SIGNS AND WONDER — GUILLAUME DÉSANGES — 2005
Published in the monographic catalogue Unité, 2005.
At first glance we are struck by the radical formal and conceptual heterogeneity of Boris Achour’s work. Videos, sculptures, drawings, paintings, performances, installations, acoustic pieces… the artist draws on more or less the whole gamut of contemporary art’s know-how, and each one of his projects seems to encompass a specific theme by ushering in its own technical logic, adapted to the subject. Contextualized skills, never capitalized and challenged by each new piece. A model trajectory, more billiards than bowling. Zig-zags. Going against the grain of any stylistic logic, Achour seeks ways out of the systems which he sets up. But not so much dodging as a strategy of on-going movement, and dynamic investigation from one work to the next. A nightmare for art criticism with its simplistic tendencies, afraid of nothing quite so much as stylistic and notional indeterminacy. How is such a disparate work to be “globally” broached? An initial proposal: get lost in it. Adopt the disjointed rhythm of the work by exercising the free association of ideas, and single out lines of understanding that are more intuitive than posited a priori in the formless multitude of these forms.
(Multitude > Series)
So let us start with this idea of multitude. And pick out an initial paradox: even within this striking heterogeneity – and even if he denies it1 – Achour’s works often refer to seriality. From the collections of posters (Ici et autrefois et ailleurs et maintenant) to the 200 video jackets (Cosmos), from the photographic series (Sommes) to the action sequences (Actions-peu), and from the sculptural arrangements (Contrôle /Non-stop paysage) to the references to the TV “series” (Zooming / Auto-portrait en coyote). But these repetitive works act like a one-off burst and are never taken up again, as if it were a matter of endlessly starting a new collection. Precarious declensions. Interrupted successions. Change of cast with each episode. This strategy of on-going renewal makes it possible, above all, to keep the work in a state of intentional immaturity, offering the conditions for an immediate and improper relationship to the world. A body of work – and an artist – in “continual formation”. The writer Bruno Schultz defined this wholesome immaturity as the best “laboratory of forms” and a “factory producing sublimation and hierarchization”. So Achour prefers the living exploration of multiple sign systems to the temptations of the one-off system. All such systems being one-off.
(One-offs > Unity)
Henceforth, as the recent and aptly titled piece Unité ! reveals, the unifying factor is at once problematic and fundamental with Achour. His agglomerations operate in the form of the deliberate uniformization of differently made elements of nature. The image of the cosmos, often used by the artist (mainly, it is true, as a reference to Gombrowicz’s eponymous novel), is, in this respect, emblematic, as a formal model of unity within maximum diversity. But also as a paradoxical system of physical equilibrium obtained by the attraction of opposite forces. Through art, Achour seems to be seeking a hypothetical harmony, not to say an alliance of invariably elusive powers, in the chaos of the world’s forms. From this angle, the idea of understanding mentioned earlier is a true cornerstone of Achour’s oeuvre, but well thought out in its polysemy: understanding in the sense of grasping the world in an intelligible way, but equally as much lumping it together, swallowing it, and possessing it in its entirety. This is why, on the basis of the fractal model, each motif is worked at both in the detail and in the mass.
(Masse > Passivity)
What is more, another recurrent image in Achour’s work has to do with passivity, the inertia of bodies, but invariably depicted in a conditional dialectic with the forthcoming action. Traditional forms of repose reveal the dynamic – and thus fantastic – potential of the amorphous. On-off. In other words: the artist either being active in the city (Stoppeur, Actions-peu) or dozing in it (Non-stop paysage). Animated versions of characters against fixed décors (Flash forward). A deserted and ghostly theme park to be stimulated (Jouer avec des choses mortes). A corpse forever getting to its feet (Démeurs). Options for activating-deactivating the object.
Acceleration (Operation Restore Poetry, Totalmaxigoldmachinemegadancehit 2000) and slow motion (Spirale, Brume). Irregularities of the spectacle. Achour depicts the ambivalences of contrasting physiological and mechanical states as if to recall the potential, activatable, tightened energy of the art object (but always in a subsidiary way). Like forms of power at rest, his works are infinitely rechargeable batteries, storers of energy, the reason for which is entirely determined in relation to a delayed action.
(Action > Work)
This inchoate principle is possibly the echo of the artist’s professional stance. Achour, who is consumer and active worker turn by turn, is also an absorber of references – nurturing himself on the ideas and forms which surround him – with an interventionist goal. But likewise: in a form of depletion. Achour is neither a mere manipulator nor a giver of orders; he is essentially an unremitting constructor, taking things right to the limit, pulling no punches, and never delegating skill. Do it myself. The finished look of his works makes these traces of a manual treatment of matter always perceptible. Craftsmanlike. In his Pensée Sauvage – titled The Savage Mind in English – Claude Lévi-Strauss established an illuminating distinction between the projected, distant knowledge of the engineer and the primal, immediate science of the handyman. Precisely, while the former resorts to an infinite number of “concepts” to question the works, it is on the basis of the finite number of accessible “signs” that the latter operates, thwarting the obstacles of physics to construct his models. Signs – entities hovering between image and idea – as the basic material, whose “possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended.”2. This is how Achour works, operating by way of autonomous signifiers, ontologically already determined, and manoeuvring with “earlier ends which are called upon to play the part of means”.3 For Lévi-Strauss, moreover, it is the combinatory speculative model which guarantees the link between the exact and natural sciences and mythical thoughts. Isomorphism of systems: do-it-yourself and magic (= art) proceed from one and the same machinery of observation and composition of signs.
(Myth > Fiction)
Achour has an off-kilter relationship with fiction, which might be more accurately described as de-synchronized. Intrigued by the emotional effectiveness of “entertainment” (“Why don’t contemporary artists do contemporary things? Like music videos, for example! Cartoon flashes for downloading! Parlour games, and TV shows.4”), the artist-cum-scenographer, props man, set designer, stagehand, stage manager, focuses on the offscreen elements of the spectacle. Off-centering on (material) containers rather than (narrative) contents. The credits and storyboard without the film, the empty can and the videoless jacket, the zoom without any interior shot, the silhouette embedded in the wall, the slogan-free advertising image (Un monde qui s’accorde à nos désirs) and the ad-free slogan (I LOVE): all intransitive signs, orphaned gimmicks detached from their scenario-oriented teleology but which, by way of metonymic reduction, reveal over-defined forms like an autonomous essence. “Pure” sensations. Revisions of the classics. Brume: return to the usual gestures of the gangster movie, with its urban-kitsch-Asian tendency. Languor, postmodern décor, guns, sneakers and leather jackets, but without any more plot than that. General “shady goings-on”. Achour scripts art forms by de-scripting forms of entertainment. His interest in popular culture has, at the end of the day, to do less with what is signified (be it anthropologically or culturally) than with signifiers (visual equivalents of “acoustic images”). Free signifiers, infinitely associable archetypes which, displayed as such, join together the at once attractive and frustrating characters of trailers for tales that will not be told.
(Frustration > Fetishism)
Through this implementation of a basic absence – of content and screenplay – Achour sketches a subtle comparison between artwork and fetish. Works that may be understandable as replacements for a host of missing objects, bestirring a libidinal type of imagination broached in a more or less allusive way (the thematic fetishist jackets of the Cosmos series, the joysticks, the glasses of milk overflowing, the gigantic sausage), via the use of certain materials (the women’s tights in Jouer avec des choses mortes, the black plastic wrapped tight around a kiddy ride in Sans titre (Kiddy Ride), and in the actual exhibition of an eager paedophilia. But in Achour’s work, this soft spot for the symbolism and repressedness of forms points as much to a sexualized transactional relationship to the object (or the goods) as to a merrier, more jubilant return to idolatry. Fan of. Whereas the prehistoric imprints of hands on the mainstream posters in Ici et autrefois et ailleurs et maintenant reveal the repressed primitivism of the icons of the subculture, the metaphor-sculptures of Jouer avec des choses mortes, manipulated by strange worshippers, gradually lose their cultural reference and – in absurdity – regain a cult-based function. Totemic updatings of everyday objects. “Myths and rites are far from being, as has often been held, the product of man’s ‘myth-making faculty *’ [The phrase is from Bergson, op. cit. “fonction fabulatrice” (translator’s note)], turning its back on reality. Their principal value is indeed to preserve until the present time the remains of methods of observation and reflection which were (and no doubt still are) precisely adapted to discoveries of a certain type : those which nature authorised from the starting point of the speculative organization and exploitation of the sensible world in sensible terms.”5 Spontaneous and uncontrollable generations of forms of primary art in the heart of capitalist society. This fetishist inclination also resides, with Achour, in a deliberately extreme artificiality of the works, whose machinery is never concealed. The texture of the recent films (Brume, Spirale, Jouer avec des choses mortes), whose imagery appears intentionally filtered, slowed down, and almost irreal, demonstrates a new symbolic artificiality. Let us bear in mind that the veil represents, for Lacan, the final degree of fetishism, “that upon which this relation to a beyondness, which is essential to any establishment of the symbolic relation, can in some way be pictured as an imaginary capture, as a place of desire.”6
(Desire > Desire)
The various forms of popular culture – and Mike Kelley is not about to contradict us – stem from regression, collective fantasy and the crystallization of desires alike. The subcultural references which inform Achour’s work, no matter how trivial they may appear – the pizza, the flashing light, the marker, the Lambada – are themselves thus merely sums of production systems, and desires (… and frenzy, Gilles Deleuze would add). In this sense, if the works do indeed spur on some of our most basic instincts, it is invariably with an assumed joyousness. In sensuality and in immediacy. In a state of wonder at the perceptible more than for a politically-intended denunciation, Achour singles out the miraculous appearance of finished forms of popular culture in the chaos of the world. In so doing, the artist indicates both a sincere intellectual – and almost didactic (see his numerous discussions with “experts” on the subjects in his works) – interest, and an unfailing love for these ends of semiotic sequences. Paradox? Herein, perhaps, resides the most optimistic and discreetly powerful aspect of the work: in this benevolence, this fundamental agreement with things which alone permits a real critical efficiency.
Having come to the end of this mental stroll which has helped us, in a not very orderly way, to single out these few vanishing lines, I should like to come back, for the next part of this essay, in a different way, but in the light of these initial instructions, to the specific stance of Achour’s oeuvre in the art arena. Stance, references, inspirations, tributes and transactions: the work lies determinedly at the heart of a problematically posited and complex relationship with the history of forms. An aspect which it seems all the more necessary to develop because commentaries have often, I believe, sidestepped the real sense at work in this active dialogue between the artist and his own field of intervention.
First and foremost, therefore, let us be wary of certain appearances: the strategy which guides Boris Achour’s work should be sought more in relation to the demiurgic than in evasion and non-choice. Achour contrasts the temptation of resignation with the posture of a director. A dominant pattern of behaviour that assumes its share of positive pretentiousness. See Cosmos, 200 video jackets made by the artist, all different, all empty, and all certified with the words: “A film by Boris Achour”. Otherwise put: a chimeric attempt to put together and sign ALL cinema (action, science-fiction, documentaries, guides, comedies etc.) by an all-knowing and supreme ultra-filmmaker. Plug and Play: video game joysticks simply connected to a wall, inviting the player, with a dash of imagination, to steer reality. Life Simulator. Démeurs is a chute set up the wrong way round. An elementary trick, but “super-power”: indefinitely granting the return to grace, putting the amorphous back together again. Operation Restore Poetry: an infernal machine doling out, in an authoritarian way, affirmative slogans like so many missions to be accomplished. Busy programme for an artistic, para-military-type involvement. In this light, the apparently slight and ironical upheavals of the Actions-peu – a baguette stuck to a post, Suchard chocolates placed on a metal cupboard, etc. – stem from another demonstration of full power. Interventions in the city – a determinedly radical approach – which are so many directed scenographies, whose reception has undoubtedly suffered from too much importance being attached to the “Peu/Few” and not enough to the “Action”. Actions-peu? Actions-peut (= Actions-May (be)). We find a comparable vague desire for control in Achour’s soft spot for décors, sets, maquettes and models, and games, down to the final cosmogonic ambition: the creation of entire worlds (lake, torrent, spring, rock, etc in the exhibition Non-stop Paysage). Generally speaking, by increasing the number of forms, media, methods of intervention, and cultural chords, it is the whole world that the artist seems to be laying claim to. Envisaging all configurations so that nothing eludes his control. And if this kind of formal indeterminacy may seem modest – no signature, an intentional absence of style – , it points, rather, to a calling for artistic ubiquity. Being ever-present in the art arena, and even forming an artists’ group completely on your own (somewhere between Art & Language and Présence Panchounette).
Achour’s formal and notional syncretism, as we have seen, goes astray in its tendency towards cultural levelling, which puts the trivial and the sacred on a terrain of equality. “Always vulgar, never art.” Unlikely – and subversive – associations from the Cosmos boxes to the installation Flash forward, which exposes the scattered pieces of an animated drawing to the impossible script which combines the sordid news item, Bruce Nauman and secretaries in the service sector. All so many collage operations which issue less from an indifferent postmodern merger than from an aesthetic and political grammar akin to Situationist combinations (anticipating the slogans of May ’68), which mixed utopia and wit by way of the association of subculture and philosophy. Without any hierarchy. It is enlightening that the work is littered with allusions to the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. By the way in which the “thumb-twiddling” characters in Gombrowicz’s novels formulate, as if to wile away the time, complex but irrational intellectual manoeuvres based on common-or-garden situations, Achour seems to strive to imagine micro-scenarios describing not very disconcerting formal links. Actually, while the sequence of his pieces seems to form an exploded and illogical body of proposals, it is possible, at the end of the day, that, like any screenplay, it complies with a fictional determinism. Let us imagine it. The plot, carried on from piece to piece, seems to result from science-fiction or fantasy. Script: the slow and subtle revelation of a ghostlike presence of contemporary art forms at the heart of our everyday life. Invasion of Sculpture Snatchers. Achour seems keen to try and secretly prepare our eye and the way it looks for an aestheticization that is endemic in our immediate worlds: as if, on some not too distant day, we should be surrounded by familiar forms which have imperceptibly changed into the relentless style of Minimal Art.
“This is almost contemporary art.”7 In Achour’s work, societal and semiological criticism is less subversive than a purely formal questioning of art itself. Art as art as art (before philosophy). His pieces form so many “fiction-objects” revealing the permanence of hallowed forms of art – Minimal and Conceptual in particular – in the most trivial aspects of culture. What does this mean? That these forms of élitist art can in turn become mainstream. Okay. Or alternatively, and more disconcertingly, that they have occult and fictional affinities with everyday, non-artistic objects. Such comparisons are not novel. Back in the 1960s, in his Homes for America, Dan Graham referred to formal coincidences between American suburban city-planning and minimal sculpture8. By veering away from the essentialist character of this kind of demonstration, Achour favours the method of spectacularization. Change of décor: while the minimalists advocated, in an emblematic way, the self-referentiality of the work, as they did absolute and non-symbolic objectivity by seriality, Achour submits these same forms to the fictional necessity of a transformation from object to subject. In so doing, he fully realizes, and even goes way beyond the critical vision of someone like Michael Fried, referring minimal works to their aporetic “theatricality”9
This subtle revelation of a collective unconscious of objects operates in Achour’s works in accordance with different modalities. First strategy: indexation (and decontextualization). Be re-enacting the emblematic attitude of an artist such as John Baldessari in simply pointing at works10, Achour’s work proceeds from a mute and relentless designation of formal connivances between art and life. (De)monstration. Contrôle: urban markers and signs remade out of bathroom porcelain turning into gallery sculptures. John McCracken are you there? Cosmos: an automatic door made of glass and metal working randomly. Larry Bell meets Tinguely. Abri: a bus shelter rebuilt in wood in an art centre. RATP versus Sol LeWitt. Regarde-moi: a blank illuminated sign. In artistic language, pronounced monochrome. “Hey Judd, don’t let us down”. Less a nihilistic hijacking than a provocative visual declaration: the minimal sculpture shares one and the same class aesthetics with the commercial shop sign11.
Another Achour tactic: change of scale. Tracking shot. An emblematic piece, Zooming: movement from a wide shot of the building (television classic of the series link-shot, of the Dallas or Friends type) to a tight shot of the grid formed by the windows (artistic classic of abstract composition, neo-plasticist tendency or Op Art). Revelation in depth, from macro to micro, artistic motifs at the heart of the popular ideogram. Same movement, but reversed, with Cosmos: the mass of video boxes (Video 7 jacket style) forming, in their alignment over 40 metres of laminated shelving, a perfect, straight form typical of minimal sculpture. Achour was akin, here, to a conceptual Tony Cragg: use of cultural remnants adrift and creating a controlled form. And fearsomely seductive. A re-interpretation, 20th Century Fox version, of 16th century Italian grotesques: an apparently rational set obtained by the aberrant arrangement of popular and/or vulgar forms. Anti-fractal changes of scale, like the giant fences of Jouer avec des choses mortes and Cosmos: a giant head, pink, with no organs, rotating on its own axis while softly singing the Lambada. You can imagine the unlikely dialogue: “From afar, you remind me of Henry Moore; up close, to Kaoma”.
The third way of unveiling ideal forms of art at the heart of the humdrum: action. In this light, the Actions-peu can be likened to an actual exercise making an inventory of art history within the public place, using slight arrangements to do so, needless to say. Beneath the paving stones, Carl Andre. Spherical markers on the ground (James Lee Byars), the chevron stuck to the tree trunk (arte povera), a mobile made of plastic bags (Calder), displaced flower troughs (land art), etc. The Aligneur of Pigeons, a method for arranging birds with the help of polenta, for its part makes it possible to trace, in an ecological way, a Piero Manzoni-style line in the urban space12. Ditto with Les Femmes riches sont belles: words embroidered on the back of a jacket which the artist wears in a showy way in front of de luxe shop windows. The sociological – and slightly coarse – provocation might well mask a more subtle allusion to the textual forms of conceptual art (Kosuth/Wiener tendency). Following this idea, it is not so much bourgeois shoppers – and their purchases – who are being fingered by Achour as certain habits of the 1960s, by way of a pernicious formal comparison between conceptual slogans and the logos of upmarket signs (the words reproduced on the jacket in the same type size as the Chanel logo)13. All these interventions can be read as so many manoeuvres to reveal the potential of a “museum-development” of the street. Last example, more ambiguous and nevertheless edifying: Sommes, a series of photographs showing the artist asleep on his feet, his head laid on the hedges of a middle-class American suburb. (Soft) denunciation of the prosperous languor of a certain bourgeois model? Better: by passively hugging these perfectly trimmed hedges, the artist surreptitiously brings them back to their pure ergonomic form. Lastly, these décor features are not being questioned as much as signified (the cosy, boring world of residential housing) as reduced to their actual form, stylized and perfectly geometric, akin, once again, to minimal sculpture. So, an implicit but insolent observation: minimal art is also made to be slept on. The drowsy attitude of the character, far from revealing any kind of resignation, thus represents a strange, though silent, aggression. It is not the siesta activity that is minimal; it is the very shape of the bushes.
In an exemplary manner, Boris Achour’s work shows how the forms of a work, at times contingent upon particular economies assumed for want of being premeditated, must be observed with reservation. If we have managed to liken the artist to certain artistic approaches advocating discretion, humility, micro-resistance, and even “weakness”, by a minimal interference with signs of the real too numerous and powerful to be grappled with head on (etc, etc), it is probably time to review this position. From his early days, it is with a truly demiurgic posture that Achour has been arranging his pieces (like in a game of chess), proposing, by way of successive touches and never-ending displacements, a scripting of art forms within a state of permanent indeterminacy between tribute and impertinence. And with the implicit design of reconciling, in the form of a hoax, if need be, the apparently antagonistic logics of art and culture. An ambitious project.
1. Interview with Eric Mangion in Semaine, Editions analogues, April 2004.
2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970, p. 19.
3. Ibid., p.21.
4. Boris Achour, in “Il est fini le temps des cathédrales”, in the magazine Trouble, no.3, spring-summer 2003
5. C. Lévi-Strauss, op.cit., pp 16.
6. Jacques Lacan, Séminaire IV: La Relation d’objet, 30 January 1957 session. Published by Le Seuil, Paris, 1998.
7. Mimie Mathy, in the TV serie Joséphine, ange gardien, quoted by Eric Troncy in “how art is perceibved (today)? : hatred of art starts here”, in Beaux-Arts Magazine Special issue: Qu’est-ce que l’art aujourd’hui?/What is Art Today?, June 2002, pp.40-41.
8. Dan Graham , Homes for America (1966-67), collage of words and photographs which originally appeared in Arts Magazine, Dec.66-Jan.67, no.41.
9. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago University Press, 1998.
10. John Baldessari, A Person Was Asked to Point, 1969, a series of photographs depicting an outstretched finger pointing to banal objects.
11. All these invitations to look at the way forms of art are introduced here, there and everywhere calls to mind that funny joke which consisted in trying to find contemporary art forms in the city. “Oh… a Buren!” (blinds on private homes). “Hey, is that a Flavin you’ve got on the ceiling?” Caricatural, often silly, always jubilant.
12. …and potentially obtain a piece of merda de piccione (pigeon shit).
13. The same approach with Index (2000, on-going), a sentence “Spring – summer…”, painted on the wall: a conniving encounter between Conceptual Art and fashion.
(translated from french by Simon Pleasance)