For her latest solo show, Becoming Colette, multimedia artist Colette Copeland has switched alter egos, assuming the identity of French author Colette. As a teen, Copeland naturally gravitated toward the novels of the famous French author who used her first name as a pen name. Over the years, she found out as much as she could about Colette.
“I knew I wanted to go to France and visit the places she wrote about in her books,” says Copeland. “Also where she lived, where she wrote. I knew I wanted to film there.” She went on a performative journey and this work is Copeland imagining what it would be like to be Colette, presented from a first-person perspective.
The author is a good fit for an artist who likes to break down rules of social norms and gender. “In her time she was a human rights activist,” says Copeland. “In her novels she pointed out the gender inequities.”
There are five videos on small screens inside Colette’s novels. The videos do not illustrate the text — the text is completely separate — but there may be some conceptual overlay. “I liked the idea that people might read an excerpt and then the visual takes them into another space,” says Copeland. Information that is viewed is processed completely differently by our brain than read information. Images embedded in texts seem to play with the senses.
None of the videos produce sound. The exhibit has its own soundtrack, a work composed and performed by cellist Dallin B. Peacock fused with a 1960 recording of Colette reading excerpts from a few of her novels. The ambient soundtrack does not contextualize any of the work, leaving the imagination to focus on the interface between the textual and visual.
There is a video of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, the village in North-Central France where Colette was born in 1873. Colette grew up surrounded by the forest but most of the forest is gone now. A museum dedicated to her life and work is located in her childhood home. Inside the museum, Colette’s furniture and personal artifacts have been collected and arranged to suggest how she actually lived.
The museum seemed very realistic in some ways and obviously fake in others. In the living room section of the museum, for example, there are personal artifacts, but none of Colette’s books. On the wall there is a painted bookcase full of her books. Copeland was stunned by how clearly artificial it was.
Binary relationships are a motif of the exhibit. “There were a lot of assumptions and perceptions about who Colette was and the themes in her work,” she says. “There was this public persona and then the private persona. Many times there was this conflict between what was real and what was a rumor or perception.”
Another video captures Colette’s glass collection. The author loved to collect glass and this video seems to reflect all the unexpected layers of her complicated personality. Colette was an esteemed writer who cultivated her celebrity persona — she even had her own perfume line. But she was also known for not being a particularly good parent; she had quite a few husbands, in addition to affairs with a famous baroness and her own stepson.
Two other videos were shot in Paris, where Colette lived on two occasions, both at Palais Royal. One video shows the gardens, including a place where the author used to sit and write. In contrast to wild nature, the spot was confined, landscaped and manicured. The other video was shot in Le Grand VéFour. Once a café frequented by French cultural heavyweights, it is now a five-star restaurant.
Simple narrative techniques are used for these five-inch videos. A montage is used to show how the past and present converge; video is layered to suggest a break in time or a memory from a different time period. Colette appears in ghost-like form, embodying space. Panning shots suggest movement, extending vision in one direction while imagery dissolves in another.
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A collection of Colette’s books illustrates how her work has been packaged as both high art and fluff. Her books have looked like classic literature, cheap romance novels, feminist fiction and pulp fiction. This interplay of high and low culture was a starting point for the show.
Copeland made linocuts from the romance novel covers using the solarplate printmaking process. Invented in the 1970s, this photographic method definitely isn’t digital. A negative image was produced through tedious labor that required her to touch the images rather than just scan them. These gritty negative works are in contrast to the sappy book covers used to create them. This is a play on the theme of high and low culture.
“I collect dead things,” says Copeland. Colette loved nature and often described it in her writing. Copeland created an embossed calligraph, a collage with specimens including a moth, lizards, branches and other bugs pressed in white paper. This is a subtle play on the theme of perception versus reality. From a distance it may look minimalist, but up close you can see all the shapes of the bodies inside.
Becoming Colette opens at 6 p.m. Saturday at The Reading Room (3715 Parry Ave.) and runs through February 20.