Taking it Slow: Duration and Intimacy in Olivia Boudreau's Le Bain and L'Étuve
by Noa Bronstein
Turning to the intimate encounters that occur in private spaces, such as the steam room, the bath, and the bedroom, Montreal-based artist Olivia Boudreau’s video and performance works offer a meditation on duration and silence. These intimate encounters occur not only in space, as Bernard Schütze notes, but also in time.1 In Boudreau’s 16 mm film Le Bain, which was exhibited in 2011 at Néon contemporary art in Lyon, France, prolonging is a prevailing leitmotif. The slow action of the two bathers materializes the body politic within a protracted, sedated unfolding and offers, as Schütze notes, “a waiting that becomes the matter of the work…and the mode whereby the viewer accesses and enters the piece.”2 The film introduces little by way of action. A female body leans into the male and they endure in a state of idleness. A somewhat concealed male hand periodically drips and splashes water onto the more visible female frame. He touches her ear, her breasts, rests a hand on her head, she re–adjusts her position. In other moments the only movement is that of his breath slightly elevating and dropping her head.
Duration is Boudreau’s syntax: an axis along which viewer, artist and image meet. Yielding the body, of both the viewer and bathers, to a slowing down adjoins these two corporeal entities. Halfway through Le Bain, around 10 minutes into the 23 minute film, the screen turns to white, then to black. The sound is not muted, however, as the delicate resonances of water being permeated by the two bathers remain audible. This is a startling break made even more jarring by the overlaid audio of what sounds like tinkering with, presumably, the camera equipment. The moment lasts for only a minute, but is long enough for the viewer to form an awareness of Boudreau’s steady cadence; her gesture has held us in reverie.
Duration and slowness are taken up by Boudreau in several works. In the video installation Intérieur (2012), exhibited at the Darling Foundry (Montreal), two draped windows are blown open by wind and subsequently closed by a figure whose sole purpose seems to be the completion of this task. Persistently, the action cycles through these moments as if on repeat. Sharing in the framework of gradual recurrence, Salle C, a 2007 performance at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery (Montreal), positioned Boudreau as both performer and spectator. Seated in the gallery for every hour of the exhibition, a total of 150 hours, the artist passively gazes at a projection of a specific section of her own body — her lower back on the gallery bench. Behind Boudreau is her collaborator, the video camera, while fixed to the wall of the gallery a horizontal shelf holds the archive of this sit–in, 150 videotapes, one for each hour in the gallery. The serial proposition of long moments magnifies each small action and injects significance into the seemingly inconsequential through the display of this heroic, mundane undertaking.
Slow–moving time is also an accomplice in L’Étuve (2011). In this immersive life–sized projection (exhibited at NO Foundation in Toronto in 2013), a group of women slowly appear and disappear like a mirage. Unhurriedly moving between presence and absence, silence and noise, nudity and dress, Boudreau makes visible the hidden moments of this contained space. Young and old bodies (or, one older body to be precise) in various states of undress occupy green and white tiled tabular planes, while steam renders the body as a mythic figure, available for passing moments. The reveal is redacted, exposing skin only as much as the vapour allows. Choreographed through a series of unfoldings, L’Étuve tempts. The first frame exposes a copious haze that pours over the lens. As the mist dissipates, a single figure is revealed. Rhythmically the sequence is revisited; haze conceals visibility, then ebbs to uncover two more figures, then a fourth, and a fifth. Finally the steam lifts to disclose that the container has been emptied of its visitors. The room is filled and cleared. In this way, the steam room becomes palimpsestic, formed by a series of returning occupations and vacancies. The piece’s slowed pacing and inactivity suggests that the shifting of the bather’s bodies is an indication that something is about to happen. In the end not much happens, yet it is this masterful ability to dramatize listlessness that makes Boudreau’s work so compelling.
When first encountering L’Étuve at NO Foundation, I was compelled by how these listless moments appeared to be at once ethereal and substantial. I was also struck by a seemingly unlikely parallel to Gerhard Richter’s Eisbergim Nebel (Iceberg in Mist, 1982), in which a swathe of fog obscures an iceberg levitating in water. Both of these works share in limiting access to the principal figure, which is restrained by the artist and by physical elements. This gesture foregrounds the weight of concealment. It is worth noting that Boudreau and Richter part ways in regards to media use. Richter has said that it was Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice that led him to visit Greenland, but since his camera was not able to sublimate the gravitas of the landscape he turned instead to paint.3 Nonetheless, in both Richter’s and Boudreau’s works the veiling of the iceberg and the bathers extends an invitation to look harder. Fog allows us to linger, to spend a little longer than we might ordinarily. That the mist obscures, landing everywhere and nowhere in particular, makes the subject all the more seductive.
L’Étuve offers a gentle introduction to the artist’s techniques for framing intimacy. Sidestepping sentimentality, Boudreau invites a more nuanced approach to intimacy, one that is realized through restraint. While her staged encounters are heavily constructed, her ability to present stillness grounds the intimacy presented in reality. The steam room is a set; outside the frame of the camera is the fog machine and a skeleton of lumber parts. In preparing for the project, Boudreau spent six months visiting different steam baths in various places — Montreal, Rawdon, Bromont, Mont–Tremblant and others. Through this process she realized that the visual symmetry she had envisioned for the room did not exist, or at least not that she could find. So, rather than filming in situ, the artist constructed a steam room within her studio. The set provided the opportunity to live with the bath over a longer period and to rehearse in the space. Building the steam room was an important shift in Boudreau’s practice. Initially, she was concerned that the sense of authenticity that she was interested in exploring through a naturalistic and minimal approach to performance would not be possible within this fabricated environment. Her apprehension faded when exacting the right space and scale for the work allowed for the conditions of control and accessibility needed for the project. The consideration for assembling a space has now found its way into Boudreau’s process for developing a project.4
This fabricated space is hidden from the viewer but the constructed tableau is betrayed by the actors themselves, by the women who at one definitive moment in the video briefly look out to meet their audience’s gaze. These bathers appear to be lucidly making eye contact with some future spectator, acknowledging the performance for the camera and for a public. The intimate encounter could certainly be eclipsed by the props — the camera, the set, the actors, the fog machine. While the performance is, of course, composed, the intimacy retains an aura of genuineness and it is the prop that is ultimately collapsed within the intimacy of bodies and place. This is perhaps because Boudreau’s austere gestures eschew cinematic and literary tropes of intimacy. The steam room is stripped bare, excavated from emotional excess and the indulgence of mawkishness. It is also the banality of the compositions that makes the intimacy seem near. Boudreau is able to focus in on ordinary moments and to resist the impulse to over–narrativize. It is almost as if the intimacy is distilled to its essence. L’Étuve is what remains when the window dressing of the overly romantic or erotic is cleared away.
If time is the syntax of these works, then sound is the metatext. The sonic space of the bath and the steam room is pervaded by the splashing of water and recurrent steam blasts. While a discernible soundtrack exists, the audio lacks any dialogue. Nevertheless, this form of non–verbal silence is not silencing. Silence is often framed as a negation of noise, as the negative space.5 Conceivably, however, silence is equally the positive force, while sound is the negation of quiet.6 In this way Boudreau’s reticence is a linguistic form whereby time and intimacy are revealed. It would be easy to lose track of time in these sleepy spaces, if not for the intervention of periodic sounds. The almost inconspicuous sounds of the water and steam metronomically indicate that time is continuing. Exactly how much is lost is unknown, as are any numeric values. Sound offers an aide–mémoire to the stillness, indicating that these moments, while transitory, remain temporal. In this context the conversational silence does not serve to flatten, rather it grants access to the intimacy of non–dialogue, the spaces between words.
The bath is architecturally, ritualistically and allegorically significant accompanied by a host of actions: by serial de–robings and cleanliness routines, by religious immersions. These same apparatuses are folded into constructs of femininity and exoticism, which have in turn been folded into the tomes of art history; see, for example, Jean–Léon Gérôme’s Le Marabout: in the Harem bath (1889) and François Clouet’s A Lady in Her Bath (1571), amongst innumerable others. And it is here that Boudreau’s work sits, albeit uneasily. In both Le Bain and L’Étuve, a very limited view of the vessel of the encounter is revealed, its edifice exposed only in part. The architectural details of the floors and ceiling are marginally discernible in L’Étuve, while in Le Bain the tub is obscured from full view. The interior details that would signal place are not visible. Access is not visually granted to the towel rack, the sink, the bath mat, the mirrors, or the soaps. Similarly, the rituals of bathing are obscured. The procedures of undress, the performative formalities of entering into spaces of undress, do not appear. While Le Bain does hint at entry and exit with the woman bather partially shown entering and leaving the space, this remains the only gesture pointing to something outside of the bath itself. The routines of bathing are done off–camera and the viewer is left to determine if there are subtexts to these scenes. The lack of narrative and interior details results in the image hovering at the margins of meaning, but recreating at the invocation of absolutes. In this way Boudreau’s compositions are distanced from the canon of representations of the bath as an agent of architecture, ritual and allegory.
We are led into these seductive spaces and are left without a guide. Boudreau permits entry by leaving room for intuited meaning, by offering an understated intimacy and by reframing stillness and silence. Nothing happens and yet we are compelled to stay.