TRANSFERT Art in urban space

Olivier Mosset



After Tabula Rasa in 1991, and a detour through the Val de Travers, sculpture is making a comeback in Biel. As Marc-Olivier Wahler puts it, after art in deserts and on football pitches, exhibiting in the urban space is no longer exactly an event. The fact remains that, after what was not an exhibition (Fibicher, 1991), the quest for the lost monument (Gauville, 1991), and what Marc-Oliver Wahler is telling us (namely, that the city has vanished, that there is no city any more, to paraphrase Paul Tibbets, Hiroshima 1945, or rather that we do not see it, like those “stealth” works which are the ones people talk about but on the whole have not seen), after the end of the second millennium (which, it goes without saying, has not changed anything at all), and a moment when some think that the new millennium has not got under way yet, this whole thing is rather timely. All the more so because (if I’ve got it right), like the millennium, we are not really terribly sure when this exhibition started, and when it will end.

Marc-Olivier Wahler tells us that, these days, artists are not especially making art, and that their references are urban. Others (Bourriaud, for example) assert that they are more interested in relations and meetings than in objects. For a while now, the artist has been intrigued by what is not art. This must have started with modern life (Baudelaire), and it has been carried on by the space between art and life (Rauschenberg) and the monuments at Passaic, New Jersey (Smithson). And today, we are told, art is interactive and setting up networks. Art has turned into its relationship with the world and the event. The object, in artistic praxis, has disappeared. The artwork merges with the show. In the final analysis, what marks the end of art is its success.

I belong to a generation which has striven to impose a certain idea of contemporary art. This way of thinking may well be outdated nowadays, but this is also because it is accepted. It is not appreciated by the hordes, but it is part of the overall culture. It is known. This is what Vanessa Beecroft says1 : the avant-garde is already there, all we have to do is use it. Those who are scared by avant-garde art are merely pointing to its existence. When, during a series broadcast on France’s TF1 TV channel, someone opens a fridge containing nothing but a yoghurt, and says “we’re rubbing shoulders with contemporary art”, this is because it is there2 (even if it may not be in the precise place we would like it to be). We know, today, that people attending Art Schools today may well end up making piles of rubbish, doing striptease acts, driving racing cars, making films, and, needless to add, producing oil paintings. As far as the artist is concerned, he may very well run a restaurant, be an (art) director for a national exhibition, work as a consultant in an architectural agency, direct films, or have his work funded by a communications agency, unless he himself uses a PR organization. What is more, the young artist who is being successful often enjoys a financial backing which neatly underwrites this success.

Problems arise at the theoretical level. Because, if the work no longer exists and if artists are in life the way fish are in water, all this becomes art all over again, as soon as we talk about it. If the art venue is more or less everywhere, it is being pointed to by the theoretical discourse and the catalogue, and these are also showing it where its limits lie. Issues connected with the artwork are not cancelled out by a narrative or a discourse external to its arena, except at the moment when you leave this arena and do something else. A woman artist who didn’t want her name mentioned in the last exhibition she took part in (it was an exhibition where, for instance, she placed a bouquet of flowers on the secretary’s desk) now takes care of handicapped people. This activity is possibly much more honorable than being an artist, but, basically, something different is involved here, and we talk about it elsewhere. The artist who becomes a boxer, or introduces a boxer, would be well advised not to take on Mike Tyson, because this would put things in their proper place. It goes without saying that we do not need to make art. But if we do make art, well, it is art, for better or worse, like it or lump it!

These days there is much talk about an art that is no longer independent or tautological. We have observed that today’s art references are urban. But here, too, it is not so much a matter of criticism as addition. The vertical historical reading that follows the pendulum swings of contemporary art –  figurative-abstract, Expressionist-geometric, painting-installation/video – would do well, now and then, to note that these movements also have a tendency to add up. Minimal art used to be Minimal and Pop, Conceptual Art used to be Pop, Minimal and Conceptual, etc. The addition, today, is more complete and added to these movements we now have MTV, sport and the Internet. If works are specific to the place they are put, or to the place they move about in, they are still within the arena of art, and we cannot get away from this. The narrative aspect of this business is often played down, because it is fortunately a narrative that is not understood, either because it is not understandable, or because it is too obvious. On the other hand, I can understand that people are fed up with the independence of the artwork.

This, incidentally, does not reside in the fact of showing an object in any old place and in any old way. It resides, to be sure, in the independence of its form. With all due respect to certain commentators and even if artists do not give a damn, art is what it is and the rest is the rest. If it’s art, it’s art, and if it isn’t, it isn’t. The independence of the form is acquired, so we are actually free to do with it what we like.

These days, basically, all artists are conceptual artists. Speaking for myself, for example, I thought I was a painter, but people tell me (Petit dictionnaire des artistes contemporains, Bordas, Paris, 1996) that I’m a conceptual artist. So like the friend who was chucked out of the CGT trade union for being a Trotskyite and duly went and became a Trotskyite, I’ve become conceptual. Needless to say, this new conceptual art is not the same as historical conceptual art, the art that did not want to add new objects to a world already full of objects, and the art that asserted that the work could be produced by someone else. First and foremost, as Peter Plagens observes3, that conceptual art did not really manage to do away with the object. There are things and objects everywhere, and there are even some objects that find their way into sale rooms where they fetch altogether decent prices. It is only now that today’s conceptual artists are no longer producing objects. They are inventing devices and manipulating signs (Bourriaud). If there is something to see, it is not the work itself, but its marks and traces, which often merely point to a work produced elsewhere.

Information Transfer was a conceptual work produced by Eugenia Butler in 1969 – a typewritten statement (This is an information transfer) – which is Peter Plagens’ favorite work. It seemed to me to be an appropriate title for these words of mine.

And so... after the clean slate, the tabula rasa, we’re not going to sit down, or sit back down, at the table. What is more, perhaps we never really got up from the table, maybe we are still at it, maybe we are the “backdrop”, in other words, we are still sitting round the table, even though the table has been empty for a long time. Or perhaps the best thing, as Manet put it, is to go and have a picnic lunch, a déjeuner sur l’herbe.

PS: Need I add that these few words have been inspired by the much-quoted special issue of Beaux Arts Magazine: “Qu’est-ce que l’art aujourd’hui ?” (Fourty international artists belonging to the new generation, December 1999). In that special issue, I noted advertisements for champagne, perfume, aperitifs, a brand of whisky, an auction house, a few websites, Hermès, Cartier (several pages), Eurotunnel, Audi, Renault, a brand of pencils, and one or two other products (galleries ?) that slip my mind. It seems to me that this should be mentioned: art – the stuff of media.

1 Beaux Arts Magazine, special issue, December 1999, p. 26.

2 Eric Troncy, idem, p. 48.

3 Bookforum, Spring 2000, p. 12.

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