Over the last fifteen years or so, Vincent Meessen (b. Baltimore, US, 1971) has been developing a body of work at the boundary between the fields of art and research.
In mobilising signs, images and hidden narratives in new narratives, his works offer a contemporary reanimation of history both poetic and polemical, through different media such as video, the printed image and sound. The historical document is always subjected to the test of the present, often returned to its original geographical context.
Meessen represented Belgium at the 56th Venice Biennale of 2015 with Personne et les autres at the Belgian Pavilion, for which he invited eleven other artists from four different continents. Each of them offered their own distinctive take on forms, narratives and encounters that challenge the rigid frameworks of a colonial modernity, whether mental or physical, the fruits of a revolutionary or hybridising imagination.
Meessen’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou stands very much in the line of his much noticed work at the Belgian Pavilion. It includes, first of all, a film version of One.Two.Three, the audiovisual work presented in Venice and recently acquired by the Centre National des Arts Pasties. This focuses on the participation of young Congolese students in the Situationist movement of the mid-1960s, both in Paris and in Brussels. In May 1968, one of these composed a protest song in the Kimono language. Rediscovered in the archives of the Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, this hitherto unperformed text was returned by Meessen to its author, Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku, in Kinshasa. Set to music by young Kinshasa musicians at a legendary rumba club, this work from the past again became a vehicle of the sense of struggle just as a large-scale popular uprising was violently suppressed as the film was being made.
Other works in the exhibition problematise the reification that May ’68 has undergone, through the reactivation of buried memories. What is brought back to life is not the myth of a May ’68 lived out in the Latin Quarter of Paris, but other significant uprisings that occurred from Dakar to Kinshasa. In both cases, Meessen is concerned with the distinctive careers of young African intellectuals who directly or indirectly crossed the path of the Situationist International, this “spectre that haunts the world” and which has left an imprint as deep as it is indelible on the world of ideas and forms.
It is, then, by means of a photo of a young Senegalese student reading the latest issue of the Situationist magazine that the viewer is taken to Dakar. In a work specially conceived for this exhibition, Meessen presents the first stage of a film “in the course of being made”. The phrase is Godard’s, and opens La Chinoise, a film in which the same young student, Omar Blondin Diop, plays the political activist he is. Meessen evokes Godard’s fiction film and asks whether its scenario would not have corresponded to the reality of Dakar in 1971, when the members of a group called the “Blondinistes”, also known as the “Incendiaries”, were imprisoned for an attack on the motorcade carrying President Senghor of Senegal and his guest and childhood friend, President Pompidou of France.