Nain Bébé, the Dwarf Court Jester

Nicolas Bebe

A mini-drama was nestled within a little notice in the newspaper; a great fire had destroyed the castle of Luneville in Lotharingen, also known as the small Versailles. Its extraordinary collection of porcelain is lost, and with it, the ceramic statue of Le Nain Bébé, King Stanislas Leszcinski’s court jester. After being driven out of Poland, Stanislas was appointed Duke of Lotharingen in 1737 by his son in law, King Louis IV, who granted him the castle of Lotharingen, completed in 1723.

Le Nain Bébé, or dwarf baby, was born as Nicolas Ferry in 1741 to a family of farmers. He was twenty-five centimetres tall and weighed less than five ounces. He never grew to be taller than eighty-nine centimetres. Although not directly visible, he was most likely mentally impaired. When he was brought to court, they unsuccessfully attempted to teach him how to read and write. All he really could do was dance. They described him as being stubborn, temperamental, lazy and jealous, even ‘sensual’ and also gluttonous.

He was an enormous attraction and was treated as a living doll. A miniature castle of a metre and a half tall was built for him and was fitted with furniture scaled to suit his size. If ever he became angry, he would retreat to his castle, and when Stanislas called for him, he’d open the windows and gracefully declare, ‘tell the king that I am not in.’

He had a great intolerance for noise. When the king played backgammon, Bébé would make such a whopping fuss that the king would have no choice but to stop. He’d then set him on the table, upon which Bébé would build towers from the game pieces. He also had his own miniature carriage drawn by goats that he would tend to himself in the gardens of the palace. He also enjoyed hiding under the skirts of the ladies of court, which is very likely what granted him the description of being ‘sensual.’ I believe that, because he was considered a non-person, he overheard much of the gossip, which allowed him to act as a spy for the king. Poor Bébé. He was a plaything for the nobility.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia once even tried to steal Bébé by sending an envoy. The Duchess of Humniecka, who was related to Stanislas, visited the palace in 1757 when Bébé was eighteen years old. Accompanying her was a twenty-two year old Polish dwarf who called himself Boruslawski with whom she travelled on her visits to the royal houses of Europe. He was exceptionally well developed and could even speak three languages. He ‘beamed with youth and vitality,’ while Bébé was already aging visibly. Boruslawski, who was only seventy-five centimetres tall, apologised to Bébé for being smaller than him. Bébé explained that he had been ill and had grown because of it! He was so jealous of the Pole that he tried to throw him into the fireplace (the Polish dwarf, by the way, lived to be ninety-eight years old and married a woman of normal posture at forty with whom he had four children).

Bébé rapidly declined during the last years of his life. While he was withering away, a suitable wife was found for him: Therese Vouvray, ninety centimetres tall. However, before the engagement could commence, Bébé fell terminally ill. Stanislas sent for his mother and Bébé died in her arms at twenty-two years of age on June 9th, 1764. Despite being distraught by Bébé’s death, Stanislas allowed his Swedish doctor to dissect the body from top to bottom. His skeleton was sent in a glass casing to the museum of natural history in Paris, where it still resides to this day. Even in death, the little man was poked and prodded.

Not all mementos to the little court jester are lost. His portrait hangs in the historical museum of Nancy, where he is depicted wearing a magnificent blue uniform adorned with trestles. He stares back at us with a look of defiance, while his right hand rests on the head of a large dog. In the case next to the painting, various pieces of his now deteriorating little shoes and little clothes are on display.

Admiring Caged Birds

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Jelly Reservoir), 2013. Strawberry jelly, concrete dust.

There are human instances in which we get quite close to understanding the language of materials.

There’s the hoe plunging into the soil: crumbly in its first inches, then more pliable as we reach the moist underneath, then almost solid in the fresh darkness of laborious earthworms. Tchak and the worm is two.

There’s the bundle that a wood seller makes with logs or sticks; the line-like tension of the rope that seconds ago was sleeping amorphously in his pocket.

Robert Cervera, Pink Nappe, 2013. Polyvinyl, cement.

There’s the moment in which you sillily slightly slice the skin of your hand and for a second you don’t know what the physical bill will be: a momentary white line, a surge of blood, anything in between.

There is sculpture in those things. And there is a chance those things may be in a sculpture. And the sound they make – a sound in your mind – sends us back, like a sonar, an image of the world.

Materiality and human agency talk to each other. Squeeze, slice, drench, chafe, wedge, pat. Haptic marvels. How things feel, what they make us feel.

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Theatre Bundle), 2013. Concrete, adhesive tape.

(No distinction can be made between humanity and materiality, Hegel and Bordieu would say. We humans are materials which create other materials which then redefine us. The things we make, make us.)

The unbounded nature of the universe comes into the discussion. Matter flowing, going everywhere, and us chasing it, telling it to go this or that way, to stay in line, to wait in groups of four, of sixteen, of sixty-four.

We try our best to make the uncountable countable, to mark limits and give shape. We end up frustrated and beguiled at once by its unruliness, charmed by its oozing.

Robert Cervera

(Is it possible that we contain matter in the paradoxical way some cage birds, to better admire their flight?)

I am fascinated by that and also by the unexpected occurrence, the providential blunder, which I take to be one more chapter of our ongoing dialogue with materiality.

The Institute for Unanswered Questions

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit’s visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

A 20 pixels casted shadow

Map, 2006–2010

Map, public installation, 2006-2010

dimensions: 600x350x35 cm
material: wood board, wood beams, color, wire, screws, glue, nails,

Related to the idea of Dataspace is the project ‘Map’ by German artist Aram Bartholl. It is a public space installation that questions the red map marker of location-based search engine Google Maps. “Find local businesses, view maps and get driving directions in Google Maps.” With a small graphic icon Google marks search results in the map interface. The design of the virtual map pin seems to be derived from a physical map needle. On one hand, the marker and information speech bubble next to it cast a shadow on the digital map as if they were physical objects. When the map is switched to satellite mode it seems that they become part of the city. On the other hand it is a simple 20 px graphic icon which stays always at the same size on the computer screen. The size of the life size red marker in physical space corresponds to the size of a marker in the web interface in maximal zoom factor of the map. Where is the center of a city?

Map, 2006-2010

Part of a series, ‘Map’ is set up at the exact spot where Google Maps assumes to be the center of the city. Transferred to physical space, the map marker questions the relation in which the digital information space stands to public city space, the space of everyday life. The perception of the city is increasingly influenced by geolocation services.