Reviewed in this essay:
Claire Fontaine’s “No Family Life,” at the Parisian gallery Air de Paris from February 11th to March 19th, 2011
Speaking on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the German art quarterly Texte Zur Kunst, critic Benjamin Buchloh likened the present-day mass of contemporary artists, MFAs, PhDs, curators, critics, collectors and hangers-on, to what Marx, writing in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, called the lumpenproletariat – the “tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème.” It was by diverting this group’s muddled interests, Marx argued, that Louis Bonaparte was able to put state power at the service of the “aristocracy of finance” during the Second Empire. Under Buchloh’s scenario, the profit logic of the art industry has penetrated the farthest reaches of aesthetic experience, expropriating the ground from which class-consciousness could form, much as Louis Bonaparte expropriated the interests of the “refuse of all classes” in 1851. Indeed, were one to share Buchloh’s dark vision of siege on all fronts, one plausible strategy would be to just say “no.” In a spring exhibition at Air de Paris titled “No Family Life” the French collective and “readymade” artist Claire Fontaine continued her investigation of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, who established in the 1910s that, given the proper context, even a urinal could accrue the symbolic value of art. Turning to the sacred engine of French petit-bourgeois life, the readymades in “No Family Life” interrogate the world of private domestic consumption from within.
Facing out from the gallery, a neon sign flashes a sequence of negations: “no,” “no family,” “no life,” “no family life.” Much like the neon signs that Bruce Nauman placed in his studio window in 1967, as if to advertise the artistic activity – or lack thereof – happening inside, the repeated refusals introduce the show. Described in the press release as “life at 7500 € per square metre or 1800 € rent a month,” Fontaine evokes Parisian life as a field of contestation where the attributes of petit-bourgeois domestic privacy and consumption alternately subvert or subtend power structures depending on where they are hijacked in a social world beyond the gallery.
“Recession Sculpture (GDF)” – a combination of a vacuum cleaner and a metered gas line seems brought together by Lautréamont’s principle of the chance encounter, however the alchemy of the readymade (also conjured in reference to Jeff Koons’s vacuums), which replaces use value with symbolic value, is inverted when we learn that the work has a function drawn from extra-legal urban coping strategies: to forward the counter on a household gas meter until it returns to zero. “Recession Sculpture (GDF)” is a readymade that retains its function by erasing metered value. But the paradox or irony of this situation is part of a logic that runs through the other works in the show. These objects were détourned, hijacked, by people dealing with the outside world before they arrived in the gallery, giving them a significance beyond that of the Duchampian “choice” which flows from the artist’s privileged status as creator. Although the work inhabits the gallery as an art-commodity, it is a product of conditions of subjugation and resistance in the broader social field. Similarly, “Contrebande,” a baby carriage covered by a towel parked in a corner of the gallery, is also a street-level readymade. While inscrutably mute on first encounter, the object resonates when we learn from the release that it was inspired by a young woman in Belleville using it to sell black market goods, conjuring a world where motherhood is cover for illicit commerce.
However, if these works ask us to consider the survival tools of the urban dispossessed as aesthetic objects, a series of silkscreened and spray-painted canvases suggest a meeting of appropriation strategies and domestic life at another point on the social spectrum. Claire Fontaine overlays Warhol’s Mao silkscreens (whose shrewd conflation of consumerist massification with the terror of the Cultural Revolution marks a high point of his 70s production) with spray-painted sentences that are reminiscent of Christopher Wool’s deadpan text paintings or the famous announcement for Marcel Broodthaers’ 1964 “insincere” Pense-Bêteexhibition. The slogans that comprise the titles of the works “We are all from Smalland,” “It’s the background that explains the foreground,” and “People who know the value of money,” however, are in fact drawn from the 2010 Ikea catalog.
These works celebrate the same forces of massification evoked by Warhol and Mao and illustrate once again that advertisers and marketers are always amongst the most diligent students of aesthetic innovation. While this lesson is familiar from Warhol’s practice and its origins in advertising, another disturbing case of creative misprision is seen in “Study for Tactical Entry: Regular Square/Rectangle Room with Two Entrances” (#1 and #2) which, in evoking constructivist geometric power diagrams such as El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1919), subverts those utopian aspirations with a police design for home invasion – the menace of which is amplified by a battering ram (“Untitled”) suspended like one of Nauman’s chairs in the adjoining room.
“In presenting the artwork as a product of social relationships beyond the gallery, Fontaine’s work shares certain goals with current painting practices that integrate “readymade” gestures with installation, performance, or text, in order to illustrate the relation of painting to the social networks underlying its historical status as the most privileged art medium. In “Painting Beside Itself,” an essay published in October in Fall 2009, David Joselit describes these painting practices as “transitive” in that they evoke the “extra-perceptual social networks” through which painting circulates, rather than enacting a “phenomenological relationship of individual perception” that consolidates value in discreet objects. Jutta Koether’s painting Hot Rod (After Poussin), to take one of Joselit’s examples, acts as “a cynosure of performance, installation and painted canvas” that brings together references to Poussin, a famous AIDS-torn 80s nightclub and the writings of materialist art historian T.J. Clark in a gallery performance that sought to disperse meaning across a network of references and relationships. If transitive painting carries with it a self-aware representation of the social networks in which it is embedded, Fontaine’s appropriations, considered as the product of social processes, could be seen to place the readymade “beside itself”: reclaiming art practices recuperated by corporations, or bringing objects détourned in the street back into the gallery, summons the precariousness of value creation and effacement as grounds for art. If any critical efficacy remains in the readymade today, Fontaine seems to suggest, it should be looked for in a web of relationships outside the gallery as well as within the white cube.
Some observers, in considering the relation between Fontaine’s practice and the texts that accompany it in handouts, press releases, and essays available online, have asked whether the play of art-historical and textual reference threatens to overwhelm the objects themselves, leaving little room for viewers’ interpretations. Yet this seemingly collaborative relation between objects, text, and reference to other practices grows from Fontaine’s collective approach to artmaking: in reducing the ambiguity of her works through explanatory material, meaning is ostensibly displaced from the realm of private, subjective interpretation and, for those willing to study up a bit, rendered public. But does this attempted breach of the private answer Buchloh’s call to class consciousness?
In “The Author as Producer” Walter Benjamin argued that the aesthetic and political goals of art are coterminous, and that the artist who enters the contemporary conditions of production would become relevant on both fronts. In the text, intended for presentation at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris in 1934, Benjamin wrote “rather than ask, ‘What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’ I should like to ask, ‘What is its position in them?’” In calling on artists to engage “existing actual conditions of social and ideological affirmation,” Buchloh’s indictment of contemporary art last fall echoes Benjamin’s critique of bourgeois literature in 1934. Fontaine’s readymade practice responds to both by simultaneously entering and withdrawing from the contemporary production of symbolic value, and the resulting paradox is all of ours to share.