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Translated by Anna Knight

Damien Fragnon – One Laboratory Can Hide Another

by Romain Noël

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Several months ago, I hit the road to go see Damien Fragnon’s exhibition Les falaises traversent nos mains [Cliffs Traverse Our Hands]. Several minutes after my arrival, a stranger approached me and told me that the exhibition was a real laboratory. But it soon emerged that, behind the scientific laboratory another laboratory was hidden, a formal and affective one – that is, the laboratory of plasticity itself.


there are many things in this other laboratory

there are plants, salt, and cicada skins


Plasticity means the ability to give and receive form. It is the ability to act and suffer, to feel one’s power and recognise one’s own suffering. In the plastic act, the formal power of emotion intertwines with the affective power of form. If we take this definition to its logical extreme, plasticity emerges in the last instance as an affair of passion.


there are golden threads, red sandstone, and linen string

there is a landscape printed on a plastic bag


A fire was lit in the exhibition space; it was not an artwork by Damien Fragnon, but it was there and it beckoned to me. Damien Fragnon’s laboratory is also a home in which a fire burns: a living space, a hub of connections, a hearth of emotions.


there is glue and sand and soapstone

there are shells and stones that speak forgotten languages


There were no saucepans in the exhibition, but each artwork formed a kind of recipient or caldron in which dark things1 would be able to occur, and connections made, like in a kitchen with something simmering on the stovetop.


there is a nest of peanuts in which nameless beasts live

there are ceramics that look like rivers


The way in which all of these elements are arranged leads us to believe that a whole host of more or less scientific experiments are underway. But nothing is expected in this alien laboratory.2 The experiments in progress are propositions, more than anything. It is less a matter of discovering anything than of allowing the possible – that is the world – to do its work.


there is heather that soaks up the essential oil of lemon

there is a trunk that dreams of mushrooms by sucking vitamin C pills


The plastic practice of Damien Fragnon takes a different path to that of scientific knowledge and its progression. While the young artist latches onto scientific data captured in the course of his readings, he reappropriates them, in the most pirate-like sense of the term. So the artworks here are not so much experiments in the scientific sense as they are nuclei of possibilities, like incubators in which forms ferment and tell the stories of connections that Damien Fragnon senses and hopes to peddle. Attuned to the invisible connections between human and non-human, the artist lets them develop and allows them to happen.


there is a branch of brambles, fog, and sheep’s wool

there is dust and rust, magnesium and vinegar


The scientific lab is sanitized, overprotected, disused. The other laboratory, on the contrary, is hyper-affected, like a body or a heap of compost.


there are dyes from plants and vegetables, like in fairy tale potions

there are metals, lamps, sulphur, volcanic rocks


Damien Fragnon has made errancy his method and porosity the cornerstone of his action. This informs us about another specificity of his intuitive laboratory: unlike the scientific laboratory per se, he favours observation over activity. Working in this kind of laboratory is akin to the experience of what I would willingly call passive power, which I see as one of the most precious virtues in the hour of extinction.3


there is Saint John’s Wort steeping since there will be burns

there are some enamels that tell secrets


Lately, I’ve often thought about what Keats called ‘negative capability’, and that he defined as the ability to accept ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. The promise of a real ecology is formulated here. And it was while remembering this promise that I visited Damien Fragnon’s exhibition, eventually discovering in it an anti-laboratory, or a laboratory in negative, within which the world would be able to develop.


there are things that I do not see, that I do not know,

and that Damien himself cannot name


there is the rest, too, that is endless

and the infinite tempo of passion

Born in 1987 in Clermont-Ferrand, Damien Fragnon lives and works in Sète. He obtained his DNSEP at the ESAAA (École Supérieure d’Art Annecy Alpes, Annecy) in 2015. He was hosted at several residencies: the Ateliers du Grand Large, Décines-Charpieu – an artists’ residency directed by the Adéra – from 2015 to 2018; SAC Art Lab in Chiang Mai (Thailand) in 2019; Les Ateliers de Clermont-Ferrand in 2020.
Damien Fragnon has already shown his work in a number of collective exhibitions, including Stone at the BF15, Lyon, in 2018. He regularly collaborates with Naomi Maury, as with the exhibition L’odeur du ciel [The Smell of the Sky] at the Attrape-Couleurs, Lyon, in 2018. In 2020, he presented the solo exhibition Un mirage irisé [An Iridescent Mirage] at KOMMET Contemporary Art Space, Lyon.


  1.   In my research, I insist heavily on the contemporary need to deconstruct the legacy of the Enlightenment. To do so, with the help of an army of romantic poets and radical feminists, I suggest an antidote: darkness. To the dialectic of the Enlightenment, I oppose the proliferation of shadow (Endarkenment).  Like Timothy Morton, I therefore argue for a dark ecology.
  2.   Today, emotions are back. Because they pass through our bodies, I call them ‘aliens’. As Donna Haraway says in The Companion Species Manifesto, ‘no creature pre-exists their interrelation’. In so doing, above all, it is not a matter of saying that humans are social animals, but that we all belong to a kind of International Alien before belonging to humanity.
  3.  The Anthropocene has been described by Deborah Bird Rose as ‘the age of loss’. Species are disappearing and leaving the world in mourning. One of the ways of resisting these processes of extinction consists of overthrowing the systems of values of Western humanism, and therefore of helping things deemed ‘negative’ to make a comeback: shadows, emotion, vulnerability, passivity. Behind these things, the landscape of passion is deployed in which humanity is no more than one gardener among others.

Damien Fragnon
Les falaises traversent nos mains
Espace d’art contemporain Les Roches,
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
From 11 October to 7 March 2021

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