Preface to the Second Edition of Mémoires (October 1993)
Translated by Reuben Keehan
THE RARE WORKS of my youth were special. There can be no denying that what they had in common was a general taste for negation. This was much in keeping with the life we led in those days.
Up until a very short time before, modern art had been critical and revolutionary. "In the world of decomposition we can put our forces to the test, but we cannot use them." Many bad intentions found their scarcely honorable cover here.
I began with a film devoid of images, the feature-length Howls for Sade, in 1952. The screen was white during speech, and black with a silence whose duration continued to grow: the final black sequence alone lasted twenty-four minutes. "The specific conditions of cinema allow the anecdote to be interrupted with masses of empty silence." The cinema clubs rose up in horror, their cries drowning out what little dialogue there was that would have been capable of shocking.
In 1958, Asger Jorn gave me the chance to go further. I published Memoirs, which was composed entirely of extremely varied quotations, with the lone exception of the one phrase, itself brief, that was mine. This anti-book was only offered to my friends, and no-one else was informed of its existence. "I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my century." I wasn't too worried about being heard.
Meanwhile, in 1953, I wrote in chalk on a wall in the Rue de Seine, blackened with the patina of years, the redoubtable slogan Never work! It was originally thought that I was joking (the passer-by who saved the document for posterity had thought of photographing the inscription because he intended to use it in a series of humorous postcards).
At the time, I did not speak very highly at all of these Memoirs. Even now, I don't think there's much more to say. I proved my sober indifference to public opinion straight away, because the public were not even allowed to see this work. Has the time of such conventions not passed? Thus for thirty-five years my Memoirs were never put on sale. Their celebrity comes from only having been given out in the form of the potlatch: that is to say of the sumptuous gift, challenging the other party to give something more extreme in return. By this means, people of such magnanimity show that in their own way, they are capable of anything.
These few details should clarify what good reason I had to sum up this moment, in my Panegyric of 1989: "Our only public actions, which remained rare and brief in the first years, were meant to be completely unacceptable: at first, especially by their form; later, as they acquired depth, especially by their content. They were not accepted."