Phi­lippe Thomas: The Dif­fi­cul­ty of Being “Je”

Art Press - - RARITY - Christophe Kihm

On the oc­ca­sion of the re­tros­pec­tive it is put­ting on through May 18, 2014, the Mamco in Ge­ne­va has gi­ven us access to the un­pu­bli­shed in­ter­views of Phi­lippe Thomas (1951–1995) which they are cur­rent­ly wor­king up to book form. We have cho­sen an ex­cerpt from a dia­logue with Sté­phane War­gnier, held on April 14, 1995—less than five months be­fore the ar­tist’s death—which ex­ten­ded in­to se­ve­ral ses­sions. Thomas talks about the ques­tions of the si­gna­ture and au­tho­ri­ty, which are leit­mo­tifs in his work. This, as Christophe Kihm points out in his in­tro­duc­tion, should be ap­pre­hen­ded from a li­te­ra­ry more than a visual view­point.

——

Wri­ting plays two com­pli­men­ta­ry roles in the work of Phi­lippe Thomas. It is the me­dium in which that work is concei­ved and takes form, but al­so in which it is ex­ten­ded and conti­nued. Mamco’s pu­bli­shing de­part­ment has al­rea­dy brought out two vo­lumes about this ar­tist. The first, Sur un lieu com­mun et autres textes,( 1) in­cludes all Thomas’s main wri­tings, his let­ters, ma­nus­cripts, ma­ni­fes­tos and sto­ries, from the Ma­nus­crit trou­vé (Found Ma­nus­cript) of 1981, up to Fic­tion­na­lisme, his agen­cy rea­dy­mades be­long to eve­ryone® and Feux pâles. The se­cond is an edi­tion of the jour­nal Re­tour d’y voir,( 2) made up main­ly of ana­lyses by cri­tics and art his­to­rians, as well as nu­me­rous per­so­nal re­col­lec­tions.

It is al­so at the in­ter­sec­tion of these theo­re­ti­cal, epis­to­la­ry, nar­ra­tive and cri­ti­cal pieces that Thomas’s work is sha­ped and sub­verts the si­gna­ture and au­tho­ri­ty using the ruses and stra­ta­gems al­lo­wed by wri­ting, be it he­te­ro­ny­mous, ano­ny­mous or de­le­ga­ted. As we know, Thomas was cons­tant­ly sur­roun­ding him­self with part­ners (col­lec­tors and friends, gal­le­rists, cri­tics, mu­seum and ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tors), wri­ters, si­gna­to­ries and wit­nesses, who were rea­dy to the play the game of de­cons­truc­ting the art­work and the di­sap­pea­rance of the ar­tist fi­gure, part­ly by cal­ling in­to ques­tion dif­ferent as­pects of ma­te­rial and in­tel­lec­tual pro­per­ty. Thomas scru­pu­lous­ly laid down the rules of this game in which au­tho­ri­ty is lost and the si­gna­ture era­sed. The texts he wrote or ini­tia­ted can be seen as mar­kers de­li­mi­ting the are­na. For es­sen­tial­ly theo­re­ti­cal rea­sons, this was a fic­tion. In the Ma­nus­crit trou­vé (1981) he thus pro­poses the concept of “pre­sen­ta­tion,”(3) which de­si­gnates an ac­tion of lo­cu­tion pro­du­ced through the in­ter­me­dia­ry of an ob­ject (which could take the form of a photograph [Fic­tio­na­lism], an agen­cy [rea­dy­mades be­long to eve­ryone ® ] or an ex­hi­bi­tion [ Feux pâles]). Thomas’s ar­tis­tic pro­po­si­tions thus en­able and en­act the construc­tion of a “dis­cur­sive fra­me­work,” the mo­da­li­ties of which can be des­cri­bed as “fic­tive,” a term which we en­dow with stra­te­gic si­gni­fi­cance. The tech­niques in­vol­ved false ap­pea­rance, si­mu­la­cra, de­ceit and the crea­tion of am­bi­guous si­tua­tions. Thomas was both the chief ar­gu­ment of this fic­tion and the nar­ra­tor of its dif­ferent

events, as he is in these in­ter­views in which li­te­ra­ture is a re­cur­ring ques­tion. A fervent rea­der of phi­lo­so­phy, no­ta­bly of the lo­gi­cian Frege and Witt­gen­stein, as well as of the poems of Mal­lar­mé, the sto­ries of Borges and the nar­ra­tives and es­says of Mau­rice Blan­chot, he de­ve­lo­ped his work wi­thin a fic­tive fra­me­work that, over time, be­come a se­ries of events that, in the end, on­ly a no­vel could tru­ly re­cap­ture. What ap­pea­red on the ho­ri­zon of this work, the­re­fore, was a strange li­te­ra­ry pro­ject that consis­ted in ac­ting out a sto­ry, using the re­sources of art, and de­ve­lo­ping it by mixing fact and fic­tion. This sto­ry conti­nues to be writ­ten to­day, for eve­ry ex­ten­sion of the work (pri­ma­ri­ly in ex­hi­bi­tions and cri­ti­cal wri­tings) on­ly adds to its events. That is the power of the pro­ject. As Thomas ve­ry lu­cid­ly em­pha­sizes in the in­ter­view that fol­lows, the af­fir­ma­tion “I is ano­ther” tells us no­thing about the exis­tence of this other wi­thin us. But there is one hy­po­the­sis that may al­low us to meet the ar­tist’s de­mand, wi­thout re­du­cing it to a blur­ring of iden­ti­ty ini­tia­ted by the plays on au­tho­ri­ty and si­gna­tures. For Thomas, “I” was a wri­ter de­ve­lo­ping his work of fic­tion from wi­thin the iti­ne­ra­ry of an ar­tist, whose di­sap­pea­rance he stages, ob­ser­ving the new prac­ti­cal and theo­re­ti­cal di­men­sions for fic­tion, in its ac­tual ef­fects. If we consi­der this work in the light of its li­te­ra­ry pro­ject, all the way to the absent book at its heart, Thomas emerges as a wri­ter of in­com­ple­tion and im­ma­tu­ri­ty, along­side Wi­told Gom­bro­wicz, Ro­bert Mu­sil and Franz Kaf­ka.

(1) 1999, in col­la­bo­ra­tion with Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de Rennes. (2) Re­tour d’y voir, no. 5, “Re­trait de l’ar­tiste en Phi­lippe Thomas,” Édi­tions du Mamco, 2012. (3) The text is tit­led “Ques­tion de pré­sen­ta­tion.”

Phi­lippe Thomas I had an idea, which was to start with the fra­me­work of this in­ter­view, which re­quires that I speak in my own name. It is real­ly pos­sible to say “I”? Why do I want to oc­cu­py this po­si­tion? What rup­ture would it ini­tiate with all the things that I have or­ga­ni­zed? With this im­pli­cit idea: isn’t all that an illu­sion, that is to say, a false ques­tion—it’s a pos­si­bi­li­ty—that my work it­self ex­poses?

Sté­phane War­gnier Odd­ly enough, you are thin­king in terms of ques­tions, of doubts, whe­reas I had thought of a so­lu­tion. I was won­de­ring to what extent the ar­tist might not be doing the tal­king. Un­de­nia­bly, he exists as a per­son, or ra­ther, a per­so­nage, to stick with your vo­ca­bu­la­ry. But yes, he exists to­day through ex­hi­bi­tions, ca­ta­logues and his par­ti­ci­pa­tion in sym­po­sia. I would say the op­po­site. The ar­tist does not exist in the traces he leaves and that au­then­ti­cate his exis­tence as an ar­tist. There are no pieces by Phi­lippe Thomas. You can look eve­ryw­here, you won’t find any. This pa­ra­doxi­cal si­tua­tion was ima­gi­ned by Hen­ry James in his No­te­books when he said: “Could not so­me­thing be done with his idea of an ar­tist who has a cer­tain re­nown, but crea­ted by those who are una­ware of the rea­sons for that re­nown?”(1) For example, my work is on­ly done to the de­gree that so­meone else takes it upon him­self, ex­cept in the case of the agen­cy, which acts as a le­gal en­ti­ty.(2) If mo­der­ni­ty has taught us to ac­cord more at­ten­tion to the traces than to the dis­course or the si­gni­fied, then we have no choice but to ad­mit that, ac­cor­ding to that lo­gic, there is no exis­tence cor­res­pon­dong to the ar­tist Phi­lippe Thomas. But what I like in what you say is the fact of ins­ti­tu­ting a dis­tance bet­ween the per­son you would call the in­di­vi­dual Phi­lippe Thomas, that is, Phi­lippe Thomas from the point of view of the ad­mi­nis­tra­tion, and Phi­lippe Thomas the ar­tist. This re­minds me of the prag­ma­tic dis­tinc­tion bet­ween the spea­ker and the self—who may be a fic­tive nar­ra­tor—in other words, the I pro­du­ced by the play of wri­ting, and the em­pi­ri­cal I, who is me at this mo­ment when we are tal­king to each other.

DOUBLE MEA­NING

The pa­ra­dox is that, ul­ti­ma­te­ly, in what your work has construc­ted there are lots of traces of Phi­lippe Thomas, not traces of the ar­tist. He is much quo­ted. That’s true main­ly for the first per­iod, that is to say, at the time of Fic­tio­na­lism.(3) It was much less the case during the func­tio­ning of the agen­cy.

My im­pres­sion is that there was a kind of mi­sun­ders­tan­ding on this point—pe­rhaps be­cause of the term “fic­tio­na­lism”—which was to be­lieve that the birth cer­ti­fi­cate ver­sion of Phi­lippe Thomas had in­ven­ted a cha­rac­ter, whe­reas in fact the whole point of the work by this of­fi­cial Phi­lippe Thomas, your work, consists, ra­ther, in in­ven­ting not a cha­rac­ter, but your­self. Or in im­po­sing a way of rea­ding, that is to say, ma­king people feel that we do not have a place, a role that is fixed once and for all and that, de­pen­ding on cir­cum­stances, these can take dif­ferent di­rec­tions. That, I think, is what should be un­ders­tood here, and not the fact that I might have in­ven­ted a cha­rac­ter. People are wrong about that idea, main­ly be­cause they are in­ca­pable of seeing the other in the same. You were saying that I stron­gly em­pha­si­zed Phi­lippe Thomas in the first part of my work. What mat­ters to me is that he was tal­ked about as a re­ferent. A text was si­gned, for example, by Mi­chel Tour­ne­reau, tal­king about so­meone with the name Phi­lippe Thomas, who might sound like me, but was there on­ly as a re­ferent. That is the whole pa­ra­dox or, let’s say, pri­vi­lege of fic­tion: pro­cee­ding as if the text had a re­ferent. In Tour­ne­reau’s text Phi­lippe Thomas takes the risk, or ra­ther, is ta­ken up by the risk, of being wi­thout a re­ferent. In the case of Su­jet à dis­cre­tion,( 4) the work can exist on­ly if there is a third si­gna­to­ry, I mean, a se­cond si­gna­to­ry. That is to say that out of the three pho­to­graphs of the sea, one is blank, it is there for what it shows: the sea. The se­cond pro­poses ano­ther in­ter­pre­ta­tio­nal grid, but brings the other in­to the same, sim­ply by ad­ding the si­gna­ture “Phi­lippe Thomas, Au­to­por­trait (vue de l’es­prit).” The first and se­cond pho­to­graphs are iden­ti­cal, but with an am­phi­bo­lo­gy, an am­bi­gui­ty: it is a “men­tal pro­jec­tion” ( vue de l’es­prit) in the li­te­ral sense, mea­ning that, as in ci­ne­ma, it's a point-of-view shot. We are as­ked to read this pho­to as a gaze brought to bear on the sea, and it is to this gaze that we give a name, Phi­lippe Thomas. This men­tal pro­jec­tion and this gaze are fic­tive. Ac­cor­ding to a cer­tain lo­gic, we have no choice but to ad­mit it. It is nei­ther true nor false, and that is ano­ther way of in­ter­pre­ting the ex­pres­sion vue de l’es­prit.

In the ima­gi­na­ry sense. Ima­gi­na­ry, yes. As for the third pho­to, it is open to what I call a tran­sac­tion with a col­lec­tor who would like to ac­quire the work, and whom I ask to him­self pro­duce this gaze that will bear a name—his name. Conse­quent­ly, this “men­tal pro­jec­tion” will al­ways be read as his self-por­trait. There, that is the ge­ne­ral fra­me­work. The im­por­tant thing to know is that this work can ne­ver be pro­du­ced or rea­li­zed if there is not so­meone to say: “I’ll si­gn.” My si­gna­ture is not enough. It de­pends on the col­lec­tor’s si­gna­ture.

Could we not consi­der this work—which is consti­tu­tive—as a me­ta­phor for the fact that your work, which seems to make you di­sap­pear, has pa­ra­doxi­cal­ly and con­ti­nuous­ly as­ked others to prove that you exist? Yes, in a way. But it makes me exist on a cer­tain le­vel, that of fic­tion. My ve­ry first work, even be­fore Su­jet à dis­cre­tion,( 5) was a let­ter that was an ans­wer to an in­vi­ta­tion to an ex­hi­bi­tion cal­led Pré­sence dis­crète,( 6) and this ans­wer consis­ted in

saying: “as for a dis­creet pre­sence, I don’t see any pos­si­bi­li­ties.” And I said, “I ask you to un­der­si­gn my let­ter.” […]

One of the first texts is cal­led Phi­lippe Thomas dé­cline son identité (Phi­lippe Thomas De­clines/ Runs through the Forms of His Iden­ti­ty,[7]). Again, there is the same pos­si­bi­li­ty of a double mea­ning.

The agen­cy Rea­dy­mades be­long t o eve­ryone® was a brilliant way that you in­ven­ted of fol­lo­wing the prin­ciples that your thought was ba­sed on, the prin­ciples that com­prise your phi­lo­so­phy—be­cause it is a phi­lo­so­phy. But, in a way too, it was the trees that hid the fo­rest. What hap­pe­ned with that agen­cy is odd for se­ve­ral rea­sons. The first is that when I set it up, I wan­ted to get away from the at­mos­phere of Fic­tio­nia­lism, which had its clas­si­cal charm but which I now found a bit out­da­ted. I wan­ted a much more “mo­dern” lan­guage. By crea­ting that agen­cy, the idea was to use ano­ther kind of rhe­to­ric, one that would be more ver­na­cu­lar, but that would conti­nue the same work. La­ter, I gave the agen­cy a name, I bap­ti­zed it, you might say, with a fine per­for­ma­tive ac­tion. I was saying, “rea­dy­mades be­long to eve­ryone.” [...] The name of the agen­cy had a po­le­mi­cal func­tion. And then there was a third le­vel of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, that of re­cep­tion. In the end, people took this name ve­ry li­te­ral­ly.

As if it was an idea you were moo­ting? Yes, like a de­cla­ra­tion, an af­fir­ma­tion. Some of them even played on the words, saying, “It’s not true, rea­dy­mades don’t be­long to eve­ryone, be­cause you have to pay to be an ar­tist.” And in fact that put me on the side of what I was trying to critique. People mi­sun­ders­tood the func­tion of that agen­cy. They didn’t see what it was real­ly saying and doing.

But you ne­ver re­fu­sed to ack­now­ledge that you were its di­rec­tor? Of course, but at some point I was un­com­for­table. Apart from ta­king part in sym­po­sia, where I al­ways re­fu­sed to be re­cor­ded, I have ne­ver let the press pu­blish any­thing close to an in­ter­view with me. I thought, “I’m stan­ding aside, that means they’ll real­ly have to take the other si­gna­tures in­to ac­count.” So­me­times I even for­ced the si­tua­tion a bit when people of­fe­red to do an in­ter­view. I pas­sed the buck to the col­lec­tors, so that they would ans­wer. And thus, by my si­lence, which in a cer­tain way fit the idea of Fic­tio­na­lism, I my­self may have contri­bu­ted to the mi­sun­ders­tan­ding.

Maybe it is sim­ply im­pos­sible, even in the art world, to ac­cept it when so­meone takes the doubt about the pos­si­bi­li­ty of saying “I” all the way. All your ar­tis­tic work is al­so a way of not res­ting content with saying “I is ano­ther,” a neat ex­pres­sion plu­cked from a book, but of fol­lo­wing it right to the end. Doing ra­ther than saying. To say “I is ano­ther” is an af­fir­ma­tion: but ac­ting in such a way that “I should be ano­ther,” ma­king it hap­pen, that is not ac­cep­ted.

THE IM­POS­SI­BI­LI­TY OF SAYING I

Was there a mo­ment when you thought that clo­sing the agen­cy would help people see things more clear­ly? I don’t know how to ex­plain it, but I’d had it up to here with the agen­cy. Pe­rhaps, first of all, be­cause of this mi­sun­ders­tan­ding, which was star­ting to weigh on me, and a cer­tain frus­tra­tion be­cause the foun­da­tions of the work were not re­co­gni­zed. That came to me in ve­ry con­crete terms. I don’t know if I can talk about this bu­si­ness with Ch­ris­toph Sat­tler which was the straw that broke the ca­mel’s back. Sat­tler is the au­thor of Mün­chen hin und zurück.( 8) He si­gned the piece, but wi­thout re­co­gni­zing what was due to him. He was ama­zed to dis­co­ver that his si­gna­ture had a com­mer­cial va­lue, that there was an ex­change bet­ween him and me, which I was ex­pec­ting to be mo­ne­ti­zed. His name en­ded up being prin­ted on the co­ver of the book—and that is im­por­tant for me, gi­ven all the things we’ve said about the trace— wi­thout him real­ly un­ders­tan­ding what was going on. I wasn’t in a ve­ry favorable po­si­tion, with an in­ter­me­dia­ry tel­ling me that I should feel high­ly ho­no­red by Sat­tler’s si­gna­ture, be­cause, so I was told, he was a big ar­chi­tect in Ger­ma­ny.

A big I.

Yes, that was too much. Which on­ly goes to show that there is re­sis­tance. “I is ano­ther” is hard to ac­cept. Pe­rhaps my per­so­nal ca­reer, af­ter Fic­tio­na­lism and af­ter the agen­cy, was about going back over that frus­tra­tion. It has of­ten been said that my work wrought ha­voc in taxo­no­mies, clas­si­fi­ca­tions and all the ins­ti­tu­tions that use them, like mu­seums, ad­ver­ti­sing, etc., but not ma­ny people rea­li­zed—and this is what I ex­pe­rien­ced—that it al­so wrought ha­voc in my own life. All those frus­tra­tions, which are there, and which I don’t de­ny, were ex­pres­sed in the real im­pos­si­bi­li­ty of saying “I.” In the end, doesn’t the at­tempt to say “I” af­ter Fic­tio­na­lism and af­ter the agen­cy a contra­dic­tion of eve­ry­thing I’ve done, eve­ry­thing the work pro­du­ced? That is to say, clai­ming this “sa­me­ness,” ab­so­lu­te­ly re­fu­sing this my­self who is other, and wan­ting to be heard as a crea­tor or ar­tist. There is al­so a ve­ry prac­ti­cal side, which is that when I say I, in an in­ter­view for example, in a sense I can’t back that up: be­cause all my work has been si­gned and coun­ter­si­gned by other per­sons, people can ask, “But is it true, this time? Is this real­ly so­meone cal­led Phi­lippe Thomas, who exists, who has an em­pi­ri­cal exis­tence, who is tal­king? Or is this Phi­lippe Thomas just ano­ther fic­tion?” And the name as­so­cia­ted with him, yours in this ins­tance, would then be the equi­va­lent of the col­lec­tor ta­king res­pon­si­bi­li­ty for a work. There is a kind of loss of moo­rings here mea­ning that, at both the ra­tio­nal and lo­gi­cal le­vels—the le­vel of a will to ra­tio­na­li­ty—I am out on a limb. And, at a poe­ti­cal, rhe­to­ri­cal le­vel, I can­not even back up my “I.” That puts me in a ve­ry un­com­for­table po­si­tion when it comes to conti­nuing. Now that I have de­ci­ded that the agen­cy is clo­sed, how can I conti­nue?

14 April 1995 Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

(1) Hen­ry James, No­te­books.

(2) This is the agen­cy Rea­dy­mades be­long to eve­ryone®.

(3) Fic­tion­na­lisme. Une pièce à convic­tion. Jean Brol­ly, Georges Bul­ly, Her­man Da­led, Li­dew­ji Edel­koort, Fran­çoise Ep­stein, Do­mi­nique Paï­ni, Mi­chel Tour­ne­reau, Ga­le­rie Claire Bur­rus, Pa­ris, November 25–Ja­nua­ry 16, 1986. (4) Su­jet à dis­cré­tion (1985). The piece consists of three iden­ti­cal pho­to­graphs of an ex­panse of sea. Each has a dif­ferent la­bel: “Ano­ny­mous, the Me­di­ter­ra­nean Sea (Ge­ne­ral View), mul­tiple”; “Phi­lippe Thomas, Self-por­trait (men­tal pro­jec­tion), mul­tiple”; the third la­bel bears the name of the per­son who ac­qui­red the work, fol­lo­wed by “Self-por­trait (Men­tal Pro­jec­tion), Unique Piece.” (5) “Phi­lippe Thomas: su­jet à dis­cre­tion,” text by Mi­chel Tour­ne­reau, pu­bli­shed in Pu­blic (1985). (6) “Pré­sence dis­crète,” Mu­sée des Beaux-arts, Di­jon, or­ga­ni­zed by Le coin du mi­roir, 1983. (7) D. Bos­ser, Phi­lippe Thomas dé­cline son identité, 1987. (8) Mün­chen, hin und zurück was pu­bli­shed in 1992 in Ger­ma­ny. It is a book with 51 pages, pu­bli­shed in an edi­tion of 1,000 by the Mu­nich Kuns­traum for Do­cu­men­ta IX. Its co­py­right is ow­ned by rea­dy­mades be­long to eve­ryone®. Two post­cards sho­wing views of Kas­sel and Mu­nich, pho­to­gra­phed by Thomas, are slip­ped in­to each co­py, the text of which is si­gned by the Mu­nich-ba­sed ar­chi­tect Ch­ris­toph Sat­tler. The text was ori­gi­nal­ly writ­ten in French, but no trans­la­tor is men­tio­ned. The ori­gi­nal ver­sion is pu­bli­shed in Sur un lieu com­mun et autres textes, Édi­tions du Mamco and Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de Rennes, 1999, p. 335–347.

The in­ter­titles are by the edi­tors.

La col­lec­tion de Georges Ven­za­no. 1990. (Coll. capc Mu­sée d’art contem­po­rain, Bor­deaux)

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