Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N°28), 2000.

The image within Daniel Buren's work is a strong one, and it is probably one of the reasons why he is one of the few major French artists to have achieved an international reputation since the second world war. The 8.5cm wide vertical stripe, which he has used continually in his work since the nineteen sixties, marks out his work instantly. For Buren it has been the tool, or in his terms more precisely a visual tool, with which he has negotiated a set of fundamental issues. For the French public at least the stripe is synonymous with Buren himself as the maker of Les Deux Plateaux for the Palais-Royal in Paris. There is an ambiguous relationship here between Buren, the artist celebrated or attacked by the French media and Buren as an artist who has consistently, if not systematically, pursued a problematic within his work that has important implications far beyond the extent of his fame or notoriety. To attempt to peel one from the other is perhaps unwise, if not impossible, because at its heart Buren's problematic continues to be one of location and dislocation, a process where he has repeatedly placed the spectator in a position where the public domain, be it institutional or social, is a dimension of the work itself. Any attempt to compartmentalise Buren would neglect to take into account his polemical relationship to museums, curators, collectors and the media and this in a way constitutes a work in itself for which the three volumes of his writings stand as a formidable document. However appropriate this side of Buren may be within a contemporary context; where strategies of the sixties and seventies have become blueprints upon which artistic practice has been modelled for a younger generation, it would be misleading to consider his works as affects without considering what is at work within his artistic practice.

This year sees a series of exhibitions which survey different aspects of Buren's work and provide an opportunity to consider the evolution of his practice. This is important for although Buren is continually at work internationally on in-situ projects , the opportunity to relate his work to a historical context is relatively rare. The need to consider such a relationship is an essential task when viewing his work. For Buren's in-situ works cannot be incorporated and understood within a general category of installation. Within his method resides an ethic which is anti-spectacular, even anti-theatrical. That is to say that when faced with a work by Buren a spectator must be vigilant to the working of the work itself through specific aspects of medium, material and manipulation by which a relationship between the work and its situation can be negotiated. This working method resists instantaneous effects, seems suspicious of the working of a 'gestalt' that would determine in advance the spectator's relationship to it. In this way he has been critical of the convention of the ready-made which he considers to be an element of a strategy that gives an illusion of reality. As he says:
Another notion deepens my doubts and criticisms with regard to the ready-made, a notion that is borrowed directly from a well-established centuries-old pictorial genre. This genre is instantly recognizable to anyone conversant or not with art history; it is that of the trompe-l'œil.1

This statement gives us a glimpse into the syntax of Buren's method. He assigns the displacement of an object from one place to another as a manipulation of material in the realm of the pictorial; materially operating in terms of a procedure of collage or decollage (to glue on or to un-glue). To loose sight of the operational terms of such a displacement is to naturalise the pictorial field - to stage within it illusionary effects. 

In the exhibition, Daniel Buren, Une traversée. Peintures, 1964-1999, at the Musée d'art moderne de Lille Métropole, there is a clear sense of how Buren's relationship to 'painting', like many other French artists of a similar generation, is a comprehensive and indeed radical idea of the medium. His relationship to painting, discipline and medium was one of a rigorous questioning of its means and its relationship to a social domain. A line can be traced between the early questioning of painting to the in-situ works via the concern with collage that appears in the first paintings of the exhibition. His early influences are marked by an obvious knowledge of American painting but just as present is a relationship to Matisse and lesser known artists such as the affichiste Jacques Villeglé. The affichistes of the nineteen fifties gave Buren, and other artists, the link between painting, collage and construction, processes that would facilitate a working of the social space through pictorial means. The affichiste practice of ripping posters from the walls of the streets and metros of Paris brought a performative aspect with it. The boundary of the studio was called in to question and the act of decollage and collage became socially charged as being something between appropriation and vandalism. A margin between collage as a purely formal pictorial operation and as a social manifestation was broached by such artists. Such an interface is a consistent element in Buren's work - it is never a question of a purely formal resolution or purely social manifestation. 

The vertical stripe as the tool by which Buren works this interface is seen, in the Lille exhibition, as the product of a methodical evolution. Until 1965 the works are very much paintings, often employing collage in their process and marked by a concern where the limits of the stretcher act as a frame for a dominant shape that is intrinsic to the painting and its surface. Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly's work comes to mind and are appropriate as artists who have engaged shape in their work as a specific limit. However by 1965 Buren had began to buy striped material, more commonly used for shop awnings, from the Marché Saint-Pierre in Paris. For Buren this was a way of arriving at a 'zero degree' of the painting where the canvas and its support would become more present and active in terms of its relationship to a location. The presentness of the support and canvas would now necessarily demand that its articulation with its situation would become a further specificity of the work itself. 

Questions of time enter Buren's work in this period. A work such as 120 peintures pour 15 tableaux, executed between 1967 and 1981, is such an example. In 1967 fifteen canvasses stretched with striped material where each given a coat of white paint upon the outer white bands of the material. The next year the process was repeated but on fourteen canvases. This procedure was repeated annually, on each occasion upon one less of the series than the year before. The sense that the fifteen physical 'tableaux' are effectively 120 'paintings' places the spectator in a negotiation with the material conception of the work. The seemingly identical units are in reality displacements of time through the systematic build up of paint. Such a strategy can be seen as eliciting a response of self-reflexivity in the spectator. Such a reading would bring Buren into line with a reductivist tradition where, especially in terms of questions of painting, the status of the work as an object is central. However such a position seems to be far from an adequate account of the operating conditions of his work. The fifteen canvas are leant and not hung upon the wall. Their presence oscillates between possible identities of the tableaux as paintings or as volumes. They live between a series of specifities that is not resolvable in terms of their status as objects. 

At the same time as the Lille exhibition, there is another exhibition of Buren's work in Lyon. Mises en demeures, cabanes éclatées at the Institut d'art contemporain in Villeurbanne in Lyon is a presentation of a Buren's cabanes, a species of his in-situ work that has developed since 1975. While an in-situ piece is conceived for, and in, a specific place the cabanes are independent of a particular 'lieu'. The elements of each cabane are consistent whatever the context they are placed within but the elements will be transformed according to how they adapt to each specific situation. There are thirteen cabanes in the Lyon exhibition. Each uses different materials ranging from mirrors, glass, fluorescent light, plastic and wood. Each one improvises around a set of rules where the cabin-like structure is 'exploded'; window or door like elements are moved out from the central cabin towards and often onto the walls of the room which is their 'host'. In the Cabane Éclatée aux Mirroirs Intérieurs et Éxtérieurs a central four-sided structure is clad with mirrors. It is set at 45° angle to the axis of the exhibition space and is enveloped by a wall structure each side of which has an opening within which the 'door' has been extended toward the exhibition space's walls. As projections from what is conceptually the total volume of the cabane, these elements work as both doors and walls. The interior of these projections is divided in two parts, each area being painted a different colour. Its exterior side is faced with a mirror. The play of painted surfaces which are both mural and entrances, confronts the spectator at the centre of the cabane with a point of view where two faces of the central mirror structure reflect a configuration of the painted walls. The physical structure of the cabane is displaced pictorially into the space of the mirror. The inclination of the planes of the mirrors at a 4 5° angle away from these viewing positions means that the spectator's image is not reflected in the mirrors. Each cabane develops a different set of rules and is comprised of different materials. The experience each time amounts to the spectator having to negotiate a series of points of view, having to meet the cabane and the site in terms of a multiplicity of aspects. The openings into the cabane are a good example of the extent of this multiplicity. Often the 'door' of the cabane is pushed onto the wall of the host space. The host wall then becomes the frame within which the physical structure of the cabane is conditioned by the pictorial and is thus subsumed into the visual field. The spectator is thus not placed within a situation where a sense of the totality of the environment is apparent at all times. The spectator must negotiate a series of positions and slowly divine the nature of the structure and the site. Such an experience is tantamount to a parallax effect; where the perception of an object is relative and dependent upon the position it is viewed from. 

The cabanes can be seen as sites within sites. Buren's work in relationship to painting can be seen in a similar way. Buren's idea of the 'degree zero' of painting does not present itself as the point of exhaustion of the viability of painting but is more a question of what painting is as a potential site of the pictorial. That painting is also the site of collage and decollage seems to have provided Buren with a series of possibilities and strategies whereby he could develop a syntax that extended beyond simple questions of painting. 
Mick Finch 2000

Daniel Buren, Une traversée: Peintures, 1964 - 1999 is at the Musée d'art moderne de Lille Métropole, Villeneuve d'Ascq, Lille, France, 22 January - 14 May 2000. Daniel Buren, Mises en demeures: Cabanes Eclatées, 1999 - 2000, Travaux situés is at the Institut d'art contemporain, Villerubanne, Lyon, France, 21 January - 21 May 2000.

Mick Finch is an artist living in France. He teaches at the Ecole des Beaux-arts de Valenciennes, France.

1. From Au Sujet de...,Daniel Buren interviewed by Jérôme Sans, Flammarion 4, Paris, 1988