UN SINGULIER PLURIEL. HOMMAGE À PHILIPPE THOMAS
By Luca Lo Pinto
With contributions from Claire Fontaine, Mario Garcia Torres, Egija Inzule & Tobias Kaspar, Pierre Leguillon, Cesare Pietroiusti
From “Mousse” n° 42
2014

By dissolving his identity into that of others, and reflecting on the statute of the art object, Philippe Thomas has brought the question of authority to its extreme logical consequences, anticipating many of the questions which, in the following decades, would become central. Defining his work is a task simultaneously fascinating and discouraging. The Artistic Director of the MACRO Luca Lo Pinto offers a personal interpretation of it, while inviting artists whom Thomas had an affinity with to do the same. The result is a “singular-plural” portrait, like the title of one of his pieces.

Defining the work of Philippe Thomas is a daunting task. The career of this artist dead before his time, elusive like few others in art history, is complex and fascinating. His work combines modes of artistic production and advertising savvy, generating short-circuits that shed stark light on the commercial aspects that constitute the life’s blood but also the pathogenic agents of the art world. Dissolving his identity in that of other persons and reflecting on the art object, Thomas takes the desubjectivization of the role of the artist as creator to its extreme logical consequences. Luca Lo Pinto offers a personal reinterpretation of Thomas and involves several artists who have some link to his work, outlining a “singular-plural” portrait.

 

Un singulier pluriel. Hommage à Philippe Thomas, besides being the title of this text, is that of a work attributed to francois epstein, but conceived by philippe Thomas.

Philippe Thomas was a unique, revolutionary figure on the art scene over the last thirty years. He died young, at just 44 years of age. His artistic path passed from Duchamp and broodthaers to link up with rutault, then continuing along an axis of its own, in a career that still remains unique today thanks to its radical character.

any attempt to definitively interpret his artistic practice fails a priori, because he thought contains enough antibodies to frustrate any act of enunciation (revealing the rules of the game) or renunciation (concealing them). as Thomas himself put it: «there is no mystery, it is possible to talk about philippe Thomas; nevertheless, due to the game i have brought to life, there will always be the suspicion of a pure hoax.» it is no coincidence that in 1987 he gave a lecture at centre pompidou titled Philippe Thomas décline son identité (playing with the dual meaning of the word décline: that of “refusing” but also that of “declaring”). what looked like the typical lecture of a young artist about his work was actually a performance studied down to the smallest details, following a script in which every word and every gesture—including the questions from the audience—had been planned. The trick was revealed only at the exit to the auditorium, where the script performed by Thomas was available in the form of a small publication attributed not to him but to a certain Daniel bosser. by transferring the fictional element from text to reality, Thomas made a work that for its complexity and ambiguity was even more effective than the historic performance by robert morris in 1964, in which he reenacted a lecture by Erwin Panofsky.

it should come as no surprise, then, that Thomas’s roots lie in a profoundly european, if not just french, cultural of humanism and philosophy. In twenty years of work he translated motifs of literary, philosophical and cinematic origin into the codes of visual art without ever falling into the trap of mere self-reference. His constellation includes figures like nelson goodman, fernando pessoa, jorge luis borges, Vladimir nabokov, maurice blanchot, stéphane mallarmé, james joyce, jean eustache, jacques rivette, art & language, iain baxter, michael asher, joseph Kosuth, christopher d’arcangelo, ian wilson, robert morris, Dan graham. From the outset, philippe Thomas used fiction for productions inscribed in reality through a synthesis between the literary and visual dimensions. After having founded the Information Fiction Publicitè group together with jean-françois brun and Dominique pasqualini (with whom he had collaborated in the past under the name of Ligne Générale), in 1985 Thomas decided to forge ahead on his own. Through operating within a conceptual line, he rejected tautologies, producing works based on a precise relationship between the sign and things, representation and presentation.

Sujet à discrètion, for example, is a photographic triptych that includes three identical views of the mediterranean sea. The work has three authors, as shown in its captions. The first image is by an anonymous maker, with the subtitle “la mer en méditerranée (vue générale) multiple”; the second is by Thomas, with the indication “autoportrait (vue de l’esprit) multiple”; and, finally, the third is by the purchaser, with the message “autoportrait (vue de l’esprit) piece unique” shifting the responsibility for the work to the collector. From this point on the artist develops a series of works based on the fictional dimension, with a more literary than linguistic approach, taking advantage of every tool of distribution and presentation of the art system (catalogues, invitations, press releases, advertising, captions). While in this same period Felix Gonzalez-Torres challenges the language of art by focusing on autobiography, instead Thomas desubjectivizes the role of the artist as creator, dissolving his identity in that of other people. In 1987, in fact, he founds a public relations agency called readymades belong to everyone® at the cable gallery in New York. The agency offers clients the possibility of investing in artworks; through the purchase, they become the authors, thus officially finding a place in art history. By transforming the collector into an author, Thomas seems to foreshadow the mechanisms that govern the present forms of capitalism based on the concept of the “prosumer,” namely a subject that acts simultaneously as consumer and producer.

The reality proposed by Philippe Thomas is contaminated by the effects of fiction, in which everything and everyone are part of the game, even managing to attribute an artwork to a gallery (claire burrus), a museum (capc bordeaux) or another, false artist (john Dogg). As his alter ego laura carpenter writes, «after all, it is not hard to imagine how an art that has rejected the duty of representing the world might also reject the duty of representing an author.» readymades belong to everyone® closes in 1993 with a retrospective in the form of a selection of works reproduced as postcards.

The same agency is the author of what remains as Thomas’s masterpiece: the exhibition Feux pâles at capc bordeaux. Feux pâles is a history of art presented as it is being written, a history within History, an imaginary museum within the museum. The show is subdivided into eleven rooms, each on a different subject, organized according to keys of interpretation aimed a recontextualizing the value of the objects and works on display. Each room, like one chapter of a story, has an autonomous title (Les cabinets d’amateurs, Le musée sans objet, L’art d’accomoder les restes, Le musée réfléchi etc.). Thomas is both the subject and object of the tale. He displays and puts himself on display, juxtaposing his works (always signed with the names of the collectors) with paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, cabinets of curiosities and works by Duchamp, manzoni, roth, beuys, buren, all the way to the younger richter and mccollum. concealing his identity, he makes ordinary people become the protagonists of this alternative art history. The catalogue contains texts written by Thomas but signed by others, along with essays written and signed by “real” authors. Feux pâles is conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk. A grand scenario, as fictional as it is real, where linguistic borderlines are abolished in favor of an ongoing overlapping of different planes of interpretation, amidst echoes, references and assonances. A revolutionary exhibition that perhaps only pierre Huyghe at centre pompidou has managed to equal. Philippe passed away on 2 september 1995, but his thought seems to be even more relevant and effective today than it was at the time. with his work, in fact, he foresaw many of the crucial questions of the present artistic debate and language: the function of the audience, the conception of the exhibition as artwork, the depersonalization of the author, the scattering of artistic codes in media of mass communication, the appropriation of advertising and marketing strategies, the slippage between reality and fiction. Thomas has rewritten the artist-work-viewer relationship in a performative guise, calling back into question the history of art and art itself. Thus, when one attempts to grasp it, his work scatters in a thousand fragments, and every time you pick one up it too disintegrates, multiplying, triggering an infinite game of mirrors. Thomas always wanted to draw attention away from himself as a person, to focus it on the work, refusing to suggest a single, vertical interpretation. so i have decided to organize this article as a text by multiple authors, asking different artists who have had a connection to his work or an interest in it to send short thoughts, statements, reflections. a plural singular. as the title of a work of the artist explains.

 

CESARE PIETROIUSTI

An artist can try to construct his or her own myth as a being not subject to certain (i.e. ascertained) death, vanishing in a small boat while trying to cross the ocean, or devising an exit from the scene that leaves no traces in its wake. An artist can continue to produce a boundless quantity of works, well beyond his biological demise, through the installation of a special foundation, the entire planet, or by becoming the story of a phantom-body-artist who loses a piece of his body with every performance. In the middle of the 1980s, an artist said by many to have been Philippe Thomas engaged in playing with the theme of the author, inventing a formula that is only apparently simple: “readymades belong to everyone.” In other words: I take any coat rack and I own a Duchamp – and so far, this would be an ennobling reinterpretation of consumism and our enthrallment with our desire for Things. Or: I distribute already made things (they seem like works, because they are shown in exhibitions, but they are just pretexts) and attribute their authorship to anyone I please, or anyone who wants it. The new authors should seem like artists, but actually nobody believes it. Yet the game has a certain impact. More complex and elusive, for example, than Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, Philippe Thomas succeeds quite nicely in his attempt to elude the brand (style, presence, right, etc.) of the auteur, and he approaches the condition of the non-existent artist in an astute way. I say “astute” because I remember that this difficulty of positioning and comprehension, together with the radically vacuous appearance of the works which in magazines or exhibitions accompanied the “formula,” made me feel a certain irritation at the time…

Now that someone reminds me that Thomas has left us, already many years ago, I feel as if I can say that he was a coherent artist, whose project was profoundly successful in its aims: having avoided, in his day, the media-history-art identification, and thus a not-fully-living artist, he remains—together with the elusive images of his zombie-works and the confused analysis applied to them—an artist that is not-fully-dead, like (though along very different routes) Bas Jan Ader, De Dominicis, Manzoni, John Fare.

 

CLAIRE FONTAINE

Philippe Thomas was not alone.

Even beyond his explicit association with Jean-François Brun and Dominique Pasqualini, with whom he formed Ligne Générale first and Information Fiction Publicité later, he was—during his whole life—part of a sort of community, in which he kept dissolving him-self. One could believe that he multiplied the pseudonyms, that he created an advertising agency to cede rights of authorship, that he built a mirror of the digestive apparatus of institutional memory in order to protect his work and control its reception.

But that would be wrong.

The meta-fiction, the multitude of the real and imaginary identities, the accumulation of visual and conceptual devices, were created as a massive mechanism of contamination and inclusion, against the myth of the uniqueness of the artist’s genius.

And this was done to such an extent that now, when one approaches Philippe Thomas coming from a younger generation, for example, as in our case, to curate an exhibition, not knowing him except for his texts, some of his works and their (rare) printed reproductions, one perceives the presence of a tight circle of connivance and complicity surrounding him, something like a magnetic field.

This is because Philippe Thomas put himself in conditions not only to share his work but to distribute—and dilute—his glory, even posthumously; he created a short circuit within critical distance by leaving in his own place collaborators with an uncertain status and a crowd of unanswered questions. First of all, the question of his oeuvre as an enigma: the writings, the images, the sculptures, the exhibitions and the performances are entirely conceived as a puzzle, and if one manages to put together a certain amount of pieces, one begins to hear a soft laughter, like Odradek’s, almost a noise of rustling leaves, a terrifying laughter without lungs. Within the void left by the function-author Philippe Thomas has captured the devices of subjectivization at work, the collectors’ desires to change their lives without changing anything, of living through the artwork. He has made the most complex and embarrassing relationship—the one between the artist and the buyer of his work, always conjured up by the gallery’s mediation—into a collaboration, a paradoxical convergence of interests that makes the laws of Capital work in the opposite sense.

 

PIERRE LEGUILLON

Geneva, 25 november 2013

Dear luca,
The only thing i can give you is this quotation from Philippe Thomas which i included in 2005 in my Diaporama pompier, in the form of a “board” in white on a black background, like the captions of silent films: «it has often been said that my work buggers taxonomies, classifications and all the surrounding institutions like museums, advertising… but it has not been very well understood—and i have experienced this—that this thing has also buggered me.»

Ever since Daniel bosser, a parisian collector who signed a work by Philippe Thomas, told me about this passage from an interview, a week hardly ever goes by without me thinking back on those words.

During the two projections of this diaporama, one in paris and one in bordeaux, the phrase was spoken by bernadette lafont, the great french actress you may have seen and heard in La maman et la putain by jean eustache, or in the films of françois Truffaut and claude chabrol. She died last summer.

When i think back on this phrase, the voice of bernadette lafont always comes to mind,

not that of Philippe Thomas, whom i never met. But both of them give me the idea of an extremely determined character. at times i am lacking in such determination. Then i hear the voice of bernadette lafont repeating the words of Philippe Thomas. Had this been for radio, i could have found the recording for you!

 

MARIO GARCIA TORRES

An invisible text
(song for a group of voices)

First i thought we would be amused
There was a board and a photograph
On behalf of whom was this done?
It’s the act that makes the fact
Our muse got us confused

You can change it all by saying yes
It felt like an invisible text
What would come right next?
The sign to us all was addressed
Guess, who is here the guest

I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
It was nineteen-ninety-one

Realities had been fiction before
Paintings without a subject
Who was it behind that door?
It doesn’t matter because
There ’s more, to stand in for

I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
It was nineteen-ninety-one

An empty screen appeared next
We are here to fill in for you
Arranging everything that is left
With each other will follow through
Flecks, are the only effects

I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
I do my part and you do yours
Together we do everyone
It was nineteen-ninety-one

 

EGIJA INZULE AND TOBIAS KASPAR

The meat is sad alas and I have read all the books

Maybe from today’s perspective Philippe Thomas’ approach to engage with and reveal the mechanisms, codes and semantics of art practice has lost its efficiency. Perhaps what was a provocative take, at the time, on the artwork and the position of the artist as a brand has faded… still, the space for theoretical ambiguity and the notion of sustaining it is very much at stake: Thomas’ work forces one to encounter it on the level of footnotes… his body of work eludes straightforward consumption of knowledge or its immediate generation of surplus value to agree that in some ways it almost vanished. One has to emerge into a meta-fictional character of his painstakingly elaborated work. His twisting of authorship, by appropriating it from others, re-transferring his own to others, acting within the artist collective IFP or the agency readymades belong to everyone®, leaves us today with many traces of and towards Philippe Thomas.

We got to know the work of Philippe Thomas through Ghislain Mollet-Viéville, the art agent and collector of Minimal and Conceptual Art. Thomas held his first exhibitions in Mollet-Viéville’s apartment in Paris at the end of 1970s. In the same apartment he presented, together with IFP, a first version of cloud photographs; a set of slide projections, later to become light boxes to circulate on the art market as objects, an embracing of common conventions. Embracing as a tactic, a way to participate, but trying to define one’s own parameters and at the same indicating that one is somewhere else.1

All this intertwined to lead up to an exhibition in 2010 at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart2 which by coincidence allowed us to exhibit the agency’s readymades belong to everyone® work Un cabinet d’amateurs3, which had been shown at same institution in 1992. Now a sort of exhibition within the exhibition, its original function was to document Thomas’s Feux pâles show at CAPC4 Bordeaux, in the form of a work in its own right. A dispersion… how to disappear…

 

NOTES

1 At one point the characters stand side by side (…) a group standing in a row at a bar cruising someone opposite them (…) stand-and-pose – a decidedly self contained form of cruising that telegraphs something like: I’m indicating that I want you only to the extent that I am showing you how desirable I am by demonstrating that I am capable of complete indifference to you.

2 In the Middle of Affairs – Aesthetics of Distribution, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 2010, curated together by Egija Inzule, Tobias Kaspar and Axel J. Wieder.

3 Un cabinet d‘amateurs consists of twelve photographs presented in a sort of art storage on wheels and depicting each one room of Thomas’ Feux pâles exhibition at the Musée d‘Art Contemporain Bordeaux in 1990-1991. Each photograph is accompanied by a caption:

Inventares du memorable
Les Cabinets d’amateur
L’Art d’accommoder les restes Passif de la modernite
La Chair est triste helas et j’ai lu tous les livres Respect de l’etiquette interet du cartel
Mesure pour mesure
L’Index

4 Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, 1990-1991.

 

This article was commissioned by and first published in “Mousse” n° 42.