S is for Solitude — Vanessa Desclaux — 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.


S is for Solitude
“Until then I had been practically living in isolation as far as communication was concerned. My audience was a fictitious one. Suddenly it became real, to the point that spaces and conquests became important.”[1]


There are at least two ways to conceive of solitude. There is the solitude that one endures: an unsought loneliness that brings with it feelings of unhappiness. Then there is that very different kind of solitude, which one chooses voluntarily: a desired state, necessary to the process of constructing something, a solitude that indicates a need to dig deep into one’s personal resources – to find willpower and summon up a capacity for action. It calls for a concern for oneself that is essential for developing relationships with others, whether subjects or objects. I will use this second definition as my starting point; it seems to me to be the most relevant in the context of Boris Achour’s work. But this solitude entails an effort, it suggests a form of endurance, a perseverance that is at the heart, as I see it, of the recurrent use of the term conatus in Achour’s work. When I first encountered the word conatus, I took it to be the name of a person, or some unknown place. Its narrative and conceptual potential – it refers to an important concept in the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza, defining desire as a striving for action –, can be identified in the series of works by Boris Achour that have the word conatus in their title. In the film Conatus: la nuit du danseur, it is night time and a tap dancer wearing a luminous helmet completely covering his face walks around the exhibition “La force de l’art 02”, which was presented in the Grand Palais in 2009. Boris Achour has admitted that this work has its roots in a childhood fantasy “of being locked in at night, in a department store or a hypermarket, and spending the whole night alone.”[2] Elegantly dressed in a tuxedo, the dancer uses the exhibition as a stage-set on which to take a solitary stroll that ends in a frenetic dance routine. The dancer is not the subject of a privileged interaction with the works and the exhibition space; he is more of a living sculpture, a sort of celibate machine functioning autonomously and never really coming into contact with the surroundings; these have become a mere space to strut around in, a theatre. Back in 2004, in the video work entitled Spirale, Boris Achour presented another character, in the role of an office worker lying on a long conference table, crawling backwards and forwards on his back. In Spirale, as in Conatus: the night of the dancer, individuals whose social status or competence we clearly infer, are isolated, out of sync with their usual environment: something has gone off the rails, come unhinged, there is an attempt to express a feeling or sensation without using language, and an acceptance of existing in a hiatus of meaning.

The loneliness of the artist has to do with his relationship to his works and the need for them to exist and circulate in the world without him. In 1996, Boris Achour produced a work entitled Une sculpture: “Twenty objects resembling a book with its pages stuck together and nothing more informative than UNE SCULPTURE printed on the cover were placed in twenty Paris public libraries, one per arrondissement, on the shelves of the fiction section. These sculptures bore neither author’s name nor shelf mark, but they were listed in the library’s stock and could be borrowed in the same way as books. They could only be discovered by chance. There is no photographic documentation of this work.”[3]

Although this was not one of the earliest works in the artist’s oeuvre, it followed on from a series of works begun in 1993, entitled Les Actions-Peu. These were works that involved the artist in a series of personal appearances in public space. It was an attempt to counteract the invisibility of the works by putting them in direct contact with the spectators. In an interview with Sophie Lapalu, Achour pointed out that he wanted “the most direct encounter possible between a person and an object or situation, without the presuppositions and expectations associated with ‘art’.” [4] For Achour, these actions were a response to a need to be reassured “that my work be seen by spectators, even if they were not aware of its artistic nature, and therefore that it existed.”[5] The artist further explained: “The city as a museum… I found that that flew in the face of what I was looking for: anonymity, the surprise of encounter, the fact that the nature of the object on offer was not immediately made clear.”[6] The loneliness inherent in a large city was compared with the solitude of insularity by the author of Robinson Crusoe: “I can affirm, that I enjoy much more solitude in the middle of the greatest collection of mankind in the world, I mean, at London, while I am writing this, than ever I could say I enjoyed in eight and twenty years’ confinement to a desolate island.” [7]

Loneliness then is not about being alone or isolated; it has to do with the difficulty of relating and communicating, and of being seen and heard. It confronts us with the difficulty of allowing a work to be seen, of creating the conditions for an encounter and a relationship with one’s viewer or viewers. Among the works of Boris Achour, those that took shape in spaces that are not thought of as artistic institutions (spaces such as the street or, in the case of Une Sculpture, public libraries) are a statement of the solitude inherent in the works of art themselves; “they lived alone for the time they lived”. Because this loneliness perhaps, above all, concerns objects, and arises from the relationship between people and things. The exhibition Conatus: La rose est sans pourquoi (2009) takes as its starting point a quatrain by the poet Angelus Silesius: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.” Achour suggests that “the work of art, all art, doesn’t give a damn about being seen, let alone understood; it is there, it exists, it gives itself and offers itself as absolute presence, and that’s all there is to it.”[8] The presence of an artwork – the counterpart of which would be the absence of an artist – is indicated by utilitarian objects being stripped of their function, like the hanger, bent straight in ’s not dead (2016). Papamoule, realized in 2017, is a series of patinated bronze sculptures that were moulded in various pipe cases. These sculptures are counterforms, asserting their presence in the space from which the object (the pipe) is absent. The title of the work involves a play on words: it simultaneously refers to René Magritte’s famous (‘this is not a’) pipe, and the mould (moule) dear to Marcel Broodthaers, linking them to the figure of the father. In ‘s not dead, or Papamoule, what the artist has done is immediately obvious when one looks at the object, but the title in each case gives it a more enigmatic character, a possible reference to a character, or a message to decipher. These objects, moved or remodelled by Boris Achour, are introduced into scenarios that viewers are invited to make their own.

Solitude in the work of Boris Achour is thus not introspective, it does not correspond to an exploration of the artist’s interiority as a subject; rather, it betokens that necessary solitude in the act of artistic creation. Marcel Broodthaers, the artist, spoke of “accepting the creative force heroically and alone.” The hero for Broodthaers, as also for Achour, has all the qualities of an anti-hero, struggling with a language that raises as many questions as it poses problems, a language that both evades and dominates the individual who attempts to master it, to feel at home with it, and to use it to convey something of his own.

Yes! Oui! Solitude has invoked the fundamental assertion of the status of the artist and of the work of art throughout the generations.

[1]. Marcel Broodthaers quoted by Birgit Pelzer, “Fictions dans la fiction”, in Marcel Broodthaers, (Belgium: Snoek, 2010), 99. Catalogue of the exhibition at the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 2 July – 26 September 2010.
[2]. Boris Achour, Previously & to be continued: une discussion, (Paris: Galerie Vallois, 2012), 28. Interview with Eric Mangion, published on the occasion of the exhibition “Oh lumière”.
[3]. http://borisachour.net/oeuvres-works/une-sculpture-1996/ (in French). Internet Site of the artist Boris Achour. This work by Boris Achour has a strong link with Marcel Broodthaers’s first work as an artist. It was entitled Pense-Bête (1964) and, for it, he encased unsold copies of his latest poetry book in plaster. It was intended as a performative record of his passage from the status of poet to that of artist.
[4]. Boris Achour, Entretien avec Sophie Lapalu, 2010. Interview in French which initially appeared on the blog “De l’action à l’exposition”.
[5]. Ibid.
[6]. Ibid.
[7]. Daniel Defoe, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, vol. 3 of Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe, ed. George A. Aitken, (London: J.M.Dent, 1899), 4.
[8]. Boris Achour, Previously & to be continued: une discussion, (Paris: Galerie Vallois, 2012), 16. An interview (in French) with Eric Mangion, published on the occasion of the exhibition “Oh lumière” [‘Oh light’].

Translation: Jeremy Harrison