The People (2017) is set in the village where Mimosa Echard grew up, in southern France. Echard used a vast personal archive of mini-DV sequences shot between 2004 and 2008. She superimposed the totality of the tapes on top of one another into a two hours-long stream of images, where there is always more things happening simultaneously that you can follow, at least consciously: the dashboard of a car; a doe; breakfast cereals and Sunday morning cartoons; tulips, daffodils; a closeup of a rat, maneuvering inside a cage; blinking LEDs on a sequencer; men with forks, cleaning up a stable; a child in a hammock, all set on a distant rave soundscape.
There is a documentary subtext to the film, that one could read as an index of countercultural imaginaries in rural France (new age, rave culture, alternative agricultural practices), or of what is left of this tradition; as well as a document of three generations of semicommunal and extended-family life. In spite of this, and although it assembles swathes and fragments of Echard’s personal memory, The People doesn’t evoke any sense of nostalgia; it’s a glimmering, shape-shifting tapestry of daily life, which like it feels simultaneously mundane and wonderfully strange—and present. This makes it an exhilarating viewing experience, at once tranquil and endlessly stimulating (the sort of steady energy invented and perfected by rave music and techno), which effortlessly extend for the entire duration of the loop.
In Echard’s mental map, her own village is mirrored by iDEATH, the dream-like, postapocalyptic version of a North-California hippie town imagined by Richard Brautigan’s in his 1968 story, In Watermelon Sugar. A great deal of the culture and daily life in iDEATH revolves obsessively around the culture of watermelons; watermelon sugar, in particular, provides the material for a lot of usual objects, as well as most buildings—although pinewood and trouts are also used. Each day has a different-coloured sun, which brings different-coloured watermelons; at night, the houses are lit in the gentle glow of burning watermelontrout oil.
These trippy surroundings are also haunted by undercurrents of discord, violence and death. Among many other things, In Watermelon Sugar reads as a bittersweet fictionalized recollection of the time Brautigan spent in the fiercely reclusive community of Bolinas (whose inhabitants are famously known for removing roadsigns so repetitively that the local authorities renounced to replace them). It belongs to a tradition of hippie elegies, along with Death of a Hippie, the mock funeral parade organized by the Diggers in October 1967 to signal the spiralling decay of the Haight-Asbury area (once the global nervous centre of the Summer of Love); and Paul Thek’s The Tomb (1967), a meticulous recreation of the resting place of a hippie man, painstakingly modelled after Thek’s own body.
Echard borrowed the name of iDEATH (in which, it should also be noted, all public monuments represent vegetables) for a 2016 exhibition that featured her series A/B: large Plexiglas trays holding a myriadic and dizzying assemblage of natural and artificial elements, including insects (wasps, butterfly wings), flowers, barks, leaves and fungus, lichen, moss, kombucha biofilm, snails and mussels shells, drugs blisters and packagings, Coca-Cola, and pills (vitamins, fertility and lactation supplements, and a second-generation contraceptive).
Like The People, A/B (2016) proceed by coalescing all these components into a fluid, watermelon sugar-like, all-embracing medium—in this case, depilatory wax. It has a light skin tone (others are green, yellow, or the colour of smoked salmon), which behind the Plexiglas has a synthetic gleam and lush precision reminiscent of self-enhanced telephone pics, cosmetic tutorials or high-resolution porn imagery; various registries of a 21st century flesh. The same material is used in a group of small objects (Nymphes, 2016), beautiful counterforms cast in the plastic case of a Fairy wand vibrator.
It also echoes horror films prosthesis and the entire aesthetic field they invented—a rich mental landscape which evolved into the refined, elegant machines of David Cronenberg, or the gonzoid hysteria of Society (1989) where alien creatures disguised as conservative notables coalesce into a magma of throbbing flesh at an orgy in a Beverly Hills mansion—in an intensely perverse inversion of pastoral hippie communalism, and its maximally nightmarish counterpoint. (It also has great dialogues: “How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar? Or do you want me to pee in it?” — “You’re a class act, Clarissa”). Echard used prints of several screen captures of the scene in a series of paintings (Deadbrain and Braindead, 2016–18) where they are made to diffuse into metallic acrylic paint.
“As technology accelerates and evolves, it tends towards liquidity, and towards plasticity”, Kodwo Eshun explains in an interview; cosmetics should, therefore, be understood as “an extremely advanced form of technology”1. They tend to a kind of symbiosis, a strange yet effective form of the sort of all-embracing relations fantasized by the cybernetics theoreticians and poets of Brautigan’s generation: “a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony”2.
In Echard’s work, these bodily technologies are combined with the competing chemical dynamics of plants, fish eggs and other potent natural artefacts, into strange kinds of stabilized, Pollock-textured monsters. Like the mosquito frozen into John Hammond’s amber cane3, what they hold retain their exuberant vital forces so that they can be released into new, combinatory forms of life.