Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N18), 1998.

Paris’s Pompidou centre is presently in darkness. A designer hoarding surronds it. Giant posters announce to passers-by that the centre is being refurbished making it ready for the approaching millenia. On its piazza is a giant conical tent, that has been officially dubbed the tee-pee where the centre presents a makeshift schedule. There is a feeling that it not just the Pompidou that is camping out at present but that the entire French culture is in waiting, anticipating better times. These last years have been tough for the French visual arts. The political swing to the right some years back brought with it massive cuts and the Front National launched an attack on contemporary art which has won widespread sympathy. The recent swing to the left has not stifled this jaundiced outlook. Jean Clair has led a 'call to order', giving vent to the familar tones of humanist sentiments. The Jack Lang years, where political power sought cultural status, have come under attack from such quarters as Jean Baudrillard. The former positivism of French cultural policy seems to be no more.
Without an institutional base taking a lead the French seem not to know quite what to support. The present scene and particularly London only makes matters worse. Paris in comparison seems merely a grey totem to the city that it once was. The truth though is perhaps more complicated. Paris never could support a phenomena on the scale of yBa. It lacks for example, an art school system on the scale of the British model. French media does not buoy up the kind of star-system to be found operating in London. But the pessimism, voiced as much by natives as visitors, belies the fact that there is a lot of interesting work being made in France by an emerging generation of artists. It would be hard to group such work under a generic flag like yBa. Nevertheless there is a sense that artists in France are deploying a critical dimension within their work - such discursive strategies are hard to find on the London scene at present. Guillaume Paris and Malachi Farrell are two examples of a new generation of artists in France who don't sit easily within any national cultural identity. Paris, despite his name, was born on the Ivory Coast and was a student at the Cooper Union art school in New York . Farrell is of Irish descent, although raised in France.
Guillaume Paris uses the production and the context of works of art as a general process which, in his words, attempts a de-reification of cycles that are at work in society. By 'society' he means consumerism in its present phase of globalization, which co-opts multiculturalism into a framework of multinational corporate culture. De-reification, for Paris is a critical process. It attempts to unravel a consumerist apparatus which, through representation, objectifies individuals and locates them as subjects within commodities and consumer products. This process, seen arising mainly through advertising and marketing, can be described as the 'humanising' of commodities.
Guillaume Paris's 'New Perishable Gallery' is a project that attempts, critically and ironically, to unravel the components of such processes. An aspect of this project is a photographically based piece which brings together supermarket products from a number of different cultures. They are grouped together as 'families' of representations. Each product uses representations of people to objectify and present what is contained within its packaging. The juxtaposition of these products (which is outside of the habitual contact a ‘customer’ has with them in a supermarket) generates an ironic encounter. The generic qualities of each product's representation becomes highly evident. An American toilet roll 'Brawny' depicts a blond white male, complete with moustach and plaid shirt, 'Mild Yoghart' shows maternal old age and youth. Paris sees marketing as a process which substitutes 'material culture (objects) for cultural agents (people)'. By treating commodities as cultural artifacts within the context of a museum a play is made between the role of the customer in the field of commodities and the viewer in the case of the museum. This gives rise to a complex set of readings; supermarket products become portraits through their displacement into the museum and the perishable nature of the products act as a metaphor for mortality. Two sets of issues are thrown into question. A multicultural dynamic absorbed into consumerist representations (where generic and stereotypical form proliferate) is at odds with museum culture which seeks to legitimate and preserve representations. The New Perishable Gallery can be seen to throw both systems of circulation into question.
This complex layering of the cultural across the economic is a key aspect of Paris's work. Gift of the Earth, a photographic piece from 1994, is an apparently simple image: three peanuts in the palm of a hand held against a background full of 'm & m' sweets. The chocolate coated peanut m & ms are broken open or 'whole', some containing their peanut inners others emptied. The hand confronts the spectator cradling the peanuts in its palm but also arresting a space between the 'natural' peanuts and their potential form as consumer products. The piece’s title and this transition from staple to consumer product gives rise to a first world/third world reading alluding to a western idea of third world aid. The west takes peanuts from the third world, transforms them into a consumer product and then gives back to the third world as ‘peanuts’ once again.
Paris has negotiated this axis from material to product through many of his works. 'True Spirit...' , a work from 1992, featured five products in a display case. A cigarette, a bar of soap, margarine, a cleaning pad and dog food were presented in a line. Behind each was the name of a product that has been used for each example. In sequence the brand names come together in the 'sentence'; True Spirit Promise Supreme Reward. Once more we see the effect of consumerist logic sublimating basic products of industrial society in words of utopic, timeless significance that unravel a logic of capital as an absurdity. What remains is a stark irony that resonates across a series of readings. Paris can be seen as an artist who while addressing issues of globalization and consumerism, is not content merely to imitate their effects. His aim is to dislocate representation from the familiar avenues of signification so as to distance the spectator in a critical dialogue with the material.
Malachi Farrell shares some of the concerns of Paris. In a recent installation entitled Hooliganisme , he mapped out the territory that exists between the game of football, its organisers and spectators. On entry to the installation the spectator is confronted by a multiheaded monster. Activated by the movement of visitors through the installation the monster, who is part-effigy, part-machine is animated, sirens wail and it delivers an eery speech. A T.V. monitor by its side tracks the real-time movement of the spectator through the installation. Further on a machine pushes out fake money, bank notes fall to the floor like confetti. To the side is a large bank of empty household-product bottles. They are fixed to a complex mechanism of cranks which, when activated move them up and down. Beer cans and the fake bank notes litter the floor, a bull horn public address system spews out the roar of an ecstatic crowd. These are the spectators who are periodically animated into a frenzy. Near the spectator stand is a goal. A ball plastered with banknotes is systematically catapulted on a rail into the goal. Over the goal are two ceiling rails on which mud stained clothes are winched, perhaps these are the teams and their managers. In the corner is a spaghetti of wires, trip systems and processors which is the technology that controls the installation. The computer technology is placed in stark contrast to the industrial machines, pulleys and cranks of the installation itself. Hooliganism places the visitor in a relationship to the installation where by the spectator becomes both a participant and an observer of the work. As in the case of Paris's work, Farrell seems to be attempting to dislocate the spectator from the effects of spectacle. He attempts this by presenting the viewer with an ironic map of the circulation of effects through various systems. A range of references are set up in this installation. Technology is the master of the industrial and silently, but not always effortlessly, runs the spectacle. The mass which is evidently an effect of the media is also the by-product and the base-material of the industrial infra-structure. Its responses to the match sets off the money that falls onto the scene. It is money here that is sublimated and circulated between each discreet aspect of the piece. What Farrell also manages to relate is the sense that spectacle as a form of entertainment is never far from the sensuality and logic of a fairground ride. Farrell places the spectator into a microcosm where effects are strong, sensations are addressed but nothing is 'real' and can never be mistaken as such.
The 'real' in Paris's and Farrell's work is never waved in the face of a public as an unquestionable entity. Instead the 'real' is treated as the product of economic and cultural forces and is positioned as an effect of a system. The ‘real’ for these artists is something that is generated, produced and managed and always open to scrutiny.
This negoitiation with a wider culture differs in many ways from the work of much of the yBa phenomena. YBa rarely sets up critical space between the work and the spectator. In a sense the British tendancy is one of reducing such a distance to the minimum, hence the often coined 'in-your-face' as a yBa tag. David Frankel noted this in a recent article on Steve Mcqueen - ' "Very YBA," say my London friends, meaning partly a style and milieu of social life but also an ethos of work, which, speaking generally might have a splashy in-your-face visual presence; or might so embrace popular culture as to be virtually another form of it; or might assert the autobiographical details of its own making'.
Farrell and Paris employ strategies that are clearly distinct from their British 'counterparts'. Perhaps this is do with French culture having an ethical tradition which was in some way contained within the Situationist Internationale. That movement critically examined the role of the spectacle within global consumerism in the possibly idealist hope that a detournement could be achieved. This aim seems to be a genuine goal of artists like Paris and Farrell. The alternative, at present being played out in London, is to mimic the hyper-real effects of the media and to engage in a celebration of alienation and abjection which in retrospect may appear to be an ultra-conservative avant-garde gambit.

Mick Finch, December 1997.