In Guillaume Paris/Mixed Blessings, pp. 97-99
published by les Musées de Strasbourg & Partners Edizioni (Strasbourg, France 2002)
ISBN 88-88178-02-3




The work of Guillaume Paris represents an enigma which refuses to yield, even under sustained interpretation. It is all the more enigmatic in that its ambiguity – aptly illustrated by the works’ punning titles – is obtained not by broadening but rather by drastically curtailing the role of chance and contingency. For Paris, the greater the precision, the greater the indeterminacy, paradoxical as that may seem. His work frames the contemporary world and its dominant mythologies with a rigorously anti-essentialist vision, and the artist observes a stringent agnosticism with regard to all systems of extrinsic belief – also somewhat paradoxical, given the highly referential character of the work itself. Despite his formalist penchant – underscored by the carefully pared-down appearances of everything he produces – Paris focuses primarily on methodology, meticulously planning structure down to the last detail before attacking the production phase. If one had to identify a common thread running through his work as a whole – voluntarily blending the tangible and the intelligible – one could only formulate it in the form of an in-between, claiming full recognition for the excluded other. As Paris practices it, art has wrested itself free from existent disciplines, while at the same time steering clear of indiscipline; art is conceived not as a multidisciplinary endeavour (the multidisciplinary presupposing the encounter of one discipline with another), but rather as emerging from the unoccupied space in between disciplines, without ever seeking to reconstitute itself – that is, to discipline itself – through the synthesis-producing movement of the dialectic. This endeavour to produce meaning in the interstice between disciplines takes the form of a critical investigation of the notion of purity, and, by logical extension, contamination. Paris is less caught up with creating objects than with thinking through their social role; less concerned with producing images or olfactory installations than in playing with the mythologies that inform them and that they, in turn, convey.

It was the young Nietzsche who most vigorously questioned the very possibility of art-making in a world dominated by reason, from which mythology had been banished. Appealing as it must have at one time appeared, Nietzsche’s intuition has little purchase on many contemporary practices, which function on the level of pure immanence; less convincing still, however, is the dichotomy opposing reason and myth, which seems hopelessly inadequate in the face of the contemporary imagination, which has adapted quite nicely to a mixture of rationality and mythology. Advertising, particularly, draws its considerable power of compulsion from an immense reservoir of myths, which, though they crumble even under the most everyday brand of rational analysis, prove themselves to be nonetheless effective at turning vague needs into consumer drives. “Desire”, wrote Spinoza with pithy concision, “is appetite along with the consciousness of appetite.” Consumption, one might add, is appetite without any consciousness of appetite.

One must indeed suppose that advertising is effective, for otherwise it would surely not be the object of such significant investments. And yet no one is fooled by it, or at least not to the extent of believing in it totally. What, then, can it really mean to assert that advertising produces an effect? That it produces an object – consumption, for instance? Perhaps, but a more likely answer is that it produces a certain form of subjectivity. But Paris, rather than conceptually pitting subject and object against each other, seeks to reveal their formal hybridisation. Art, he seems to suggest, is a junction point of opposites, where the other is no longer excluded the way it is in a logical proposition; it is the site of embodied thought, which, though it does not cogitate, nevertheless ensouls form and meaning.

It is perhaps in his olfactory works – from the installation Enhanced Being (1991) up to and including the on-going Theophanic Matter series – that Paris has with the most complex subtly dealt with the myths underlying the production of subjectivity in their full ambiguity. Smell, wrote French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, is one of those “immense details” that makes it possible, by the stimulation it triggers, to travel uninhibited back through time to places no longer on memory’s radar screen[1], to such an extent that a person’s olfactory memory can be considered tantamount to Ariadne’s thread, running from birth to death. The sense of smell compensates for its essential evanescence by prolonging its ephemeral reign, generating dreams and fantasies, images and memories, which our society’s mythologists – perfume designers and advertising agents – have very efficiently categorised and exploited for marketing purposes. However, if putting on perfume is part of a (narcissistic) process by means of which the subject blends his or her own olfactory image with that of another, preferred image, transcending their contradiction in order to gain a new olfactory identity, the generalisation of deodorising in contemporary society aims instead at the neutralisation of any olfactory experience and any olfactory relationship to others whatsoever. The deep-rooted crisis of desire which plagues our society is characterised, in this respect, by two concomitant and apparently contradictory phenomena: on the one hand, widespread deodorising, and on the other, the spread of utter olfactory chaos – a paradox which culminates in the generalisation of scented deodorants and other space “fresheners”, which Guillaume Paris nicely describes as “theophanic matter”. If, our society seeks at once to silence body odour and to perfume reality, it can only be because smell constitutes a focal point for the deployment of contemporary mythology. The symbolics of well-being, purity, softness, virility and so on go hand in hand with the increasingly obvious lack of traditional olfactory impressions. By showing “minimalist” cubes of scented gel (moulded following negotiations with a factory specialising in space-deodorising products) – showing, that is, objects that materialise the repression of bodily reality – Paris has accomplished a gesture of multiple levels of meaning. For, exposed to the air, the cubes evaporate little by little, their immaculate “ultramarine” or “apple-green” appearance withering and darkening with the passing of time, leaving them in flagrant visual contradiction with their olfactory pretensions. For is deodorising not indeed an attempt to efface any trace of duration, to introduce a fictional rupture in time-circumscribed existence, to attempt an almost magical feat, which, if it cannot stop time, can at least erase its effects? Suggesting by association, with superb irony, that minimalism (and perhaps even abstraction per se) sought to pursue, in the art-historical field, a quest for purity in all respects comparable to the logic of deodorising – its objective being to eliminate all traces of coming-into-being – Guillaume Paris has managed to conjugate a recognition of olfactory intelligence with an implicit critique of deodorised society and a reflection on the history of contemporary art.

How might one enable the appearance of the subject alienated in the consumer product? How might the subject be empowered to speak? It is questions such as these that, over the past ten years, H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. has sought to respond: this open-ended project is, first of all, a somewhat unusual portrait gallery, made up of what the artist refers to as “portrait-products” – veritable “factishes” of contemporary culture, to employ the useful portmanteau word coined by French anthropologist Bruno Latour.[2] But as we have just suggested, Guillaume Paris’s concerns extend beyond mere advertising imagery, even though the latter is a boon for the production of contemporary subjectivity and mythology. Any intentional construction is apt to engender mythology (the stuff from which subjectivity is made), and thus constitutes a potential material for Paris, whose work reveals the formative role played by myth-making in the production of subjectivity in our society, which prides itself on having done away with it once and for all. In some way, shape or form, his work inevitably deals with products of “immaterial labour”, which may be defined as “the activity that produces the cultural and informational content of the commodity and its production cycle”.[3] It should also by pointed out that the “product” of this activity is subjectivity. In other words, there is a relationship between the content of immaterial labour and the content of the immaterial product. The specific task of immaterial labour is characterised by perpetual innovation in the relationship between production and consumption – in other words, in manufacturing a consumer for the product. The object of advertising, and more generally of “immaterial labour” as a whole, consists in producing subjectivity on a massive scale. Its object, in short, is the subject.

But Paris’s work not only deals with how the subject of reception is transformed into a consumer-subject, conditioned by the plethora of strategies of immaterial labour, but with any number of other manifestations of subjectivity. He is perhaps more concerned still with the sort of secondary agency taken on by artefacts when they become part and parcel of social relations.[4] Whereas the philosophy of agency (or the subject) either presupposes or justifies the autonomy of human agency, the artefacts which comprise the work of Guillaume Paris function as quasi subjects, or “depleted” subjects, as when one speaks of “depleted uranium”, whose radioactivity is largely exhausted, but which is still capable of wreaking small-scale havoc. From this point of view, his work can be read as an enquiry into the objects of worship of contemporary Western culture, the myth-bearing forms and images produced by immaterial labour. But what, when one gets right down to it, does immaterial labour produce? It produces the television programmes we watch, the press we read, the commodities we consume. It produces the way we see and feel, live and dress, think and smell, talk and consume; it produces the lifestyles and the mythologies that underpin the subjectivities of our societies; it produces, in short, new and improved sectors for capitalist accumulation. It gives form to consumer needs, tastes and imagination, and materialises them in products which, in turn, are potent producers of needs, tastes and imagination. The advent of immaterial labour, in other words, is the very emblem of a mixed blessing.

Stephen Wright

Adapted from the French by the author.


Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de la rêverie (PUF: Paris, 1960), p. 119-23. “When it is memory that inhales”, he concludes, “all smells are good.”

[2] See Bruno Latour’s Petite réflexion sur le culte moderne des dieux faitiches, Synthélabo, Paris, 1996. “The word ‘fact’ seems to refer to outside reality, and the word ‘fetish’ to the crazy beliefs of the subject. Both conceal, in the depths of their Latin root, the intense work of construction, which makes possible the truth of both facts and of minds. By joining the two etymological sources, we shall call factish the robust certitude which enables practice to take action without ever believing in the difference between construction and contemplation, immanence and transcendence.” (p. 44)

[3] A. Corsani, M. Lazzarato & A. Negri, Le Bassin de travail immateriel (BTI) dans la métropole parisien (L’Harmattan : Paris, 1996), passim.

[4] Cf. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 17 et passim. “The kinds of agency which are attributed to art objects (or indexes of agency) are inherently and irreducibly social in that art objects never (in any relevant way) emerge as agents except in very specific social contexts. Art objects are… ‘secondary’ agents in conjunction with certain specific human associates… The philosophical theory of ‘agents’ presupposes the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the human agent; but I am more concerned with the kind of second-class agency which artefacts acquire once they become enmeshed in a texture of social relationships.”

© Stephen Wright 2002

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