Philippe Thomas

Claire Burrus

Philippe Thomas presents us with an occasion to focus on an artist who plays hide-and-seek with his identity, dissembling behind Les readymade appartiennent à tout le monde (Readymades belong to everyone), a fictive international agency. Thomas looks for “characters” to cast in his art history: “The point is to seduce the art-lover or the art professional, so as to leave his name definitively associated with a work awaiting only him and his signature in order to become a reality.” Thomas thus proposes that the purchaser appropriate the work by signing in his stead.

Aware that the simulation of advertising is a worn-out artistic strategy, Thomas looks to art history for other paradigms to exploit. From this perspective, he elaborates an esthetics of reception, the first instance of which was Feux pâles (Pale fires, 1990), the exhibition at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux for which he served as curator/artist. That show brought together more than a hundred works in twelve rooms, organized around the idea of the reception of the work. Here that show finds its mirror; it is restaged as a cabinet d’amateur, consisting of twelve black-and-white photographs showing the twelve rooms of the Bordeaux exhibition, captioned with the titles of the twelve corresponding chapters in the CAPC catalogue.

“Borrowing the visual rhetoric of land art” (the idea being, we are told, to lead the particular museum into an “uncustomary straying [errance] or mobility”), these twelve photographs come with a shelf on wheels for those who may not have grasped this “museal nomadism.” In addition, the show is being presented as an initiative of the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, the French bank which agreed to purchase the first set of this edition of three. Un Cabinet d’Amateur (A room of the art lover, 1991) thus marks a shift in Thomas’ evolution away from the fiction of the agency, and reverts to this esthetic paradigm. The cabinet d’amateur, a Renaissance and pre-“museal” model (a painting of one’s paintings, representing an art-lover’s collection), is to the history of painting precisely what Thomas’ agency is to the neo-Conceptual art of today. Thus we are told that, “the Ready-mades belong to everyone agency intends to find a new occasion to add a chapter to its history.”

In the process of developing its history, it continually renders it more fragile. An exact contemporary of Vattimo’s “weak thought,” this “art of society gets weaker and weaker as it extends its parasitic activities within the art system.” This is a dissolution of the concept of art within a “soft” and generalized esthetic confusion, which lacks the power to introduce even the shadow of a conflict within the present situation. There is, to be sure, some prowess evident in this gesture: to refuse to assume a work (and the identity of an artist) and at the same time to produce the illusion of an activity simply by setting into motion the wheels of the system. Therein lies the work’s seductive power—its capacity to mystify that, for those who let themselves be drawn into this game of “fiction,” sustains that minimal belief in art, which the work then proceeds to weaken—to eat away from within.

It is not so much this imposture that presents a problem—quite the contrary. It is rather the fact that Thomas cannot manage to bounce off the mystification, to go beyond the feint and confront the reality, not of the art system, but of art itself. Thomas’ discourse on art could never become an art of discourse unless it took the risk of betraying itself (as an imposture). Thomas has enough finesse to manipulate his imposture (the “fiction”), but not the capacity (the “art”) to go beyond this imposture by [re]doubling it. This is regrettable, for one would like to think that his economy of art was not limited to an art of economy, that is, of exchange, all carried out with the utmost seriousness.

Thomas does not risk disturbing this exchange, perverting its discourse, and contradicting its own economy. Not even with humor. That is, remarkably faithful to his undertaking, he is not, nor can he be called, an “artist.” He refuses the contradiction, the “crunch,” the “friction of antagonistic moments,” and thus confuses applied art with art. This is the curse of any neoclassicism—any fixed esthetic—which can no longer disengage itself from received forms and simply becomes prey to them—in this case, the facile conceits of the ’80s.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.