New York

Paul Etienne Lincoln

Christine Burgin Gallery

The piece is called In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV, 1983–91. In an elaborate contraption and its supporting documents, Paul Etienne Lincoln harnesses natural forces in the form of snails, bees, and gases to demonstrate the workings of the court of Louis XV. Everything revolves around Madame de Pompadour, a charismatic vacuum maintained in the contraption by the King, who functions in the form of a royal gasbag. The machine looks like a version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for midget dandies. It is metaphorically and literally powered by the bodies and metabolic waste products of snails (courtiers) and worker bees (financiers, or rather the manufacturers of life-energy in the form of glucose transformed by court mammals into gold). And it really works, producing the hyacinth-based personal fragrance of Madame de Pompadour.

An exquisite hydraulic metabolic feedback system doomed eventually to choke on itself, it is a grand and truly airtight model of Enlightenment thought: a style of belief that promoted the fantasy that language, and by extension society, corresponds to the world in a “natural” way, and knowledge of everything can be collected, systematized, and stored in encyclopedias, museums, and zoos. His Enlightenment setup is moving, in fact, as a monument of discreetly daft sublimation, in that his obviously protracted affection for his subject—Madame de Pompadour—takes the form of an equally passionate urge to organize everything into gadgets.

On two separate occasions Lincoln set the court in motion, in 1984 and 1985. It lasted for one month before the bees swarmed, but it did yield the desired aroma. The artist wore a conical headress stuck with yew, like the one worn by the king in the Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees, that pivotal event where he first appeared officially with his mistress and inspirational vacuum, la Marquise. The rest is history. Constructed here by Lincoln in the form of this insect-powered totalizing project, which is both artificial and natural, history takes the form of political antiproduction, metabolic waste time, chance, and the lowest forms of life combined metaphorically and literally into one perfume machine. It would have been nice if we could have sampled the scent. The absurd expenditure of the court is lovingly mirrored by Lincoln, who devoted years to the project, taking crazy pains, such as collecting individual snails from the actual native soil of each courtier represented. He eventually ate them in a “private ceremony.”

The archive is a documentation of his own obsessive research as much as of the intrigues and intricacies of court, which, like his piece, were often full of fun. Lincoln’s pedantry is relentless and deliciously understated, with a subtle bouquet of cattiness. The accompanying evidence is beautifully arranged. One of three museum cases preserves the evidence of his performance: the score of a Bach sarabande, the yew helmet, and the canvas machine hood are displayed with a three-foot vial of syrup that looks like a mammoth urine sample. A sumptuous gilt frame groups scraps of beautiful little sketches of the gadget with lyrical passages from Madame de Pompadour’s memoirs. There is a gorgeous feel in the show of dissected and embalmed jollies. The cramped and rather poignant sense of “history” encloses not only his 18th-century subject but his own relation to it. In this sense he produces himself as a fey lost object, fading through his search and his elaborate ephemeral rituals, a pivotal connector as spectral as Madame de P.

Rhonda Lieberman