Philippe Thomas: The Difficulty of Being “Je”
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the occasion of the retrospective it is putting on through May 18, 2014, the Mamco in Geneva has given us access to the unpublished interviews of Philippe Thomas (1951–1995) which they are currently working up to book form.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.
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,). 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)