In 1515, Albrecht Dürer made a woodcut of rhinoceros, an animal he had never seen. Based on a written description of a specimen gifted to King Emmanuel of Portugal by the Cambodian Royal Family, the woodcut ? with its myriad inaccuracies ? soon became the dominant image of the species in Western visual culture, and was reproduced in innumerable bestiaries and scientific treatises, as well as in popular prints, bronze and marble statuary, and on commercial tapestries and porcelain. In a reality without the shadow reality of photography or film, these things happen. In a world in which unfamiliarity is the default setting, the viewer is erroneously familiarized.
Xavier Veilhan?s iconic Le Rhinocéros (The Rhinoceros, 1999) is a very different beast from Dürer?s. A pared-down resin sculpture painted a booming fire engine red, it assumes a knowledge of its subject-matter ? assumes that we are familiar with these horned ruminants from the pages of National Geographic, from wildlife documentaries, or from visits to the zoo. What its smooth surface provides us with is just enough information, just enough ?rhinoceros-ness?, for us to fill in the perceptual gaps from our own experiences and prejudices and access a level of reality that?s part fact, part our own fiction. The piece doesn't so much portray the Platonic form of the rhino as its prototype, or its corrupted copy. Perhaps this is for the best. Perfect simulacra, after all, tell us nothing about the nature of reality (how can they, when we can't distinguish them from the real thing?). As Veilhan's work demonstrates, it's the half-cocked stuff of mistakes, misjudgments and absences that helps us negotiate what we mean by 'truth'.
Veilhan?s is an art that is at once fascinated by the possibilities afforded by contemporary technology, and preoccupied with the formal conventions of the art of the past. Employing high-tech means, he makes simplified pictures and statuary of highly generic, art historically mandated subjects such as people and animals, finishing them in ultra-modern materials, and playing witty, occasionally alarming games with their scale. In his 2006 exhibition ?Sculpture Automatiques? at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris, Veilhan exhibited a group of variously-sized sculptures representing a lion, a piano player, a naked woman, a looming monster and three clothed men (including the artist himself) that described a spectrum of representational resolution from the schematic to the photorealistic. Significantly, these objects were produced by electronically scanning their source material and then feeding this information into a computerized cutting machine ? something we might imagine as a sci-fi studio apprentice, there to do the dog work of a very modern master.
What?s going on in these works? Not psychological portraiture (we cannot guess at the piano-player?s wants, or needs), nor a critique of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (Veilhan?s engagement with technology is about play, not labour, and resembles the gentlemanly use of machines depicted in the plates of Diderot?s Encyclopedie). Rather, these sculptures are archetypes that draw on classical and contemporary notions of perfection, but nevertheless still surprise - objects with trans-historical ambitions that are very much of their time. They are generous, robust, and curiously autonomous, demanding no backtracking, no appeals to the real. Perhaps this is why the sculpture of Veilhan faced away from the rest of the works in the show, a half-smile on its face. Born of a cyborg process, this is art that can look after itself.