Interview between HUGUES MARCHAL and GUILLAUME PARIS
Hugues Marchal: You use the word “magic” to describe the way we look at and experience consumerism. Could you go into that in a little more detail, in reference to White Magic ?
Guillaume Paris: White Magic is the title of a series of works dealing with the discourse of advertising and its magical-cum-religious intonations. The eponymous piece from 1992, made up of letters drawn directly on the floor with detergent, spells out the words “White Magic” borrowing the Disney signature (65). At the outset, I wanted to develop a critique of the discourse on cleanliness and purity, by pointing out among other things its racial connotationsin the North American context, which is particularly polarized. Playing in this way with substances (washing powder), forms (the Disney signature) and their cultural implications, was a bit like playing at being the sorcerer’s apprentice.
I was interested early on by the magical thinking and religiosity that underpin advertising discourse. This instrumentalized spirituality is the necessary complement of productivist rationality. No matter how cynical, it plays an important part in consumer society.
The starting-point for this work is not so much the commodity than the Marxist critique of commodity fetishism. I wanted to dig deeper: instead of demonizing this fetishism, might it not be possible to have a different conception of it? To recontextualize it? To reappropriate it? I felt that it was possible to push this semblance of archaism further and “free” itunhinge it and give it free reinby performing what I call hyper-fetishism. By dovetailing it, in other words, with a form of animism, at once anarchic and subjective. What’s involved here is a line of questioning, neither naive nor romantic, having for referent the enchantment of the commodity. It is also a way of interfering with a given discourse in order to regain control of itde-alienating it by reappropriating it. Reinstating yourself as subject and agent in relation to it. Having said this, the approach is not a prescriptive one, it’s more like a warning!
From this perspective, I became fascinated by the omnipresence of magical thinking in advertising discourseand in culture as a whole. At the end of the day, the enchanted world of commodities goes hand-in-hand with the disenchantment of the world. It may seem a bit abstract, but the work endeavors to lend substance to the idea. It’s not so much a matter of speaking out against, or denouncing, but rather of undoing by doing differently. The approach gives rises to an ambiguous position equally remote from the object of its criticism and from the criticism itself. This latter is often a point of departure, but rarely an end in itself.
H.M.: you feign allegiance in order to criticises? And play the part to disrupt the play ?
G.P.: As a rule I don’t rely on oppositional strategies. These might imply setting one discourse against another, without necessarily taking into account the actual nature of the discourse, in other words, without raising the question of language. This approach often ends up by reproducing the type of discourse it castigatesthe difference being reduced to intentions. As a matter of fact, I don’t restrict myself to just one strategy, or one way of working. There is, needless to say, a recurrent cast of mind, but I mix genres as much as I do approaches and methods. I usually prefer the meandering of the detour to the head-on clash. But it’s not systematic: I can opt for direct confrontation when I believe it justified!
Here, I take quite literally the discourse of commodities (in H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D., it’s their humanism that I literally interpret), and I extend its logicgoing way beyond advertisers’ intentionsuntil it comes apart of its own accord and gives way to something else. It is more pernicious. It’s tantamount to undoing by doing, taking on the role of Wise Fool. Advertising discourse endeavors to convey a transcendence. Instead of rejecting it wholesale, I question it, retrieve it and reposition it. I recycle it by imagining a form of spirituality based on commodity fetishism, which could also be, paradoxically, a form of resistance.
Furthermore, it also seems relevant to consider notions of fetishization, transcendence, and of a magical relationship to the world, from the work of art itself. Art is quite likely the most fetishized commodity, the one most regarded as sacredit’s a meta- or super-commodity. There’s an obvious parallel between the commodity and the work of art (refer to Adorno’s entire aesthetic theory). The traditional model of the aesthetic experience is still broadly based on the deliberate association between a physical immanence and a type of spiritual transcendence. In the consumerist context, it’s materialism that exudes spirituality. Once again, it’s less a matter of denouncing this relationship than reconsidering it. Idolatry, magic and animism don’t equate to a faulty understanding of the worldthey actually have a real social efficacy.
H.M.: The portraits on the packaging present a body filled with the promise of happiness (the portrait here is thus that of a witness). But by the same token they also suggest the product’s ability to transmit to the user the qualities (happiness, beauty, etc.) illustrated by its human promoter. Is it possible to see hereand in particular with regard to food productsa line of reasoning akin to that used to encourage certain cannibalistic practices aimed at appropriating the characteristics of the enemy or ancestor?
G.P.: I’ve asked myself the same question, but doubt it’s the intention behind the packaging. This “cannibalistic” reading is very much present in H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D.products end up self-consuming and bearing witness to the whole process. Convention has it that a product’s packaging is indicative of what is inside it (unless otherwise stated). So when there’s a face, it is quite legitimate to make a literal association between the person depicted and the contents. I understood this after visiting an exhibition of Fayoum’s paintings. Here too, you’re faced with a package, the sarcophagus, and on the package a picture of the contentsa realistic portrait of the deceased. So there’s a conventional association between packaging and content, with the former indexing the latter. It’s “natural” and legitimate to project this particular reading on the portrait-products. Therefore, from masks adorned with frozen, grimacing smiles, they turn into death masks. But for you, the human on the package might have a mimetic function with regard to the consumer?
H.M.: Yes, we consume the product because we want to share the lifestyle or attributes of the person portrayed. It’s somehow similar to the reasoning behind the eating of the brave warrior in certain cultures.
G.P.: You’re referring more to the qualities of the modelwhich has the value of a promise herethan to my literal reading. In both instances, there’s a magical-cum-religious dimension, the merging you mention entailing a trans-substantiation. In my original analysis however, the face on the package primarily stands in for the salesperson’s. The product becomes its own salesperson in so much as it “talks” directly from the shelf. This was a necessity linked to the emergence of self-service shopping. Along with advertising, this method of marketing progressively replaced salespeople, whose brief once included the actual “selling” of the product. I’ve pushed this logic a step or two further by creating self-consuming products, which stand in for the consumer, thus perfecting their economic cycle independently.
H.M.: What recurring features have you observed in terms of cultures and products?
G.P.: I’ve pinpointed various typologies, but haven’t undertaken their scientific or interpretative study. Certain associations are quite common, like the one between detergent and “Madonnas and Child”. At one point, my project took on the form of a PhD in anthropology. My approach however doesn’t qualify as social sciencequite simply because it’s not scientific! The work sets up comparisons and likenesses between sets of problems not traditionally linked. I mix disciplines and genres to produce a complex, composite object. The fact remains that, without reading between the lines, this curatorial enterprise inevitably has a sociological value. By definition, portrait-products present acertain face of the society from which they originate.
H.M.: Similarly, I don’t think your work is that of a historian. But what about the trends which you refer to in the H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. brochure? For the Pears soap packaging, if I’ve understood it properly, the manufacturers organize an annual competition?
G.P.: If there is a pointat the most basic levelin collecting these artifacts, it also that nobody else does. The advertising industry doesn’t preserve much, deeming it unnecessary. It’s not in the ethics of a field entirely devoted to novelty. “Miss Pears” is an interesting case in point. A competition is organized among consumers, who are invited to send in a photograph of their little girl: the cutest one (the one, in any event, who tallies best with people’s expectations) is elected “Miss Pears”, for twelve months. One resorts to the consumer in an attempt to reduce the gap between an idealized image and his or her own. The product is humanized by becoming ever more “democratized.”
H.M.: With “Miss Pears” were you presenting an image of eternal youth?
G.P.: Yes, as well as the ever changing definition of good taste. The notion of eternal youth is an all time favorite in advertising discourse. This is why allowing products to perish, and giving an active role to ageing, etc., is tantamount to opening up a breach in this rhetoric. Here, time is a foreign bodyparadoxically, it completely changes the “nature” of things. Howerver, I do not wish to romanticize the perishable nature of things, the decay, the ageing. By way of a poetic reversal, it is precisely through this process that the “emancipation” of the product occurs. Being allowed to die, it is allowed to live. Inscribing it in a time framea birth, an ageing, a death and even a hereaftermakes it a little bit more “human.”
H.M.: What does making an object “more human” entail? I sometimes get the feeling that you’re trying to remove products from an unfortunate condition.
G.P.: It is a paradox, that goes without saying, and stems from this desire to pursue a given logic to its conclusion. The notion of emancipationor de-alienationhas value not only with regard to the discourse of the commodity, but also to its profusion and omnipresence. The work of individualization and emblematic disappearance (H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. guarantees that each portrait-product is unique and will never be replaced) makes sense in relation to an overabundance of objects and images which conditions our everyday lives, and over which we have little control. You also have to bear in mind that when the brochure mentions “de-alienation,” it’s H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. speaking and no longer me!
By treating portrait-products as reified individuals, by considering literally that they are people who have been transformed into objects by a magical-cum-merchandising operation (or have quite simply sold their image to the commodity), it is possible to reverse the process; to “de-reify.” In this way, one of the activities of H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. consists in searching for the original people portrayed on the packages. Starting with a hegemonic discourse and a manufactured object, I try to re-inject a subjectivity, a history, a biography, a life experience. The portrait-product is accordingly brought back to life with the voice of its original model: the lips on the face move and the character talks in the first person.
But the reanimation process also proceeds by way of a disappearance. It is based on a process of erasure, and on the temporality of matter. This is the keystone of the project, which ensures that it doesn’t turn into a multinational nightmare, or a programmatic and alienating dystopia. Time, here, is fundamental.
H.M.: So what you’re de-alienating in the object is the representation of the human?
G.P.: No, this I recontextualize within the museographic setting of a portrait gallery. What’s de-alienated is the object’s commodity status, as well as the different discourses it conveys.
The notion of de-reification holds sway in H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D.quite simply because, at the outset, there was the issue representing cultural Otherness. I reached this choice of components for a portrait gallery not out of interest for advertising or commodities, but by way of an analytical process. I was concerned at the time with multiculturalism and the ethnographic museum. How can the Other be represented? The substitution of people by objects is always problematic, because you can make objects say exactly what you want. Relying on images (photographs) raises just as many problems, because they are a form of a reification. The image often tells us more about its author than it does about its subject. It informs us more about the ideas the person making the representation has of the Other, than it does about the Other him/herself. There are famous antecedents, such as The Family of Man.1
H.M.: You talk about “representing the human race” via products, but they put forward an idealized humankind. Furthermore, the marketing structure is itself a product of liberal capitalism, and in this sense you extend a form of ethnocentrism, don’t you? When you chose the G7 countries for We are the World, and when you put the United States in the predominant position, isn’t this because part of the world doesn’t have control of its image, nor of the desires being sold to it? In other words, how are we to conceive of a “universality of the relationship between the commodity and the viewer/consumer”?
G.P.: I’m not so naive as to think that what we’ve got here is a portrait gallery of the human racequite the contrary. The demonstration is a reductio ad absurdum. The very idea of representing or depicting the human race in an overall way strikes me as suspect. And it’s a dead end, even with the best of intentions. Barthes’s critique of The Family of Man is still thoroughly relevant in this respect. It describes a form of ethnocentric humanism that is still present today, and which consists, by and large, in naturalizing differences in the name of universality, and at the expense of history. This results in a fallacy, the ideology of which consists precisely in giving the illusion of an unmediated reality. This illusion is dangerous. It’s forgetting too quickly that all reality is constructedand any representation of reality even more so!
That’s also why I’m happier starting off from the stereotype. My approach involves short-circuiting different discourses by relating them to each other. It’s like hitting two birds (or more) with one stone. Relating, for example, “multinationalism” to multiculturalism. The act of putting things into perspective proceeds here by way of a mise en abyme.
Going back to the piece on the G7, it is true that We are the World isn’t an innocent title. In fact it takes on a specific meaning precisely because a large part of the world doesn’t have control over its image or economic survival. This is the reality of globalization. To get back to your question, the universality of the relationship between the commodity and the viewer/consumer is far from being an equality with regard to consumer goods! The universality I’m referring to is a sad reality: it refers to the instrumentalization of the commodity, to the fact that its function is universally to say “buy me.”
H.M.: By symbolizing a nation with a box of cereal, you are taking quite literally the assimilation of a country with its products, a tangible association during trade wars and commercial boycotts.
G.P.: I’m also taking quite literally another Marxist commonplace: considering thatin the enchanted world of commoditiesthe social relations between things are relations between individuals. At any rate, these objects are not taken as readymades. They are a point of departure and a medium.
H.M.: Let’s take your work titled Withering. The first reanimated portrait-product, an Italian yogurt, shows signs of its perishable nature. A fungus growth partly covers the image of the featured model. In the video, the model concludes by saying: “I’m a prisoner of this one-way nightmare, harking back to the narrative of my memories (. . .) like a creamy liquid overwhelming me.” In Enhanced Being (48), the prolonged exposure of viewers to a large sphere of mothballs involved the risk of inhaling toxic fumes, and in Theophanic Matter V (130), you let a 250 kilogram cube of airfreshening gel shrivel up. It’s showing the limits of any discourse denying corporeality and its associated impurities. Might we describe your project as an immense still life or vanitas?
G.P.: Yes, in these three examples the fleeting nature of things and beings is emphasized. This seems crucial to me. It’s also a question of forcing a breach in the rhetoric of purity. I’m very suspicious of this ideal. In my eyes it’s an alienating discourse, a suspect abstraction that functions in a vacuum. You’ll find similar preoccupations in True Spirit (74) and Angel Inc (98), as well as in older works like the taxidermied animals (20, 40). Allowing portrait-products to decay amounts to injecting, at the very core of the representation, the seed of its own destruction. The whole thing is destined to disappear, and it is through this disappearance that the point is made most eloquently.
H.M.: You clearly show that the discourse of the commodity is based on a suspended temporality, at once circular and inhuman. How does this relate to your work with video loops, and to the recurring theme of the fountain of youth?
G.P.: The relationship to time is indeed a common denominator. In the “permanent videos” I transform snippets of narratives, or “snapshots”, into moments of eternity. Where cartoons are involved, the looping of a short fragment literally amounts to short-circuiting the given linear narrative. It’s the opposite of the approach described earlier. I often go about things by way of theses and antitheses.
The motifs of the fountain and pendulum recur frequently. They are both forms of circular temporality, that repeat with neither beginning nor end. Depending on the case, they take on different values: contrasting with a linear view of history, or warning against an atemporal (and apolitical) conception of the world. These videos have an “autistic” quality which exerts a more or less worrying fascination on the viewer. They function in a vacuum, in the contained space of the monitor. In Minding (99) the owl is like a goldfish in a bowl! They’re indifferent to the presence of the viewer, to which they sometime substitute themselves. A similar autonomy is found in We are the World and Enhanced Being, where the works are split in two, becoming both viewer and that which is viewed. “Permanent videos” (96) are simulacra of perpetual motion. With the work produced for the Musèe de la Publicité in Paris (Museum of Advertising), Sisyphe Heureux (Mobile) (117), I was relating that circularity to the amnesiac repetition of the televised image on one hand, and to the endless cycle of production and consumption on the other. Advertising takes over where the manufacturing process leaves off, but its repetitive aspect echoes that of industrial productivism, of the assembly line, which is itself a loop of sorts (this aspect is also explicit in Heaven (107) and Revolution (112)). The permanence and circularity dictate a rhythm: the protagonistshuman beings, animals, plants, objectsare condemned to repeat their gestures, in a state of bliss advertising alone can deliver. It seems to me the metaphor of a Happy Sisyphus, as envisaged by Camus, lends itself wonderfully to advertising.
Although the videos are permanent they are the opposite of commemorative. For example, in the case of the owl turning around and around, there’s no erosion of the ground, the millions of steps it takes leave no traces. These works waver between forgetfulness and remembrance. Permanence here is amnesic, whereas elsewhere disappearance is the medium of memory... This type of tension between opposites also exist within individual works. The milk fountain, for example, is forever threatening to shift from purity to abjection. My work as a whole is built on dynamic tensions like these.
H.M.: There may be a radiant body here: you don’t speak out against this desire, nor the desire to consume. But you do show that products construct an artificiality in so much as they tend to represent themselves outside of any flow, be it the that of time passing or of economic exchanges from which they proceed.
G.P.: There’s a sentence that springs to mind here: only change is permanent. Well, in the case of advertising, it’s tempting to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Representations that deny the fleeting nature things seem dangerous to me, but the make-believe of constant change as served up by advertising (to create new desires and maintain consumption) also spins around in a vacuum. This permanent revolution is hostage to the myth of eternal youth, to a stasis. It’s just a front.
For Withering, I wantedusing only three elementsto put across all the time frames conveyed by H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D.. First, the organic nature of the contents, indexed by the presence of the fungus growth on the yogurt package (a mold which, incidentally, no longer exists, having completed its own life cycle!). Then, the narrative of the model, linked to her own life-experienceand therefore the parallel between perishability and ageing. Finally, the cycle of trends and programmed obsolescence with the Pears soap and the two-headed male productthe packaging of which had been made redundant by its manufacturer during the time it took to plan the show. There’s also the time imposed by the videos themselves; the time of narration and its cyclical repetition in Withering I (114) and the slowed-down “real” time of the little girl in Withering II (116). Last of all, there’s the waiting and expectation that the quest for the identity of the male model gives rise to.
There’s in all this the idea of the distributed person that Gell writes about; the idea that people are necessarily distributed in their social environmentby way of their exuviae (nails, hair, etc.), but also, and above all, through their multiple representations.2 In the case of portrait-products, this dispersal takes place on an unprecedented scale. The female model on the yogurt talks about it intuitively when she mentions “the dispersal of her physiognomy,” in reference to photographs in which she appeared as a child. To get back to the idea of magic: all fragments and images that represent a person can be used to influence him or her. This is the case in rites of bewitchment, where the process of representation is reversed and a likeness serves to access an original. That is to say that the manipulation of the image (or the copy) has an effect on the model (or the original). This is also a kind of de-reification! From an anthropological standpoint, the issue of representation is thus closely bound up with that of magic.
H.M.: What’s the state of play with your hybrid products?
G.P.: Making prototypes isn’t very complicated. I wonder more about their becoming. Should I reproduce the type of distribution used for a normal product? How should hybrids exist? Should they remain one-offs or should their number be increased in a production process? There’s an alchemical dimension in this idea of hybridization. You’re not just mixing up images (and getting involved with notions of eugenics, the monstrous, or the “multicultural”); you have to mix up contents as well (more or less compatible chemical substances). And then there are the national origins of the products, on which the geopolitical value of associations depends. I’m not too sure whether this is interesting in a gallery. A supermarket? Maybe. If you combine chocolate and washing powder to make a brand new product, it short-circuits any use value. It also opens up a gap in the consumerist imaginary. Some combinations might turn out to be striking, to even embody absolute taboos.
H.M.: With the “reified beings” populating the shelves, a body acts as a foil to an object. Reciprocally, however, we sport the names of the designers of our clothes, and we display brands that take part in the construction of our identity. Have you thought about exploring this aspect?
G.P.: No, because I don’t find this relationship especially interesting. When I’ve worked on brand names, I’ve tended to focus on the relationship between signified and signifier, and on the act of naming performed by the brand (see for example True Spirit (74), Bold Caress (76) and Lye, (37) but also (35, 88, 66, 72, 119 and 126)). With the stones painted the color of m&m’s (60), it’s the notion of branding (the brand as inscription) that’s explored. In the small version made of pebbles, a forced association is made between a natural occurrence and a model. It’s a relatively violent act of abstraction. Instead of being an inference between a resemblance and an original, it’s the projection of an original onto a semblanceor pretense. What’s more, it’s the projection of an artificial (manufactured) thing onto a natural (organic) one. In Moutons (109), the monumental version, I wanted to put the thing back into the landscape, to “renaturalize” it as it were. More than its French equivalent (marquage), the English word “branding” suggests an act of inscription (of a body)branding being also the act of burning with a hot iron. There’s something of this violence in the act of painting these rocksand then “branding” them with an m. This reminds me of an older work, from 1989, dealing with tattooing (33). But none of these works address the social status the brands aspire to convey. Actually, I purposefully ignore this intention by shifting the focus to the link between the symbol and the thing, bringing one back to the other. The operation turns the given symbolic wealth into a meager tautology.
H.M.: When your models talk, they explain both their blending with the products and the fact that their identity cannot be reduced to the cliché on the packages. By making a yogurt girl talk, by making packages interact with each other in a dialogue, or by getting them to react to the movements of onlookers, you are reinforcing the idea of a life peculiar to these creatures.
G.P.: This is true above all for Withering 1, which is the only video where the model refers to her object status. What’s more, when she evokes her “one-way nightmare,” she is also referring to her status as a looped video, where the end refers back to the beginning.
In Withering and We are the World, getting the products to talk is not, strictly speaking, a détournement (a re-routing). It’s more like a rétournement (a reversal or U-turn). I’ve always been interested in the idea of restoring the representation to the represented. Here, it’s about re-injecting something humanand distinctiveinto the manufactured object, by somehow going backwards down the production line. The ambivalence between object and subject is a given: portrait-products are “complex enunciators.”
H.M.: What’s more, you’ve got two objects: the product, and the image on the package (a bucolic scene for detergent, etc.).
G.P.: Yes, and this particular dualitywhich is transparent as a ruleis in a state of crisis here: the introduction of a time dimension assumes the task of undoing it. The product ends up “dissociated” from its image. The main point goes back to what I was saying earlier about decontextualization, and the substitution of cultural agents by artefacts: basically, you can make objects and images say whatever you want them to. I’m partly taking advantage of this truism. A Senufo mask, in an ethnographic museum, could simply tell its own story, which would include how it got there. The story would undoubtedly, at some point, overlap with the history of colonization. The fact is we are faced with a metonymic leap; the mask becomes the mouthpiece for a whole people. This new “objectivity” acts as a guarantee for the new owner. And the mask’s aesthetic qualitieswhich inevitably also make it a work of artprovide the finishing touch to the object’s complete transformation. We’re presented with what James Clifford would call “optical illusions.”3 This insoluble set of problems applies to all “primitive art objects”.
H.M.: With regard to your work, Layton talks about a “distribution of meaning” as a “structural assurance against dogmatism”: you distrust all univocal or monologic discourses.4
G.P.: Yes. This is evident in the signifying strategy I deploy in exhibitions. It’s a composite strategy, indirect and usually unspectacular. The spectacle strives to persuade or win over, and its effectiveness is direct and immediate. The structures I set up (the “dispositifs”) are, on the contrary, allusive, and work over time. Their function is not to persuade, but to incite. They imply a temporality altogether different from that of spectacle (see on this subject the analyses made by François Jullien).5
I don’t use the term installation, which, to me, implies a homogeneous representational space and forms of theatricality. I prefer the term “dispositif,” (literally: a device or a plan of action) which has a more detached connotation. The main characteristic of such a dispositif is to allow heterogeneous elements to co-exist in the same space. These heterogeneous elements act on the viewer simultaneously. This synchrony of signifiers permits the kind of meaningful disjunctions specific to montagenot over time, but throughout space. The specificity of my work possibly lies here, and it is by definition hard to document, in a book or in any other medium.
The pieces act as catalysts in space. They start reacting as soon as they are in relation to one another. The work exists between the pieces. Each element not only “tells” a different “tale,” it also tells it differently. Each piece is the articulation of a central idea which is spread out over the entire exhibition. Meaning doesn’t converge toward a (transcendent) generality, but remains immanent to the dispositif, which, taken as a whole, forms a complex and dynamic structure. By creating a composite space that can’t be reduced to a synthesis or a transcendence, I’m also trying to construct a space tolerant of antagonism. A space I would describe as “impure” if I wasn’t afraid of the romantic connotations! The emphasis is on “becoming”, not on “being.”
H.M.: Let’s come back to two works often referred to: Peanuts for Ethiopia (7) and Gift of the Earth (106). Both of these works deal with the idea of the gift, but in a critical manner.
G.P.: The first relies on a direct (albeit ambiguous) efficacy. I have subsequently wondered about this advertising-type strategy. This is possibly an example of oppositional strategy. The denunciation shares the language of the enunciation, instead of setting an alternative against it. I often perceive a contradiction between the content of a message and the authoritarian nature or one sidedness of the discourse it is voiced in. For this reason I’ve been attentive in developing a language compatible with the content of my work. The difference can be seen between these two pieces. Peanuts for Ethiopia is inscribed in a clear topical context, and has a corrosive effect...
H.M.: It shows the obscene character of many of these operations combining campaigning and marketing, like the recent Télérama radio advertisement about including a petition against the death penalty in the United States in one of its issues, with, at the end, a message along the lines of: “This week, buy the magazine and save the prisoners on death row.” It’s a manipulative appeal to good conscience that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
G.P.: That is exactly how I felt at the timewhereas most people didn’t seem to find it problematic. Gift of the Earth is based on a different principle: it involves reversing the production line and turning a mistaken inference (the suggestion that peanuts come from m&m’s) into a mise en abyme. This unnatural naturalization is draped in religious, iconic imagery. The New Age connotations of the title perfect the illusion, creating a spiritual smoke screen. From the ambiguous denunciation of Peanuts for Ethiopia, there’s a shift to an ambiguity that . . . denounces?
H.M.: The title suggests naivety and raises questions about the image. In the same vein, you’ve linked consumerism and spirituality in Offering. Here again, you take literally the promises made by certain products (such-and-such a brand of ready-to-wear clothing or ham offering a return to “real” values, and a wholesome lifestyle).
G.P.: In Offering, I re-naturalize existing pebble-shaped sweets by putting them on a beachthe mimetism is perfect, unlike the rocks disguised as m&m’s! Incindentally, I also think it’s nice to give sugar to the sea. This re-naturalization, nevertheless, completely alters its object, and results in its disappearance.
Now we’re getting back to religiosity and de-alienation. A photo of the “performance” was published with the following question (in English): “Could the consenting mystification brought about by the voluntary practice of a hypertrophied commodity fetishism lead to a life of the spirit?” (with all the vagueness implicit in this expression). And again: “Wouldn’t such a spirituality (ironically) constitute a form of cultural resistance?” The question is rhetorical, needless to say.
H.M.: When an artwork presents itself saying “The world is a better place thanks to me,” you give it the same critical treatment you do commodities.
G.P.: Yes. I distrust “good intentions” in art as much as I do apolitical, pseudo-shamanism. They are two forms of “therapy” which I find untenable and out-of-place. Hence the choice of an ambiguous in-betweeness, a critique of a critique.
H.M.: The milk fountain in Angel Inc (98) and the landscape in Land of Milk and Honey (Bold Joy) (105) refer not only to America as the promised land but also to the quest for eternal youth (be it the fountain of Ponce de Léon or beauty milk). But milk goes off fast and, in order to endure, the model of the mythical land is made of detergent and washing-up liquid. You denounce the illusion of indefinite abundance. By deriving the stuff of your work from current economic business, where do you situate yourself in relation to an artist like Beuys, who saw himself as a social sculptor?
G.P.: Until quite recently, I had always found the demiurgic, guru aspect of Beuys unbearable. That mixture of Marxist mysticism and esoteric obscurantism seemed to me mumbo-jumboif taken literally. I’ve nonetheless shifted my position a bit: the problem has more to do with the way Beuys is used. And the personality myth he allowed to develop. I find the demiurgic side of the character uninteresting, dangerous even. The pseudo-shamanism that’s paid off handsomely in art circles is in my opinion a crude disguise. On the other hand, taken as such, it becomes very interesting! Which is to say that Beuys is interesting in the role of Wise Fool or trickster. The same goes for Yves Klein. It’s through travesty, misrepresentation and the blurring of genres that they acquire meaning. It makes them ambiguous and complex characters. At the end of the day, it’s their charlatanism that makes them brilliant! Beuys is sometimes regarded as the antithesis of Warhol, but I find it more legitimate to see them as two sides of the same coin. They both embody the role of Wise Fool.
Guillaume Paris was interviewed by Hugues Marchal on February 23, 2001. The first version of this interview was published in La Voix du Regard, “De l’économie à l’œuvre,” n° 14, autumn 2001.
1. Title of an exhibition of American photographs aimed at showing the universality of human gestures, which earned a critique by R. Barthes in 1957, in Mythologies, Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, ed. E. Marty (Paris: Seuil, 1993), p. 669 ff.
2. Cf. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
3. Cf. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).
4. J. D. Layton, “Structures of allusion,” Guillaume Paris: Selected Works, 1988-1998 (London: Contagious Magic, 1999), p. 13.
5. François Jullien, Le Détour et l’Accès: Stratégies du sens en Chine, en Grèce (Paris: Grasset, 1995).
© Hugues Marchal/Guillaume Paris 2001
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