PRINT April 1988


IN A STORY BY Jorge Luis Borges, a man dreams a son. He invents the soma and persona of a son, and then, in his dreams, releases his progeny to lead the semblance of an autonomous existence. Soon, however, he perceives a flaw in the veneer of his almost perfect simulacrum—he realizes that the son will soon discover the ephemerality of his own status. The man decides to inform the boy of this tenuousness himself, but in the process, as in the turning of a wheel, he discovers that he too is the creature of circumstances like the son’s—that he too is a figment of somebody else’s imagination.1 Such circularity defines all Borgesian labyrinths. Puzzle is heaped upon puzzle, cognitive structure upon cognitive structure, to reveal in their interstices the gaps permeating all human systems, all constructs of the mind—be they the constructs of the self, of philosophy, of mathematics, of time.

This Borgesian landscape is the site of Philippe Thomas’ art. But instead of writing stories, Thomas constructs fictional situations in real life—paradoxical, circular, self-referential situations. His narrative systems skirt, and thereby show, the limits of their overt subject: the sort of rigorous theoretics that we associate with Paris, which is Thomas’ home. The work engages with theory only to perform a kind of conjuring trick with it, “disappearing” it, as if skeptical of its power. What is left is an inexplicability that in Thomas’ metaphoric domain just may be the self. Only a generation after the Situationists, who, in addition to the kind of theoretics that Thomas comments upon, did performancelike work that functioned, like Thomas’, at the edge of art practice, this younger artist has replaced their version of critique as angry heckling with a representation of critique as fiction and as fantasy. These themes become apparent as Thomas’ story unfolds.


IN 1981, AT THE Ghislain Mollet-Viéville gallery in Paris, Philippe Thomas presents a photostat of an original manuscript found, perhaps, on a subway, its author unknown. The manuscript appears to be an excerpt of a novel in which the main character is attempting to analyze the role of context and presentation in the production of art. The following year, this manuscript, now entitled Frage der Präsentation (A question of presentation), is published by the Museum für Kultur, Berlin, in a German translation. The booklet includes two forewords, one by the museum’s curator, the other by the translator, who explains that he has refrained from rendering the theoretical portion of the manuscript into German because it is an excerpt of another text being read by the fiction’s protagonist, and therefore exists in the story only inside his head. Three years later, in 1985, an issue of the French magazine Public contains both an ad for Frage der Präsentation placed by its French distributor, ART & CIE Diffusion, and a critical text by one Michel Tournereau analyzing the booklet. But Tournereau’s essay in fact originates with Thomas. Tournereau, a collector, has purchased the essay as an artwork, only to destroy the original manuscript, at Thomas’ request, after copying it over in his own hand. Since all subsequent copies derive from the text he writes, he has become its author.

In the first chapter of this unfolding drama, Thomas has already established its abiding themes. Just as Giulio Paolini makes presentations of the Western tradition of representation, Thomas makes fictions of critical theory. Both artists convey a sense of the respective institutions they address as reassuring but flimsy scrims, rather limited collective delusions. (“We may make / mention or allusion of a thing but never express it at all. . . . the tall proud tomes that cast a golden penumbra in an angle of the drawing room were not—as he had dreamed in his vanity—a mirror of the world, but simply one more thing added to the universe.”2) And for Thomas, not only is critical theory—one form of our culture’s attempts to get to the “truth”—a castle made of sand, so too is the self that perceives it. The self is mutable—it is Philippe Thomas, it is not Philippe Thomas, it is Michel Tournereau—and may be purchased or changed like an article of clothing. Yet finally it is unknowable, impenetrable, like the untranslated bit of theory inside the protagonist’s head in Frage der Präsentation.


EACH OF THOMAS’ SERIES of works entitled Sujet à discrétion —“unlimited subject,” or perhaps “unlimited self,” or perhaps “subject to your discretion”—consists of three identical color photographs of an expanse of ocean. Thomas identifies the first as La Mer en Méditerranée (vue générale) (The Mediterranean Sea [general view]), author anonymous. It is listed as a multiple. The second is entitled Autoportrait (vue de l’esprit) (Self-Portrait [specific view]), its author is Philippe Thomas, and it is also considered to be a multiple. In French, vue de l’esprit is also the term used in technical film language to designate the subjective camera shot, or point-of-view shot. The authorship of the third photograph, this time said to be unique, is left open, but when a collector buys the entire group, the picture becomes a self-portrait of whoever he or she may be. Sujet à discrétion is first presented in Paris, 1985, in the “Les Immatériaux” exhibition curated by Jean-François Lyotard at the Centre Georges Pompidou, where a photograph of the sea is identified as a self-portrait by Lidewij Edelkoort, a Dutch collector. Later, in 1987, Sujet à discrétion is reenacted at the Colin De Land Fine Art gallery in New York, where a group show comprises photographic seascapes credited to John Dogg, Barbara Gladstone, Joseph Kosuth, Allan McCollum (all of them invited by Thomas to become the photographs’ authors), and Philippe Thomas.

In 1986, “Fictionnalisme: Une Pièce a conviction,” a group show containing work by Jean Brolly, Georges Bully, Herman Daled, Edelkoort, Françoise Epstein, Dominique Paini, and Tournereau, is presented at the Claire Burrus gallery in Paris. One room contains what appear to be abstract photographs but are “in fact” enlarged details of the faces of the show’s participants. In another room the seven artists appear in a photographic group-self-portrait modeled after the 19th-century academic painting Hommage à Delacroix, 1864, by Fantin-Latour—a portrait of seven artists who considered themselves influenced by the painter, and who therefore had themselves painted flanking his self-portrait. Thomas’ present-day artists stand in the same positions as those in the Fantin-Latour picture. In place of the Delacroix self-portrait is the picture of the sea from Sujet à discrétion. One artist, Tournereau—who has surfaced in this fiction before—holds a copy of the book Frage der Präsentation, about which he has apparently written in the past; but the title of the book, and a wall label for the picture, are printed in reverse, suggesting that the entire group portrait is a picture not of subjects in the flesh, but of their images in a mirror.

In this chapter Thomas presents the self as an oceanic void, as the sublime, as the unrepresentable. In the vue de l’esprit, the mind’s-eye view, the self is undifferentiated, undefined, a primordial sea. It may only be defined externally, as through economic exchange (when a view of the sea is purchased, it becomes a self-portrait of the purchaser) or social relations (in the group portrait, the subject, or self, may be glimpsed only as a reflection in a mirror, or through the eyes of another). All of the objects in Thomas’ fiction, be they the sea, an abstraction, critical theory, or anything else the subject accumulates in the world, may be considered no more than versions of a mutable self-portrait. (“Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”3)


IN 1987, PHILIPPE THOMAS performs a lecture, “Pour un art de sociéte” (For an art of society), at the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou. Afterward, a pamphlet entitled “Philippe Thomas décline son identité” (Philippe Thomas declines his identity) is distributed. Signed by Daniel Bosser, a Parisian collector, it consists of the text of Thomas’ lecture as well as stage directions for all his actions, including his clearing of his throat, his sipping from a glass of water, his checking of his watch.

With the self identified as a fiction, the artist now “declines his identity”—he disappears. (“Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man’s dream—what incomparable humiliation, what vertigo!”4)


JANUARY 1988. THOMAS OPENS an office in the Cable Gallery, New York. The function of his company, called Readymades Belong to Everyone, is to sell artistic identities. As in a law firm, the walls of the office are lined with corporate-style photodocuments of past projects. The company logo consists of a graphic title stamped on a mirror. Spread on a worktable are technical drawings for a complicated game, “Selected Fragments for a Reconceived Authorship,” in which “anybody” may become an artist by participating in a set series of steps. The sole proprietor of Readymades Belong to Everyone is Philippe Thomas. On his office desk is a framed photograph of a ventriloquist’s dummy on the lap of his ventriloquist.

At this point Thomas' fiction has become a self-perpetuating, recursive system, like those that go into constructing the artificial intelligence of computers. Like mathematical recursion, it uses itself to build itself; it is self-referential as well as self-replicating. With this latest chapter in his fiction, Thomas seems to have lost track of his original metaphors—for the impossibility of communicating the true self, for the necessary lie built into any attempt at expression—and his self-reflexive game has taken on a life of its own. Who is playing whom? Thomas apparently hopes that it is he who has now become shadow, the dummy on a ventriloquist’s knee, and while the metaphoric content of the tale is now reduced, it just may be that its self-reflexivity is enough. (“It is likely that, aside from the conjectures it permits, this idea itself moves us. . . . Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces scored by time, certain twilights, certain places, all want to tell us something, or told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something. This imminence of a revelation that does not take place is, perhaps, the esthetic fact.”5)

Claudia Hart is an artist and writer who lives in New York. She contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” collected in A Personal Anthology, New York; Grove Press, inc., 1967.

2. Borges, “A Yellow Rose,” ibid., p. 83.

3. Borges, quoted in “Editor’s Epilogue,” ibid., p. 203.

4. Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” ibid., p. 73.

5. Borges, “The Wall and the Books,” ibid., pp. 91–92.