New York

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street

Little by little, the simple rigor of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s installation became clear: Distributed evenly throughout the gallery were five inflatable children’s pools, of an intense, almost Mediterranean blue. Each pool, filled with the same small quantity of water, was outfitted with an electric pump that created a mild current. And, finally, in every pool, there appeared a diffuse, floating mass of crockery—an identical number of assorted bowls, Chinese teacups, and stemware.

And with this the chaos began. Or perhaps I should say cacophony. For as the gentle current shuttled the bowls across the center of the pool and back around either side, the gallery was filled with noise—a music of crashes, clinks, soft rings, and percussive clangs amplified by subaquatic microphones. The pools and bowls performed a constant but ever-changing music of chance occurrences—a motive force that, following the lessons of Marcel Duchamp, Boursier-Mougenot threw into high relief against a background of serial repetition and relentless order.

Boursier-Mougenot’s training lies in musical composition, a métier that he soon hybridized, producing work first for theatrical productions and then, more recently, for artistic contexts. It was immediately impossible to classify his current exhibition as either “music” or “sculpture” (or, given its use of intense color, “painting”), an ambiguity that drove the artist’s critique of the conventions of both. As music, the sound environment dispensed with frontal performance (chairs were distributed randomly throughout the gallery), eradicated the traditional skills of both composer and musician alike, and became a new “instrument,” with capacities as constrained as the keys on a piano. As sculpture, all the characteristics of the Dadaist “bachelor machine” were present, with the serial nesting of circular forms within circles spinning in perpetual, at times hypnotic, motion. Boursier-Mougenot’s inclusion of vernacular elements also engaged the contemporary vein of sculptural practice that employs the everyday to reexamine the precepts of post-Minimal sculptural form (e.g., the work of Gabriel Orozco). As then both music and sculpture, the installation put into play an ever-multiplying structure of oppositions, testing the division—and relations—between sound and sight, chance and necessity, motion and stasis, difference and repetition, the everyday and the technological object. And in the wake of these divisions, the climactic moment of the installation seemed to arrive as I happened to sit in a chair at the center of the gallery space. From this position, no motion within the pool walls was visible, and the piece became almost completely aural. As I watched the other visitors staring curiously into the surrounding pools, Boursier-Mougenot confirmed another dictum of Duchamp’s, this one on the reflexive nature of vision, a condition in which hearing cannot share: “One can look at [see] seeing; one can’t hear hearing.” This ineradicable limit drove much of what was most disparate about the musical and visual avant-gardes, as well as dictated the laws of their intersection; following in the footsteps of John Cage, this is the rich legacy to which Boursier-Mougenot returns.

Questions hang over this work that cannot be resolved by a first New York solo exhibition. Will Boursier-Mougenot’s return to the Duchamp-Cage legacy prove more rigorous than other recent hybridizations of sensory and medium specificity—a veritable trend among contemporary French artists, with fruits as facile as Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s recent pastiches of Lygia Clark’s tactile work? Will his investigation of the everyday opt for a mere mystification of the ordinary, or put such domestic objects in the service of deeper transformation? (Henri Lefebvre long ago took the Surrealists to task for this, and, inasmuch as Boursier-Mougenot has constructed several of his sound pieces for street environments, his interest in Situationism should not be ignored.) And, finally, will this work escape the taint of dilettantism? A strange question, I know, but such was the fraudulent shadow that both Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno isolated as haunting the work of Wagner, father figure of all art that raises the possibility of the Gesamtkunstwerk, of the breakdown between the traditional competencies and borders of various artistic media—a major question, still, for our supposedly post-medium age.

George Baker