La Pagode - Sharon Kivland
I was here for the first time a long time ago, over forty years. I think it was to see a film by Françis Truffaut, or perhaps one by Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle. Events of the past tend to blur, though there are some I recall with precision. Remembering always involves a limit. La Pagode was a cinema in rue Babylone in the seventh arrondissement of Paris. It had a little restful garden. I returned a number of times (but it is increasingly hard to remember years, dates, as my horizon diminishes draws nearer, tips and tilts … and I find that I am repeating myself, treading old ground), finally in 2015, shortly before it closed on the 10th of November that year, with restoration works in view. It had closed in 1973 for works, then again in 1997, when rumours abounded that it would become a McDonalds, or the garden, a parking lot. Once I passed by and it was closed. Another time the friend I was to meet for tea there cancelled our meeting and I did not want to go alone. I intended to go back for the last screening, but there was nothing playing I wanted to see. I regret this now it is too late.
In 2002 I wrote about five places in an essay entitled ‘No Place: An Itinerary’. I do not remember where I wrote it – perhaps I was in France, or perhaps in London, or perhaps between homes. I do not know if that matters, unless one needs to feel the ground of things, where one was, how one felt, the weather… the way one remembers through situation, emotion, chains of meaning, affect. The first place was a border, in a film where the protagonist is out of place, where he is unable to move, like many confined between countries today, non-citizens. The second place was the zone between life and death, a passage but one where movement is suspended or curtailed. The third place was another film, a film to which I return repeatedly, which is a film of repetition and working-through, where the release from fixity is attempted through those psychic processes. Then there was a fourth place, a bone and ivory miniature pagoda, dating from the sixteenth century. It is a souvenir copy of a tower that has been long destroyed, held in the reserves of a museum. I wrote then about the illusion of presence – I could have written about the nature of memory or of remembrance, how and why to remember is of importance, an urgency that increases as one forgets more. The fifth place was the dimension of time, of passing; yes, of movement.
La Pagode was built in 1896, a nineteeth-century imagined replica of a baroque seventeenth-century Japanese pagoda, which itself derives from a Chinese pagoda, which in turn is modelled on an Indian stupa – originally all these served as reliquaries, bone-houses. It was designed by the architect Alexandre Marcel, a commission by François-Émile Morin, a director of the grand magasin Le Bon Marché, as a gift for his wife, Amélie. It was an attempt to win back her affection but she left him several months later (after a magnificent reception at which they dressed-up as the emperor and empress of China) for his business associate, Joseph Plassard, taking with her La Pagode as her dowry. The soirées continued; Amélie was a woman who knew how to snap her fingers. In 1932 the building became a cinema. The first film screened was Le prix d’un baiser, in the Spanish original, with the seductive Mexican tenor José Mojica and the charming Mona Maris, preceeded by Fox Movietone news. This sensational soirée also featured the celebrated Peruvian dancer Helba Huara, who appeared on stage with a special number, described as hypnotising and bewitching. The Chinese Embassy, now in the rue Washington, was then a neighbor, and La Pagode was often mistaken as a temple of the embassy. The serving staff were attired in Chinese costumes.
This short essay is a sixth place, an additional location; yes, a passing marked by circumlocution. It is marked also by a pulsion or pulse, as in the works this essay accompanies or echoes or evades or reflects – the inhalation and exhalation of impossible breath, the breathing of glass and neon lungs, brittle as consumption that flowers and fades, waxes and wanes, like its metaphors of light, colour, and temperature, coupled to flowers and farewells, in nineteenth century opera. It is banal, I know, but there is a lovely magic about the blowing of glass, the air of the body expanding a liquid that is fixed, then appears to breathe again. This work is a new version (I am reluctant to say that it is a copy) of one made in 2008, destroyed in a fire. There are other works in which breath is made palpable, held. I too must stop to draw breath for a moment, responding to the ‘click’ of the harlot’s touch in the neon work after Hogarth that ruptures the circulating rhythms, demands attention; a woman’s snapping her fingers to make a man jump if I am not mistaken, or at least something like that, the sudden distraction allowing a lover to escape unremarked.
The works in that-which-is-not are repetitions, echoes of past works in other forms, revisiting what once was and is no longer, or new versions of old things (though ‘old’ is rather relative). In the philosopher Karl Groos’s theory of play, repetition is not similitude, but rather, closer to a recognition that gives aesthetic and ludic pleasure. In the return of the ‘already-known’, there is a suggestion of an alternating rhythm of falling in and out of established habits or actions, forming new experiences. There is a re-playing in a new register of time and space, new articulations in the movement of return. The miniature ivory and bone pagoda is still here, or rather, perhaps more accurately reappears, simultaneously in two forms as object and shadow, past and present, present and passing. Later, I think there are three forms, as I forgot the future. Much later, I remember that there is a tiny globe in which the mise-en-scène is reflected. There is very careful positioning, great attention is paid to space, light, composition.
During the Occupation La Pagode closed. Members of the Resistance used the passage that linked it with the neighbouring hôtels particuliers. When it reopened la Pagode became one of the most important places for cinéphiles. Later there was a salon du thé. On my last visit, there was no tea, but one could buy a beer or a coca cola. There were no Chinese costumes, but the embroidered silk wall panels, the dragons and elephants upholding the candelabra remained in the grande salle. The première of Jean Cocteau’s Testement d’Orphée was at La Pagode. It is a film about death and resurrection, the final part of a trilogy. Cocteau plays the role of a poet who crosses time, abolishes distance, attempts to enter a world that is not his own. Though in black and white, there are some seconds of spliced-in colour, sudden flares. Characters from Orphée appear, Cégeste, Heurtebise, the Princess. Cégeste is brought to life from a photograph that is torn up and thrown into the sea. The poet is placed on trial for bringing them into existence. At the end Cégeste appears once more to draw Cocteau into a rock. Later, after his death, in a film by Truffaut, a poster for Testement d’Orphée is seen.
In the rotating tableau at the centre of the exhibition the artists appear as tiny models of themselves, casting shadows on a wall to make a second scene or a first scene or a doubled scene. These little mannequins appear, disappear, reappear. The reoccurrence is unstable; there is a partial eclipse, fluctuating presence and absence. The work is titled as a still-life, a second scene that suggest the dead or at least, the inanimate, but it does not stop moving from scène to abîme. This returns me to my fifth place of negative space, of shadow-play, of time, as it folds back on itself, unfolds, repeats; it is like a film, in the flickering of light. It projects itself with ambiguity and dizziness, mine, I think, but not mine alone. There is a flare, produced by light scattering through a lens, a cinematic mechanism that is used as a symbolic function or to give a sense of realism. A wall-text echoes a sign that is in another place, while it is also a sign in place: from the tower falls the shadow. The shadow of an object falls, that’s one thing of course, but it is also the effect of an event.
Old projectors made a loud clicking noise, due to the Geneva drive mechanism, deriving its name from Swiss watches of the seventeenth century, the most precise measure of time. The gear mechanism turns continuous motion into indexed, intermittent movement. Time is not stopped, but jumps. It flickers in the gate. It is promised that La Pagode may reopen in 2020.