B is for Balls (Balls lost and Balls returned) — Émilie Renard — 2018
This text was written for the book ABC B.A. published in 2018 by Dent-de-Leone and distributed by Les presses du réel. This monograph is composed of a collection of texts and critical essays in the form of a abc-book. Based on key words, twelve art critics, curators or writers wrote a text commenting on Boris Achour’s work. The book also includes an iconographic collection offering an overview of the artist’s work.
B is for Balls (Balls lost and Balls returned)
“I started playing tennis again, because in tennis, when you hit the ball to someone, the rule is that they hit it back. Whereas in life nowadays, when someone hits the ball your way, the rule is to keep it. I communicate too much with myself, so I’m trying to go through newspapers, theatre, and the works themselves … I founded a film company, and the only person who agreed to be part of it was Anne-Marie Miéville.”
Like Jean-Luc Godard, Boris Achour has started playing tennis; at any rate he sends down balls. I am his Anne-Marie Miéville and, like her, I agreed to take part in the game. So this is an account of his games, the lost balls, the balls that were returned, the games against a wall, the times he went right up to the net, his passive and his aggressive style, his urge both to take control and to let go. I am his coach and, in his unbalanced game, I see ways of making connections, building relationships between different things, and when it comes to it, being a driving force for him to play another game. Here’s how it works:
A baseball bat is leaning up in a corner of the Joseph Allen Gallery in the exhibition “12XU” (2016). A sentence is engraved along its length in capital letters saying: “What Part of Yes Don’t You Understand?” Here, a yes has been substituted for the usual No of the emphatic American conversation closer. Another lost ball? A bat can typically be turned into a weapon; in other words it isn’t a weapon as such but it can become one according to how it’s used. This particular bat is more of a work of art because of the way it has been used: its qualities as a work of art or as a common object depending entirely on the use to which it is put. In both cases, it is potential and uncompleted. Placed where it is, the work is inoffensive, it stands in the sphere of representation, on the side-lines of action, but its power to act and its primary function is still to hit you, you who do not understand the YES you are being proffered, you who seem to be doubting, hesitating and walking away, without really considering the offer. Obviously, WPOYDYU, the title of the work—the first letters of the words in the sentence—, an unpronounceable coded word, is addressed to you and even shouts a question in capitals (there are a lot of capitals in B.A.’s work). With its handwritten slogan, the bat proclaims itself as a method of bare-fisted self-defence that could if necessary be brought into play against anyone who does not take notice of this YES, against the whole world in fact. Positive aggression as a tactic for gaining attention, as an expression of dull panic, as a demonstration that there is nothing to be had here, that art is not a fun business.
What does it have to defend here? The exhibition all around and perhaps also a more discreet sculpture next to it: ‘s not dead (2016). This piece is the result of a simple, irreversible action, which consisted in twisting open a wire coat hanger and pulling it out into a length. By hanging it by the hooked end on the wall, B. A. turned that functional object definitively into a meaningless sign. With its ineradicable kinks, this trembling comma-like object is a graphic sign without a signifier, barely perceptible, barely audible, especially with the initial ‘s of the title amputated from a grammatical subject. Because who or what’s not dead? The hanger? The work? B.A.?
Elsewhere, later, in another exhibition, ‘s not dead was once again given solid support, by its title this time, which was itself a work. ‘s not dead (TITLE) (2016) was the title of the title. Placed in a nearby room, the letters of that title were an assemblage of 31 fluorescent tubes covering the wall in sans serif capitals. They functioned as a very big / overbig signpost pointing towards a minuscule sign. ‘s not dead (TITLE) fails in its initial mission as a title because it neither indicates, nor describes, nor directs the gaze, but rather captures it and dazzles it. According to Internet social codes, writing in capital letters is a way of shouting because the capitals fill the space and give a feeling that the message is crowding out everything else. There is a kind of rivalry in this inversion of the usual physical and hierarchical relation between a work and its title: the illuminated title overwhelms the faint whisper of the ‘s. By substituting itself for the usual label of the host gallery, it is as if ‘s not dead were making an appeal (for help?), shouting out: “I am autonomous, okay? Hey, can you hear me? Can you see me now? I’m not even dead!” In this title, there is a clear statement of intent, a desire to be heard and seen, but the intention is thwarted by such a loud shout for attention that it cancels itself out and has to start all over again. Another lost ball—return to sender.
Operation Restore Poetry (2005) was an equivalent of those capital letters, with the sound turned up high. In this work, the artist shouts a bellicose litany of operations, in a voice like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket: Operation Conceptual Dream / Operation Eternal Doubt / Operation Yes Yes Yes! / Operation Oral Sculpture—the list goes on. It evokes memories of an equally long series of military operations launched in the 1990s (the most striking of which was the USA’s Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991). The artist declares a string of foreseeable failures along with less efficient, more poetic terms, spelling out a programm of artistic action as if it were military propaganda. Above all, the work is an announcement of mutually contradictory or overambitious and basically undoable operations—a project that is therefore constantly postponed, but accompanied by such despairing motivation that he needs to shout it out and put it on display in order to persuade himself to do it anyway.
The baseball bat and the coat hanger need their titles to formulate their strength, their resistance, and their desire to persist. The proximity of these two signs of opposite intensities creates a contradiction that makes the outcome of the business uncertain. Neither “No” nor “Yes”, neither completely dead nor really alive, the prevailing logic is the cohabitation of opposites. This kind of contradictory alliance, in which conquests and declarations of failure are intertwined, runs right through his oeuvre, both within the works—like the panel of illuminated diodes Je ne veux pas tout (1999)—, within the exhibitions—as in « 12XU »—, and at the level of the individual artwork, which makes the outcome of the business undecidable.
B.A.’s work involves different strategies of maximalist occupation, manifested by processes of repetition, amplification and assertive, if not downright aggressive assertion. Yet they are expressed in an interrupted manner, indecisively, to the point that the assertive effect of the form, which is strong, is weakened by the ambiguous nature of its message. The expansionist project is also thwarted by its very excess, because what it comes down to is simply the proclamation of an urge for power. And a kind of power is what is expressed, in the double sense of power and potential, a power that does not need to act in order to have an effect.
THE ROSE IS WITHOUT WHY, IT BLOOMS BECAUSE IT BLOOMS, IT CARES NOT FOR ITSELF, ASKS NOT IF IT IS SEEN (2013) also occupied a lot of space, in letters formed from illuminated fluorescent tubes (See “R for Rose”). Stretching the length of a wall in a long public square (during Nuit Blanche, in Toronto, 2013), it is both the work and, at the same time, the title. It dazzles; the text stretches beyond one’s field of vision and cannot really be read as a whole. The effect is that the message is lost along the way, but this gives one a little more time to decrypt it. Composed of standard industrial fixtures, this basic sans serif inscription has an almost childish, impersonal quality. It also echoes the sense of this poem by 17th century theologian Angelus Silesius in which he states the independence of the rose, which has no reason, exists for no one and has no author either. Is the rose beautiful? For a start, it is not concerned with you. It sends down balls without (expecting) any return of service. It just is. Without ever ceasing to be beautiful and insistent, or a rose and clearly visible; that is its weapon.
 Interview with Jean Daive, 20 May 1995 on France Culture (radio), published in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, vol. 2, (Paris: Ed. Cahiers du Cinéma), 309.
Translation: Jeremy Harrison