Within moments of entering La Plaque Tournante for the current exhibition, ‘Isidore Isou: Lettrism to Eternity’, one is met with a cacophony of noise: the human voice experimenting with itself, sounding off in intervals and tied with a profusion of visual stimuli; paint strokes amid hieroglyphics, manuscripts, letters and poems coating the walls. The current exhibition is making a little piece of history at the non-commercial artist run space in Neukölln. Curated by composer Frédéric Acquaviva, who runs La Plaque Tounante with mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, it is the first ever solo exhibition on Isou in Berlin, and the closest to a retrospective of his work that has ever been curated.
Unfortunately, Isou remains surprisingly undiscovered. He was the founder of Lettrism, one of the most important avant garde movements in postwar Paris (Isou would assert the most important). Lettrism is formed at the intersection of poetry, painting, and cinema: a relationship between language and image, a philosophy aiming to transform society through its creative methods. The approach was highly influential in its circles at the time—namely the French Revolution Students’ Movement of 1968. It paved a path for future conceptual artists and successfully built on the notions and methods of its earlier predecessors, Dadaism and Surrealism. Acquaviva explores the movement in-depth in his article ‘What is Lettrism?’.
Previous shows that have exhibited any of Isou’s work alongside other Lettrists, the curator mentions in a tour of the exhibition, de-emphasize Isou’s immense oeuvre and drive to vigorously experiment in various fields, including literature, science, politics, film, painting, photography and graphic novels, which he did continuously until his death in 2007. Focusing solely on Isou and his oeuvre, separate from the other Lettrists and the movement, was the focus for Acquaviva. The show, within the rather small artist-run space, comprises 500 documents, manuscripts, flyers, affiches, books, films, sounds, scores, photographs, drawings as well as canvases, from 1945 until the artist’s death in 2007. What might at first appear chaotic, has been meticulously curated and arranged between several rooms, the foyer and hallways of La Plaque Tournante into sections for photography, politics, paintings, poetry, performance, film, erotology, novels, philosophy, and sciences.
Each section is enthralling. To witness the works of an artist who seems to have never ceased producing until his death and was vigilant in any subject area he researched and tried his hand in leaves one pondering how the man and the work remain relatively unknown? Some examples of the diversity in works one will encounter are the ‘Mobile Living Photo’, in the photography section, where a mouse situated in a mouse house turns over a small photo on its wheel; in the political section, letters from Isou to George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and the Pope, to name a few, exclaiming the importance of Lettrism and asking for funding; the 2 hour-long avant gardist film ‘Venom and Eternity’ (1951) projected in a small back room; a room of poetry and manuscripts including, ‘Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music’ (1947) and ‘Precisions on My Poetry and I’ (1950); and the biggest archive of Isou’s poetic manuscripts and illustrations for erotic V Magazine in Paris.
What at first might appear over-stimulating and perhaps chaotic—has been carefully curated by Acquaviva into these structured sections, which are not dissimilar to the methodical madness in Isou’s lifestyle and artistic practice. Acquaviva first discovered Isou’s book ‘Oeuvres de Spectacles’ (1964) in 1997 and was taken by him. He met Isou the following year and was initially reproached when Isou asked how many of his 200 published books Acquaviva had read. When he replied only 10 or so, he was advised to come back and speak with him once he had read more (publications of which were difficult to come across in Paris at the time). After this first introduction, the two eventually found their pace continuously meeting and regularly collaborating with each other. Acquaviva is foremost a composer and began realizing Isou’s symphonies and recording his voice. He continued to write articles on Isou and Lettrism, produced a radio program with him and has exhibited his large personal collection of Isou’s work.
It is a great shame that La Plaque Tournante, located in an old medical practice on Sonnenallee, will close after this exhibition due to gentrification in the area. The artist-run space played host to exhibitions and avant garde performances. They will, however, be leaving with a bang. The finissage, titled ‘Fuck Gentrification’, will be held on September 29th. The walls will be stripped down and Isou’s last ‘Symphony No. 5’, which was consummated by Acquaviva, will be played by candle light. La Plaque Tournante’s opening hours have been extended for Berlin Art Week.