I’m interested in art because it’s like doing philosophy without having to write.
Ivan Argote, Les Inrockuptibles, January 2011
What is dreamt of in Ivan Argote’s philosophy? There are Rousseau-like bits in his videorecorded pranks – getting the crowd in a Paris metro elevator to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ (Anniversaire, 2009); asking metro-goers not to give him a coin but to accept one (I Just Want to Give You Money, 2007); telling tetchy rush-hour pedestrians at busy intersections in Madrid, Paris and New York that he loves them and that they are beautiful (Sans Titre, 2010–12). These are funny, but also earnest in their attempt to produce authentic connections between the individual and the community, to force public masks to fall away, or highlight how rarely, if ever, this happens. There’s some postcolonial Marxism in there, too, splashed with a dash of semiotics – public monuments of Spanish kings wearing Peruvian ponchos made in China (Turistas, 2012); equestrian statuary with the riders Photoshopped off their mounts (Horses, 2011); and the Egyptian obelisk in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, which ActUp once sheathed in a pink condom, prostrating itself in a Paris gallery, lowered to mere art, spent (Hangover and Ecstasy, 2014).
Mainly, however, it’s Nietzschean – critical, iconoclastic, playful, poetic – a ‘transvaluation of all values’. Well, not all values, just the everyday bits of life-denying public nastiness that make us step past panhandlers, glare at attention-grabbing oddballs and avoid each other’s eye on buses and in elevators. The subtitle of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1889) pops into mind – ‘How to Philosophise with a Hammer’ – except Argote’s hammer is inflatable and squeaks when you hit somebody. His multitudinous appetite for media – video, photography, sculpture, performance, installation – calls to mind Bruce Nauman, an obvious influence, though Argote’s brand of bad-boy is much less harrowing. The goofy pranks have gained him quick notoriety, starting with Retouch (2008), a 12-second video in which he spraypaints a pair of Mondrian paintings in the Centre Pompidou, which almost got him booted from the MFA programme at the Beaux-Arts in Paris (relax, they were under glass). Most of his stunts, however, pale in comparison to the standard YouTube fare out there, and his newest gallery-friendly gewgaws – poorly proofread lines of English dialogue laser-etched onto c-prints and resin-cast bowling balls with severed hands sticking out from them – are a bit thin. So, future, great? If he follows the leads laid down in the above-mentioned Sans Titre – my favourite work so far of the decade – and the rich seam of La Estrategia (2012, look it up), well, then, well, yes.
Originally published in the March 2014 FutureGreats issue, in association with EFG International