For Inhibitions, their third exhibition at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Claire Fontaine, the generically titled Parisian “readymade artist” created by Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, has created a show about the concept of “human strike.” On a table at the entrance to the gallery is a three-page text authored by Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike Has Already Begun,” which defines the term as a movement of revolt in which anonymous people interrupt those aspects of their behavior complicit with existing power structures. The text functions as a kind of theoretical key to direct reading of the objects on display.
What do these instruments of protest look like? They’re very clean, fastidious—inhibited, even. The readymade artist isn’t allowed to indulge in stylistic panache. A pink box filled with Swarovski crystal kitty litter and three hanging plastic plants (meant to evoke Miami during art fair season but, given the location of Reena Spaulings, more suggestive of a Chinatown interior) surround the pièce de résistance, entitled Grève humaine (interrompue). The mural-sized panel comprises thousands of matchsticks treated with flame retardant, arranged to spell the non-parenthetical part of its title, French for “human strike.” In its magnitude and obsessive repetition, it evokes a brand of spectacular installation endemic to the Biennial circuit. But blocks of empty space creep into the letters and the impressive effect of completion is put on hold.
The gallery’s press release describes Grève humaine (interrompue) as a “material translation of the contradictions contained in the idea of human strike.” It’s worth lingering on what this material translation might mean. Is the idea of human strike, a “pure means” of refusal without an explicit political end, meant to transubstantiate into these impotent matchsticks? The danger here, as with much historic conceptual art—including that of forbears Art & Language, for whom the explanatory text is likewise used in a forceful, preemptive way—is that the artwork becomes an illustration of the theory.
Human strike is an instance of the “non-productive attitude,” to use Josef Strau’s term, which has gained currency in a certain sector of the art world as a mode of social recognition of artistic practice without necessary output. Take as its opposite Lee Lozano’s General Strike Piece (1969), for which the artist withdrew from the conventions of art production by refusing to appear at events. (She would eventually boycott art entirely.) Claire Fontaine seems less concerned about object production and channels of distribution. Then again, Lozano’s case also brings up the uncomfortable fact that the efficacy, and, indeed, legibility, of a human strike depends largely on who surrounds the person who chooses to drop out. Her particular disengagement was less than liberatory; rather, it yielded a return to her parents’ house and a drug problem (and later commercial vindication by her peers).
This is not to say that Claire Fontaine’s productive entanglements, in themselves, make “her” practice merely an instance of radical chic. What troubles me is that the work isn’t ambivalent or difficult enough, that the translation between political theory and artistic practice is made to seem too simple. The shells of objects in Inhibitions, as generic surrogates for engaged art, might have been more genuinely disquieting if they didn’t try so hard to make a point.
In the context of the abysmal global economy, the latest solo show of Claire Fontaine is disturbingly relevant. Titled “Feux de détresse,” or “Warning Lights” (like those on an automobile), it was conceived as an interrogation of the politics of labor, and an exploration of the world of work as a metaphoric prison for the human mind and body.
A Paris-based collective founded in 2004 by an Italian woman with an advanced degree in philosophy and a Scotsman with a background in fine art, Claire Fontaine takes its name from the French paper supplier—an iconic brand familiar to schoolchildren and office workers alike. The two 30-something collaborators are a self-described “readymade artist,” à la Marcel Duchamp, and refer to themselves as “she.” In trading their individual identities for an invented one based on a consumer product, Claire Fontaine raises questions regarding authorship and the interchangeability of the artist and the objects s/he creates, as well as the use value of both. In so doing, she is deeply indebted to Marx, Barthes and Foucault, not to mention conceptually oriented artists like Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer and Pierre Huyghe.
Fourteen works (all 2008) were on exhibit, including sculptures, neon and fluorescent signs, video, found objects and drawings. The pendant sculptures Optic (Whiskey) and Optic (Vodka) consist of watercoolers filled with freely available hard liquor (plastic cups facilitated imbibing), suggesting an escape from the onerous psychic effects of the workplace. In Il faut travailler plus pour penser moins (Work More to Think Less), a wry bastardization—which Claire Fontaine cribbed from Paris subway graffiti—of President Sarkozy’s infamous adage “work more to earn more,” the title phrase is emblazoned on a French flag. Its Orwellian implications speak for themselves.
Extending the theme of forced labor is the video 126419, in which this number is tattooed on the arm of the male half of Claire Fontaine. Repeating those on the arm of an elderly friend of the artists and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, these dehumanizing digits function as a vehicle for the transmission of individual and collective memory. The act of transcribing his cipher is, in effect, a labor of love.
Despite the clear political resonance of Claire Fontaine’s subject matter, she relies too heavily on didactic, often heavy-handed texts to convey the breadth of her message, as outlined on her website and in the exhibition press release. The latter, for example, proclaimed the gravitas of her “Warning Lights” project: “Partial exploration of work as the inside of prison and of prison as the outside of work. Work as the reverse of the prison/productive machine and the prison/punishing machine as a consequence of the refusal of the logic of remunerated labor and of the economical logic in general.” Alas, her new work does not always measure up to the lofty claims of such exegesis.
Photo above: Optic (Whiskey), 2008, watercooler, whiskey and plastic cup dispenser; at Chantal Crousel.