Alain Satié
and the Meca-aesthetics of the Wisteria

by David W. Seaman, Ph.D.

For many years, Alain Satié has been passionate about plants and what one might call vegetable art. One of the early members of the Lettriste movement, Satié is still today one of the most active Lettristes, both in terms of artistic creations and as an organizer of shows, instigator of gatherings and connections, and maintaining a continuing liaison with Isidore Isou, the creator of Lettrisme.

A theme that Satié considers very important is a series of words that is central to the understanding of lettrisme: word, letter, sign. These terms relate to the idea that in western literature there was an important progression where the word lost its pre-eminence to the letter, after which the letter became simply a sign. This was expressed by Isou in his manifesto:

Ch. Baudelaire  (destruction of the anecdote for the form of the 
P. Verlaine     (anihilaayion of the poem for the form of the LINE 
                of poetry)
A. Rimbaud      (destruction of the line for the WORD)
S. Mallarmé     (arrangement of the WORD perfected)
T. Tzara        (destruction of the word for NOTHING)
I Isou          (arrangement of a NOTHING - THE LETTER - for the 
                creation the anecdote)

Since 1973, Satié has taken on the project of expressing these three words- word/letter/sign [mot/lettre/signe]--in as many media and manners as possible. He has formed them in folded newspaper, molded them in modelling clay, plexiglass, and cement, shaped them in glass, steel wire, and wood. He has also used them in word games, postage stamp collages, rubber stamps, electricity, and projected light. The largest expression of these was in a field in his native Toulouse, where a field of wheat was mowed carefully to reveal the critical words. An aerial photograph of the sculpted field clearly shows the accomplishment.

The wisteria project is probably the most ambitious, because it engages some demanding outside factors, as difficult to control as the weather and the vagaries of plant life. The idea, quite simply, is to coax, cajole, and condition the fast-growing wisteria vine into writing the words. Satié soon abandoned trying to compose "mot" and "signe," because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of making the sharp reverses of a script letter m or g. He settled on working on "lettre," but even this is no simple task. How to cross the t ? Satié's first meca-aesthetic work involving the wisteria was produced in 1983. So far, the results have not been exhibited, but they have been photographed and were reproduced in the catalogue, Les Matières plastiques dans l'art contemporain (Physical materials in contemporary art). Satié grows the wisterias against a west facing wall in the garden of his house in the Brie region some thirty miles east of Paris. About two feet off the ground, a wood panel is put in place; the word lettre is traced on it in pencil, and wire loops await the wisteria tendrils, which must be gently directed through their guides. The whole process may take until mid summer.

The enemies of vegetable art include the nature of the plant itself--how sharply can a vine bend? And once bent, will it allow its shape to be drawn out so that the end of the vine can continue to grow and write? Satié notes that the vine thickens at the most acute curves; this makes further extensions difficult. Every day, the old growth must be flexed and extended, and the new growth must be painstakingly encouraged to follow the prescribed route, passing the tender tendrils through the guiding loops.

There are also human enemies, such as the over-zealous son who fertilizes the plant and forces a pre-mature exhaustion of the effort. And what about winter? "Winter is catastrophic," Satié laments. The whole plant dies back, and you have to start over again.

"Maybe I am asking too much," admits Satié, as he considers a half-grown wisteria in April. At this point the impending difficulties loom, with the knowledge that many previous efforts have failed just when the warm weather growth begins.

But the summer of 1998 brings success! The vine completes the calligraphic poetry, and shoots exuberantly beyond in a leafy flourish! Satié then cuts the vine and affixes it to a panel which also includes photos of every stage of the growth. It is ready to be exhibited. And yet, something is missing, because the plant is now dead. "My dream," insists Satié, "is to have the wisteria growing in a pot that can be dug up and transported living to a gallery." That would be a beautiful exhibition, but it is fraught with problems, since once liberated from its guides, the vine would flop all over the place and no longer write the word it was trained to show. Some system may be available to enable this, but for the moment it must be relived through the dried vine and a photo album of its life story.

Still, it is an art work, and it exhibits the meca-aesthetics of the wisteria, involving the most lively medium--a living plant--in a way which is like performance art. The movement is slow but undeniable and it is natural. "I adore vegetable art," exclaimed Satié one day. The wisteria art fulfills this desire.

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