D is for Desire — Claire Le Restif — 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.


D is for Desire

“I want to develop and mix some of the most important aspects of my work from the last few years. I want different spatial and temporal scales. I want to propose a form that is as much the show as the exhibition. I want a story that can be told with something other than images or words. I want to develop collaborations with writers, dancers, actors and musicians. I want to invent new ways of working, of producing and disseminating art. I want something dark and beautiful: Séances.”

I chose “desire” from the words Boris Achour suggested, because of this introduction that he wrote for his project Séances, at the Crédac in 2012. “Desire” was not the actual word Boris Achour used, but his repeated “I want” expresses the same concept. Séances, he said in that introduction, was “A show in the form of an exhibition; an exhibition in the form of a show,” and its origin clearly lay in a striking project that he had produced at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in 2003. That show had the darkly beautiful title Jouer avec des choses mortes (“Playing with dead things”), in homage to the long text of the same name that American artist Mike Kelley had published in 1993. It was a statement introducing his famous artist’s book The Uncanny.[1] Like Boris Achour, Mike Kelley was a sculptor (1954-2012) and treated bodies as sculptures. What both of them point up in their work, in a somewhat crude way, is a sort of proximity to inert things and how we become objects. The element of psychology and mystery present in the work of both artists has its root in Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori’s hypothesis (presented in an article entitled “The Uncanny Valley”) that, as robots become more humanlike, there comes a point when subtle imperfections of appearance make them look eerie, uncanny.[2]

Séances was an episode in the Conatus series that was begun in 2006. For the artist, it was a narrative that took the form of a space that was at once physical and mental, based on a practice of articulation of forms, ideas and sensations. Much of Boris Achour’s work is based on the idea of the fragment as the fundamental principle of the relation to the world. The Crédac has windows on all sides which creates a visual continuum with the city. It was plunged into a bluish semi-darkness, where films, sculptures, texts and soundtracks made up a landscape to be taken in, a setting where spectators moved freely and actively, with no predetermined direction set by the artist. There were neither actors nor live events, but the power of the project meant that the human presence was palpable; desire was a constant motif in the films, eroticizing the exhibition. Yet the narrative background, an important notion for Boris Achour, “was that of a world plunged into everlasting darkness”, i.e., the absence of the cycle necessary for all life: the alternation of day and night.

The subject of everlasting darkness is a generational effect and also one of shared beliefs; it runs through our era, whether it be in Bertrand Bonello’s films or Lola Gonzalez’s art, both of which treat blindness as a metaphor for eternal night? And in a certain way, it lies at the heart of Vincent Macaigne’s theatre and recurs throughout Gaëlle Obiegly’s writing. All these artists, Boris Achour included, have a capacity to receive great myths. Games or rituals “whose rules are unknown to us” to use Achour’s phrase, pass through our bodies. They are contemporary, but they evoke the never-ending, cyclical return of subjects in the utopias and dystopias of the late 1960s. That was the period when the notion of collectivism regained strength, long after the fringe movements of the French Revolution. In the late 1970s, desire and libertarianism became powerful ideas again. In Jouer avec des choses mortes (2003), Boris Achour filmed the gestures of a group of young people doing things in a space while manipulating sculptural objects. The video was then presented in the space where it was shot, in dialogue with those same sculptural objects at rest. Boris Achour operated in the same way with Séances (2012) and for Les jeux dont j’ignore les règles, display (“Games whose rules are unknown to us, display”). One comes to realize that he uses the distancing effect of the moving image as a filter to make visible the way objects are manipulated, and that this is never presented in public.

For Séances, Boris Achour had produced four films in a reduced temporality and in a state of mind that was linked to his own research and concerns, but undoubtedly also linked to the context in which he produced Séances. That project was associated with the 2012 edition of the Trienniale, with the explicit title Intense Proximity, under the curatorship of Okwui Envezor.[3]

Naissance du Mikado (“Birth of the Mikado”), one of the films presented, highlighted recurring themes in the artist’s work, such as the circle formed by a group and certain erotic rituals with cold rules, which confront the spectator with an enigma. The camera of desire moves in and around these men and women gathered in silent communion. The circle also reminds us of the famous Latin palindrome, which Guy Debord took as the title of his last film (1978): “ Round in circles we go at night and are consumed by fire”.[4] It referred to the fire in which moths are consumed. It also evoked the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements of peoples, as well as the cycle of day and night. In Achour’s work, this preoccupation with the cycle leads to the phrase uttered by one of the characters: “I have never seen the day break”. And to accentuate this idea, the artist places the characters in his films in a kind of semi-conscious, hypnotic state.

In Une partie d’Assemblée (“A game of Assembly”), another of the films presented in Séances, the bodies of the participants act together, harmonising, touching each other lightly, desiring each other coldly and methodically. The bodies move around in artificial white light on a set that might be from a soft science-fiction movie. What is being enacted, once again, remains mysterious for the spectator. The scene is directly physical, yet one has the strange feeling that the bodies are mannequins or wax models. The movements and poses of human bodies in Achour’s works make them appear to have a close kinship with automatons. These popular subjects, which relate to fun-fair sideshows and theatre, are once again reminiscent of the obsessions of certain American West Coast artists such as Mike Kelley, from the 1970s and 80s. But also the artist Guy de Cointet (1934-1983) who also used coded language and scenic objects. They all drew on popular culture and fetishism, somewhere between American burlesque and the aesthetics of strangeness in B movies, and particularly the theatre, from which they took the idea of tableaux vivants. In his exploration of strangeness, of theatre as a “game whose rules are unknown to us”, Boris Achour introduces a doubt. The body at the heart of his latest works, whether it is that of an adult or a child, is gradually getting more and more like a cyborg.

For a few years now, a whole generation of artists, from every field of creation, seems to have been “watching the sky”, in the sense that they imagine a future by generating different worlds. Realizing that the threat is constantly changing, artists have invented a body that no longer has any frontier, or territory, or even language. In this way, questions and enigmas survive in an open aesthetic that appears in forms other than words.



[1] Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, (Arhem, NL: Gemeentemuseum, 1993). Artist’s book in the context of an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum.
[2] Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley”, in Energy, 1970.
[3] The Triennale was curated by Okwui Envezor and his associates Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Émilie Renard, and Claire Staebler at the Palais de Tokyo and with seven institutions based in Paris and the surrounding region, including Le Crédac in Ivry.
[4]“In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” (Round in circles we go at night and are consumed by fire) a palindrome attributed to Virgil, but probably mediaeval.

Translation: Jeremy Harrison