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Dominique Goblet and the Architecture of Self

A road in the Ardennes by Goblet

I.

The Belgian artist and comic-book maker Dominique Goblet is intensely concerned with life as lived by others, and life as a communal experience. She is among the most empathetic of artists working in the comics form, with each project pushing further the boundaries of interpersonal hermeneutics. Goblet is of the generation that emerged in the '90s and helped consolidate ‘the graphic novel’ and ‘art comics’ in broader cultural terms—the first, arguably, to unabashedly self-identify as artists.

It is probably unsurprising, therefore, that she made autobiography—the genre that centered that movement—her proving ground. But she differs from most of her peers in that she has consistently looked beyond herself, in the process redefining for reality-based comics the way of working that has determined so much of the historical evolution of comics: collaboration.

Her latest book, Amour dominical, published this year, is no exception. On the face of it, it is less her book than that of her collaborator, Dominique Théate. Badly injured in a motorcycle accident when he was young, he suffered brain damage that radically changed his life. He lives in the area in which he grew up, the Vielsalm municipality in the Ardennes region in southeastern Belgium. Goblet first met him there in 2007 when, as part of a group of comics-oriented artists associated with the Belgian collective Frémok—of which she has been a constituent part since the early '90s—she visited La “S”, Grand Atélier, an arts center for the mentally handicapped located in an old army barracks.

The meeting inspired several of the people involved to collaborate with the first result being the anthology volume Match de catch a Vielsalm (‘Wrestling Match at Vielsalm’), published in 2008.

In addition to the FRMK people, the book also incorporates work by a number of Italian artists, assembled for the purpose by the Livorno-based studio Blu cammello. Each artist is paired with one of the residents. Among the more visually striking contributions is “Coeur de Lyon” (‘Lyonheart’) by resident Richard Bawin and FRMK publisher Thierry van Hasselt—a remix of the 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of almost the same name that sees the two artists jamming in a combination of linocut, monotype, collage, and gouache painting. Van Hasselt has since applied himself in bringing to life in comics form an ever-growing utopian cityscape, conceived and built in cardboard and papier-mâché by another resident of the “S,” Marcel Schmitz. The resultant book, Vivre à Frandisco (/Living in Frandisco—it’s bilingual—2016) works as an expansive paper theatre for Schmitz's vision as king of his city. Sort of an exuberant, redemptive version of Pushwagner’s dystopian Soft City.

Van Hasselt also manages the Knock-Outsider imprint at FRMK, under which he has overseen the publication of almost a dozen other books, involving a large number of artists in his extended network, all working with residents at La “S.” Of these, Amour dominical is the latest, which brings us back from our contextual digression. (Apologies).

A page of Théate's diary writing juxtaposed with a landscape drawing by Goblet

II.

Goblet has said that one of the things that fascinated her with Théate’s work was the diary he kept on his antique computer, excerpts of which form the spine of the book. She likens it to Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, highlighting its compelling repetitiveness, but also its musical qualities. There’s a rhythm to how Théate writes in short sentences often ending in ellipses, answered at the end of the line by an iterative or responsive word. Sort of like call and response in song, or perhaps more appropriately in this case, rap—with a fondness for the active participle. Here’s my attempt at an excerpted translation of the opening section:

the teacher “Véronique” gave me a notebook for study
already being for the year 2003 noted under the number 2003............ (in gold leaf)
my identity written in white the family name in “typed” and
first name “in normal writing” just below………………. “that’s original”
so it will be arranged in my desk drawer just below me
i am the computer having been given to…………………….. “Théate Dominique”
where he will compose a literary work on his life every day
being far from finished because he hopes to compose others
it is something he will always think about

This is clearly somebody with artistic ambition. And following the incremental revelations about his life that filter through his accounts of everyday activities, such as visits to the local Quick Burger or his hippotherapy, riding the horse Norvik, is compelling. He will suddenly switch gears and talk about his fatal accident. He spent six months in a coma, and when he woke up his stepfather was there. He is a truck driver, nicknamed “Jacky,” who regularly takes Dominique and his mother around in his 5 Series BMW. He takes on an almost beatific aspect in the narration.

Goblet intersperses these passages with images of the land in which Théate has spent his life: the forests, hills and mountains; the villages, churches and roads, not least—we sense—the road on which his life was knocked off course. Executed in colored chalks and occasionally incorporating lithography, these images chart the passage of the seasons, encapsulating the narrative in one orbital cycle, even if it clearly stretches across decades. Fittingly, they are empty of people and blurred, as if remembered rather than sensed firsthand, suggesting memory, or even ancestry.

Hulk Hogan vs. Lady Bluebeard

Although Théate’s writing is often funny, the book would be a rather somber read were the diary entries not interwoven with energetic passages bringing to life Théate’s flights of fancy. He is obsessed with Hulk Hogan the wrestler, whose adventures in the ring he and Goblet chart together in rambunctious sequences executed in naïve line art using markers and pencils. (It simultaneously becomes clear from the diary that there are strong links in Théate’s mind between Hogan and “Jacky,” his savior stepfather). Hulk Hogan fights Lady Bluebeard, the Orthodontist, the Centaur, and Hell’s Angels in individual rounds. These matches were how the two Dominiques initially started working together, with the first two published in, and giving name to, Match de Catch à Vielsalm.

The last thread running through the book follows the love life of Hulk Hogan, who after his fight with Bluebeard marries her. Here Théate is drawing solo, in the same rather rudimentary but expressive outlines, but on newsprint, cut out along the contours, collaged together and accompanied by text written in concert with Goblet. It quickly develops into a fanciful space adventure: their honeymoon is on a paradisiacal alien planet where Spielberg’s E.T. welcomes them; and then wild sex—one sequence involves Hogan opening a suitcase full of caterpillars unto his lover and seeing them transform into butterflies as the two of them climax; he then form the letters spelling I LOVE YOU in the air using the insects.

Towards the end, we learn through the diary entries that in some ways Bluebeard represents—or has come to represent—Goblet, another savior in Théate’s life for whom he has developed strong feelings. She is his “love interest,” their mutual speech balloons filled with hearts.

Defeated by Hulk Hogan, the Hell's Angels form an itinerant performance troupe, "The Architects of Themselves", art by Théate.

OK, so that’s a spoiler, but this revelation makes such an affecting end to the book that I don’t feel like keeping to myself. For what it reveals of Théate’s circumscribed life, certainly, but more importantly for its illustration of how creativity may stimulate emotional engagement. And the way it emerges without fanfare, as part of a sequence where Goblet’s landscapes, rendered red in white, make way for neatly arranged abstract vertical structures redolent of Barnett Newman. There is a powerful, meditative quality about it, as if Goblet were trying to visualize the kind of creative communion that she and the other Dominique are reaching for. I’m hard pressed to think of equally successful examples of such an endeavor in comics since Goblet’s own critical breakthrough, Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007 – US edition, Pretending Is Lying, 2017), or its predecessor, Souvenir d’une journée parfaite (‘Recollection of a Perfect Day’, 2001), for more on which see here.

In those books, she also reaches outside of herself in order better to understand and describe her experience of life. In Faire semblant, she and her partner, the poet and writer Guy Marc Hinant, with whom she co-wrote two chapters, attempt to inhabit each other’s points of view, the better to understand themselves. Although their relationship is less intimate, Amour dominical feels even more so, in part because of the earnestness of Théate’s contribution, but also because we sense that much of his work only exists because of Goblet’s active presence. Distributed cognition theory posits that our knowledge and understanding of being is constituted beyond our bodies, in our social and physical environment. The two Dominiques give it to us in comics form.

Plus si entente... A suitor approaches the Mother's house, next to its topiary guardian.

III.

Amour dominical is merely Goblet’s latest foray beyond the self. Concurrently with her work on it, she collaborated with German writer and cartoonist Kai Pfeiffer on the strange and dissonant 2014 book Plus si entente. Pfeiffer has a grounding in comics journalism and documentarism but has always interpreted his material in fancifully symbolic ways, making him an ideal partner for Goblet’s essays in externalizing inner life on the page. The result is a fiction about a mother and a daughter who have become estranged from each other, the former seeking a connection through internet dating, the latter descending into the oblivion of her memories and subconscious. It is an extraordinarily difficult book, mostly operating at a largely symbolic level at far remove from its ostensible narrative.

This is in part a result of how it was created. Presumably the two authors agreed on their premise beforehand, but possibly only in the sketchiest way imaginable. They have described their process as one of each creating pages, which they would exchange between their drafting tables in Brussels and Berlin, respectively, for the other to build upon or subvert. The artwork is executed in a variety of techniques, from linear to painterly, mono- to multichrome. Most pages are executed by one or the other, but were since cut up, recombined, and reorganized, while additional, more formally planned ones were inserted to ensure a certain level of narrative coherence. While it is debatable whether that was achieved, the visual flow and synthesis between the two artists’ contributions is remarkably seamless—it is surprisingly difficult to tell their contributions apart in places, despite their individual styles being quite distinct.

The oneiric page progression of Plus si entente...

Initially, the pages are built around texts taken from what one assumes are real classifieds culled from dating sites—this is all pre-Tinder—and gathers a lot of steam from the endearingly pathetic, circumspectly revealing, tacitly menacing, and bizarrely poetic ways people fashion themselves and express their desires in that environment: “Alchemist of life, likes surfing on the filmament [sic] of magic moments”—cognition distributed in cyberspace. We see a shifting array of blurred, anonymous men, sexually suggestive symbolic imagery, and the occasionally prosaic scene from the mother’s house. A visual-verbal rhythm builds around the refrain ‘plus si entente’—i.e. ‘if things click…’

We understand that the mother has been single for a long time, that she has been seeing a variety of unsuitable men from a fairly early moment in the daughters’ life. Her house, stuffed with books, is in clear disarray, and she is having trouble in her negotiations with contractors hired to construct a swimming pool in her back garden, meant for the daughter who is a swimmer. She involves her many suitors too, always unsuccessfully. Through the book, the garden is gradually established as an enchanted place, an extension of both hers and the daughter’s subconscious, ever more threatening and consuming. Somewhere out there a dog is buried, but they never find it. A phallic topiary bush watches sagely as mother and daughter descend into oblivion.

The timeline is blurred, but the mother’s loneliness is a constant. We understand that the father was a police officer who got into trouble for helping a group of squatters in a condemned building. He haunts both women’s memories as a masked, uniformed apparition named Doctor Love, while he clutters the mother’s chat stream with his attempts to win her back. He seems to have been a victim of the mother’s all-consuming narcissism, but his ghostly presence is ambiguous and at times menacing, and it is never clear exactly what role he may have played in the family’s breakdown.

The opening page of Plus si entente... establishes mood and motifs.

Similarly, although her point of view is strongly present, it is unclear what happened to the daughter. She left the house at some point, and towards the end it becomes apparent that she may have died. Extended sequences, however, deal with the dissolution of her mental state. We repeatedly see her submerging her head in a fish tank, and sinking into a bottomless pool, always surrounded by lobsters. They cover her sex and claw at her nipples right from the outset of the book, and throughout. They are an unsettling presence—the book’s most central symbol of consuming desire and sexual destructiveness. (It somehow seems apposite that it has become hard, for some us today, to think of lobsters without thinking of Jordan Peterson...)

The absence of clarity on central story points will not be to everyone’s taste. It might even lessen the emotional impact for some readers. But Plus si entente is impressive for its uncompromising belief in its storytelling strategy and heterogenic visual presentation, and it is powerful in the way it builds atmosphere and emotional tone. Its evocation of toxic masculinity is powerful, but it is its exploration of its counterpart—and, we sense, its product—toxic femininity that makes it without pair in comics. It makes me think of Elfriede Jelinek’s devastating Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher, 1983), or Michael Haneke’s 2001 film adaptation of it, in its charting of social and personal sexual pathologies, but more important in the solidarity it shows with its monstrous protagonist.

From Les Hommes-loups

IV.

With regards to toxic masculinity, Goblet set her sights on it in what is perhaps her most visually sumptuous, but also least empathetic book, 2010’s Les Hommes-loups (‘The Wolf-Men’). A collection of images executed in mixed media—from acrylic and chalk, to pen and ink, to collage—it is associative rather than serial. We see dark conifer forests, lone cabins in the woods, men in suits with briefcases shaking hands. Occasionally their heads are those of wolves. We see children, young women, crying sheep, all vulnerable. We see the recurring log cabin bursting into flames. It strangely recalls Partie de chasse (The Hunting Party), Pierre Chistin and Enki Bilal’s classic 1981-83 dissection of the decay and corruption of the communist Eastern Bloc by way of an all-male hunting party in the woods, but with all historic context and narrative underpinnings stripped away to expose the underworld of desire and predatory impulse that feeds oppression. It is also about as dead serious, its menacing Twin Peaks vibe belied by its lack of humor. This is not helped by the verbal, bookend scaffolding given it by Hinant—short blank verse poems trading in the imagery of hunting, killing, war, and crying. A little on the nose.

However, Goblet is a strong image-maker, and the woods she paints are full of genuine menace—they provide a primordial backdrop for the human action depicted, and in this they anticipate the much more resonant landscapes in Amour dominical. Also, the book is perhaps the best showcase of Goblet as a colorist—it is compelling for its rich patterning of icy skies and turquoise precipitation on which flashes of deep red and patches of mauve and maroon divulge human fear and anxiety. And certain images attain strange power, among them some of people in rabbit costumes, flanking yet more murderous suits-and-ties. They feel eerily prescient of one of the iconic and banally horrifying images of our current moment.

Goblet by Fossoul, 2006

V.

Goblet tends to stick with a project for a long time, which tends to give her books the lived-in feel that comes from ongoing engagement and disengagement, of application and reflection. Nowhere is this truer than in Chronographie, which was released more or less simultaneously with Les Hommes-loups in 2010. This is perhaps Goblet’s most resonant work, beautiful for the simplicity of its concept and the complexity of its expression. The premise is simple, but has required unusual amounts of discipline and patience: roughly every fortnight for ten years, Goblet and her daughter Nikita Fossoul drew/painted each other’s portrait, adding the date to one of the sheets and occasionally annotating them further with thoughts and observations. They were ages 31 and 7, respectively, when they initiated what would become 273 sessions and yield twice that number of portraits.

Spread from Chronographie with portraits from 2000

Collected in book form, the result is, in an extraordinarily real sense, the map of time that comics are often described as by virtue of form. We watch Nikita growing up before our eyes, while Dominique’s outward appearance is much more constant. At the same time, we see Nikita’s rendering style developing through trial, error, and experiment—obviously influenced by her mother, but more abstracted and therefore often more impactful, as well as sharper in her color choices. The more experienced Dominique draws with greater plasticity and attention to detail, and with richer color, and her style develops less, which nicely encapsulates visually the differences between the supple, evolving mind of a child and the consolidation that happens with age.

Goblet by Fossoul 2003

Strikingly, it is the less experienced Nikita’s portraits that seem the most nuanced. She seems to be paying closer attention to the state of things around her, and to her mother’s state of mind, than is the case with the latter. Nikita’s portraits of Goblet have greater range: she is more present on the page, her eyes darting about or intensely focused. Fossoul in Goblet’s rendering appears more passive, focused inward and almost invariably with her eyes downcast—most of the time presumably because Dominique drew her while she herself was drawing. Goblet’s portraits of her daughter are serious and beautiful, but also a bit too pretty. As she herself has described in interviews, they are filtered images—those of a mother seeing her daughter with tenderness to the detriment of clarity. This, however, only strengthens the book, because it downplays artistic ego for honesty, speaking volumes about the emotional bond between mother and daughter.

And writ large the book is the account of that bond. On a more fundamental level, however, it is a mutual self-portrait—an acknowledgement of the self as constituted in intimate relation to another. An elaborate but fragile architecture carefully but haphazardly built in time.

Fossoul by Goblet 2006

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2 Responses to Dominique Goblet and the Architecture of Self

  1. She’s so great. Saw the work she did with K.P. in Petersburg at the Nabokov museum, where they censored all the nipples and genitals (there’s a few of those) with little blingy stickers, which is definitely what he would’ve wanted.

  2. Matthias Wivel says:

    Awesome! I read about that. Very strange.

    Also, it’s really not a very graphically sexually explicit book at all, even if its fully of (mostly bad) sexual energy…

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