relationship into fictional digital technology. ‘The hemispheric mirror is in fact the object here which allows us to organise the visible,’ confirms Thomas Cimolaï,  ‘It enables the anamorphosis to be ‘decrypted’ then projected on the walls. Nothing is palpable in this collection of trophies. Unlike the aircraft skins, these are only projected images. But, it is however still a story inspired by the feeling of omnipotence in which we collect pieces of landscape. It is a unique fictional story, like Trophées du Sixième Continent (Trophies from the Sixth Continent).’

Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror)

The most interesting piece in this mirror category, the most accessible, is without doubt his recent Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror), developed at Digitalarti’s Artlab and involving greater spectator participation reminiscent of his installation L'Enquête (The Investigation), that was already based on an interactive logic in 2009. The mesmerising thing in Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) is that the mirror acts almost more like a sort of anti-mirror, avoiding bodies and faces by making their reflection unattainable. ‘One might say it is a design fault,’ laughs Thomas Cimolaï. ‘An object whose primary function is contradicted, contorts habits. It refuses to be used. This mirror says ‘no’ because it seems important to me to raise the question of conformity induced by a thing that is bound to an intended use.’

 Miroir Fuyant,  Futur en Seine 2015

Above all, the mirror in Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) is meant to be a new vector of space. ‘A mirror, an object, a screen, an interface always gives access to a space,’ he says. ‘Whether the latter is likely to accommodate information, messages or the imagination, it remains a place in which to roam using your eyes and body.’ And in this context, quite often it leaves its user bewildered. ‘It is true that the public is generally surprised by the device and notably by the speed at which it disappears,’ acquiesces Thomas Cimolaï. ‘For a time, slowing down the speed on the small version of Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) was mentioned, in order to avoid rushing the spectators, or even to avoid them being hit in the face by the object. But, I realised that it was better not to. This would render it meaningless. This mirror has to surprise and therefore have a certain rotational speed. Ultimately, I would have made it more robust for better resistance in the event of impact with a spectator. Somewhat in the spirit of Dada.

While waiting to exhibit Miroir Fuyant (Elusive Mirror) in Paris again, as part of the next International Digital Arts Biennial (formerly Némo Festival), Thomas Cimolaï continues his research on objects and not only in its role of ‘emitting wall,’ of ‘filter between a computer code and its user.’I work for example on objects claiming to be comical because they are poor materials recuperated from my wastepaper basket,’ reveals Thomas Cimolaï. ‘But, I am also working on a project to design an object that is intended to be industrialised, a modular light project. The development process is very technical and very interesting but it takes a great deal of time.’ Plenty of new and undoubtedly strange interfaces will be revealed…


Laurent Catala


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