New York

Joël Hubaut

Artists Space Exhibitions

JOËL HUBAUT’s performance at Artists Space was the first in a series of performances and exhibitions by French artists shown in alternative spaces throughout New York. Entitled “Une Idée en l’air,” the series was presented from late October through December. Hubaut is a visual and performance artist who sees art, language and other aspects of culture as “epidemics” of civilization, and his recent works on this theme of épidémie have been attempts to undermine conventional bourgeois forms of expression.

On entering Artists Space, each member of the audience was handed a rectangular fabric badge covered with red and blue symbols—circles, arrows, lines, etc. These symbols recur throughout Hubaut’s work as the vocabulary of épidémie. A microphone stood in the center of the performance space, and speakers at the edges; an open black ring about the size of a small tire lay on the white floor; and various simple props were placed carefully at the outer boundaries of the space. The entire arrangement was sparse, precise, almost pristine. But it didn’t stay that way long once Hubaut began.

The performance was divided into three interrelated sections, each of which took approximately ten minutes. The first began with the artist standing beside the microphone reading a passage from a book. Although the passage had obviously been written in English, in Hubaut’s reading it became almost unintelligible, except for certain key words—like aggressive, feminine, God, Man, love, clergyman and officer—which were spoken loudly and emphatically. As the reading continued, however, even these words became slurred, and the artist began to sway back and forth and to close his eyes as he started to knead, and eventually rip up, the book. As Hubaut’s voice became louder and shriller, a woman planted in the audience began to scream. After about five minutes of this, the noise suddenly ceased, and the artist bent down to sweep the remains of the book to the front of the performance area.

In the second section Hubaut attempted to undermine music, just as in the first he had challenged literature. After exchanging his sneakers for black shoes with elongated flaps for soles, the artist picked up a can of black spray paint and scrawled a musical staff, the words “épidémia musik” and several of the symbols from his “vocabulary” on the wall. He then poured a bucket of black paint into the ring on the floor, stepped into it, put a much smaller ring in his mouth, and began to grunt rhythmically. Clenching his fists and jumping up and down in time with his grunts, Hubaut gradually stepped up the tempo and the volume until he was screaming animallike sounds (accompanied by equally “uncivilized” noise coming out of the speakers) and splashing paint all over the floor like a madman or a petulant child.

The lights were dimmed for the final section. While sounds of heavy breathing (which were, at times, quite erotic) came through the speakers, the artist donned a dark trenchcoat and goggles and handed flashlights to several members of the audience. Looking like a cross between a businessman, a monster, and a caricature of a movie detective, Hubaut began to conduct an almost violent “conversation” with himself. The “words” spoken were not intelligible, but the artist’s angry noises were accompanied by gestures that became more and more dramatic as Hubaut became seemingly more and more exasperated. Almost biting off the head of the microphone in his fury, the artist started to shuffle forward, backward and sideways—and as his fit reached its peak, he ended the performance suddenly by bursting into the audience and scattering chairs and people in his path.

There were few original ideas in this piece: the artist’s attitudes and ideas can be traced back to the Dadaists and through Artaud, and many of his techniques appear to be derived from those used in Futurist performances as well as in avant-garde theatrical works of the 1960s. But Hubaut is an excellent performer, with a fine sense of timing, a sophisticated understanding of the nuances of sound, and a dramatic yet controlled sense of expressive gesture. As a result, the primitive anger and energy he communicated were both compelling and contagious.

—Shelly Rice