Punlished in ArtPress #284, November 2002


On the occasion of three simultaneous exhibitions in Paris, Cosmos at the Palais de Tokyo (September 10-October 13), Flash Forward at the Chez Valentin gallery (October 18-November23) and Promotion at the Espace Paul Ricard (October 15-November 23), Eric Mangion and François Piron discuss the work of Boris Achour and attempt to bring out its complexity and diversity. Playing on paradox and the coexistence of possibilities, Achour uses uncertainty and dysfunctionality to question identity and the different ways in which it is constructed and conditioned.
EM: Possibility is certainly one of the most tangible hypotheses in reading the work of Boris Achour. But it must be understood here not according to the dictionary definition (what is conceivable, admissible, envisageable) but in the more philosophical and complex sense given by Musil: « the faculty of conceiving that which might just as well be, without giving that which is any greater importance than that which is not.’ In Achour’s work, this means a whole aesthetic agenda whose credo is choice. The title of the piece Je ne veux tout (I [Dont] Want It All) is symbolic of that. « Choose not to choose, » he says; himself. As Jacques Bouveresse put it so well in L’Homme probable, « It is wiser to avoid making any decision than to risk making one that is too tricky to be really necessary. » Some people, of course, could take that kind of irresoluteness as cowardice, but in more aesthetic terms, it can also be taken to mean a rejection of predetermined certitudes, the good old Promethean rejection of the demiurgic. Find, for example, pieces like Ghosty (a masked man walking down the street without any particular affectation), Mmmmm (a throbbing audio recording of an aphasic person speaking, played in the streets during the Printemps de Cahors photo festival) or even Plug & Play, which he just did at the Languedoc-Roussillon regional contemporary art center (a simple game joystick stuck into a wall without a monitor) all exemplify this element of uncertain choices in Achours work. The first interrogates our faculty of sensory response. The second the power of language and images (especially in the context of the Cahors festival). The last, finally, the sense in which an exhibition is a game, which also applies to its validity and its strategic concerns. Thus, more than just uncertainty in and of itself, Achour’s work is about the experimental possibility of questioning reality. The occurrence or non-occurrence of an event is in itself already real, in the same way that the absence of necessity is obviously not the same thing as the absence of reason.

The Organization of Chaos

FP: Boris Achour pays attention to the possible in the sense of « that which could be otherwise. » This is only distantly related to the idea of utopia, which is too lyrical and grandiloquent. It is a search for a form that can organize the chaos of ideas, resolving the contradictions inherent in will and desire. In his early works, organization and chaos seemed to be irreconcilable terms by définition: he provoked minor street disorders with Actions Peu (Slight Actions), but also formed orderly tanks of pigeons by distributing grains of polenta in a rectangular format, and reproduced different kinds of urban markers made of white ceramic, simultaneously referencing the violence of conditioning and our fascination with order. Cosmos, a collection of videocassette boxes containing a real mixed bag of signs (discourses, images and figures) takes a différent approach. This is a machine for producing subjectivity by reprocessing disparate elements from a common culture. Potentially, everything that interests Achour, in one way or another, is usable in this piece: cultural and social phenomena, artworks, characters, discourse models, etc. The juxtaposition of these éléments through citation, appropriation, pastiche and parody is a way of accepting everything, not in the sense of everything-is-everything, which would rule out any differentiation, but rather as a sort of exogenous self-portrait. A way of accepting the world « just as it is » can be read in this piece: each jacket is added to the others in a cumulative and jubilant expansion. This devouring ambition reminds me of certain other artistic projects that reach for infinity, such as Douglas Huebler’s Variable Place # 70, Fischli & Weisss images of « the visible world, » the taxonomies of Matt Mullican and Broodthaers’ Musée d’art moderne, to mention just a few. In a 1999 exhibition Achour showed the Brian De Palma film Scarface in which the protagonists hubris is symbolized by an object, a globe across which is written, « The world is yours. » This phrase should be seen in the light, so to speak, of the electric sign Je ne veux tout. It’s characteristic of a paradoxical logic that can be analyzed variously in Freudien terms regarding the construction of identity (the ego and the superego) and as the third term of a dialectic that situates the artist between the ivory tower and unconditional engagement. Obviously, when Achour says « yes » and accepts the world, it is with distance and irony. The « yes » also means getting beyond the critical or judgmentai stage used by many artists to show their clean conscience.

The Obviousness of the Artwork

EM: Right, there is a certain kind of obviousness in Achour’s work. What I mean by obviousness is something that comes to mind readily. In fact, you always have the impression thai his work is extremely understandable. Of course that doesn’t mean that its demagogic, just the opposite. There’s a lot of Duchamp in Achour – his particular kind of intelligence, the way he gets right to the point. His economical thinking and use of space. Of course I’m thinking of the Actions Peu (the little objects he sets somewhere inside the urban perimeter and whose workings are always very subtle), or Scrupule (an unusable couch), and more recent places like the automatic door thatopens and closes by chance (Cosmos) recently shown at the Traversées show at the ARC, or the lightbox Je ne veux tout that sounds like a clearly stated ontological manifesto, at least in terms of its form and its « literal » reading. We could talk about mental flashes or light bulb going on to describe the rapidity of thought involved. On the other hand, unlike Duchamp, Achour has no interest in esotericism, metaphysical wisdom or mystery and revelation. I think that Achour prefers, as he himself puts it, the concept of a rendezvous, a meeting with visitors. Maybe that explains the simple forms that follow from that, corresponding to an « instant. » At any rate, this inclination distinguishes his work from the sometimes overly complicated mechanisms used in art today.

Dead Time

FP: In Spiral, the film Achour just shot, the intrigue turns on a mysterious envelope sought alter by two rival factions which can be distinguished by the way they move: some people move in a straight line, others much more round about. Little by little these characters seem to get caught in the trap of their single mode of thought, and one after another they get stuck in what we could call a time freeze. Achour has never accepted the ideology of linear time out of a distrust for the concept of novelty and the amnesiac positivism that it implies (I remember that one of his unrealized projects consisted of spelling out the words « Déjà Vu » in neon letters). Still, he doesnt uphold the fatalism of the eternal return of the same thing; on the contrary, he promotes a spiral evolution reconciling both of these concepts. Once again, underlying Achour’s work we find the notion of choice as a process of accumulation (with « and » being the operator) rather than a process of separating out (« or »). Spiral motion is a mode that doesnt make us feel like we’re moving ahead, a surreptitious sneaking ahead that leaves room for bifurcations and doesn’t give claim the status of a model.
When he freezes time, Achour takes a break, a momentary pause in the circulation of signs. I’m tempted to think that this idea runs through all of his work and even the way that he conceives his pieces, as frozen instants, from Stoppeur(a poster showing him posing as a hitchhiker, or auto-stoppeur) to Sommes (Naps, a series of photos in which he is seen asleep on the hedges of various American properties) by way of Autoportrait en Coyote, a cutout of his effigy leading us to imagine that he is encrusted in a wall. All of these works can be read, more or less explicitly, as self-portraits, which might seem paradoxical in the oeuvre of an artist who so strongly avoids anything that might be taken as a signature. For him self-portraiture is not motivated by narcissism. This is not about psychology; on the contrary, it is a way to engage « physically » in the questioning of the construction of our identity and the status of the individuel vis-a-vis the collective and society. In the end, all these self-portraits manifest the same paradoxes: wanting to be here and elsewhere at the same time, wanting to be simultaneously « inside » and « outside. » Boris Achour, irresolute artist? Yes, but an irresolution he offers to share with the perplexity of the viewer, whom he seeks neither to satisty nor to provoke, neither to gratify nor to abandon. Achour’s work, I think, seeks to transmit a cognitive process based on doubt, .self distrust and the hope for a permanent modification of his presuppositions.


Eric Mangion is director of the Provençe-Alpes-Côte d’Azur FRAC
François Piron is co-director of the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers


(Translated from french by L-S Torgoff)