Bon Travail

Mladen Stilinovic  - Artist at Work (detail), 1978, 8 b/w photographs. Collection of the artist
Mladen Stilinovic - Artist at Work (detail), 1978, 8 b/w photographs. Collection of the artist

In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argues that play is the primary formative element in culture. Associating mankind with autonomy, Huizinga seeks to establish play not only as an aspect of culture but as a defining component of it. Marx’s theory of alienated labour, meanwhile, presents the working man as deprived of the right to conceive of himself as the director of his actions, being instead defined by the system/ culture he resides in. According to Marx, work replaces life as the worker provides labour to substantiate his living. Such thoughts feel pertinent to Bon Travail, which tackles the paradigm of working to sustain a life and, at the same time, living for work.

Against this, the art on show aims to discuss the possibility of something assuming the status of nonwork. In other words, it positions the act of producing a nonwork as a political, performative involvement within society. Basing itself on a paradox, the exhibition already announces via its title – which translates approximately as ‘good work’ – that something has been done and bears an adherent value, while that ‘thing’ (artwork) itself displays futile effort: there’s a discrepancy between action and consequence. For instance, Mladen Stilinović’s photography series Artist at Work (1978), which shows its maker lying in his bed, assuming different positions, speculates about the thin line between contemplation and procrastination, between productive labour and an artist’s ineffectual endeavour. 

Bon Travail tackles the paradigm of working to sustain a life and, at the same time, living for work

Jean-Luc Moulène’s photograph Chef de Rayon Paris, 11 Avril 1998 (2005), of a man seen from behind, fixing a shelf in a strangely empty, possibly new megamarket, hints at various modes of generating work, wherein something that might seem nonsensical to do at leisure times attains meaning. Boris Chouvellon’s intervention of hanging a pallet truck from the ceiling of the exhibition space, Untitled (2009), not only provides an aesthetically pleasing composition but also marks the Deleuzian distinction between an object and a tool – where an object only becomes a tool when it is used to perform a function. Video pieces by Roberto Verde & Geraldine Py follow a similar thread line: in Caprice Boulevard Isidore Dagnan (2009), the artists commission a crane driver for a spinning-the-crane-on-the-building-site performance, allowing the driver to abandon his (and the crane’s) function for a short period of time.

Moreover, Bon Travail complicates the position of the artwork at group exhibitions, plainly suggesting that every exhibition is a process in which works of art are recontextualised. In other words the artwork, though physically unchanged, may articulate itself variously through diverse conceptual frameworks. Bon Travail effects this by presenting some of the works from the exhibition that preceded it, Brouillon, in a completely different context. The former show – curated, like this one, in collaboration with French dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz and Musée de la Danse, Rennes – was devoted to activating the spaces of encounter and experience of the artwork while treating them as resonant sites for performative interventions. In a way, the seemingly low-effort act of borrowing from the former show suffices to shift the artworks to a nonwork context, which strengthens the conceptual build-up. It must be said, though, that some works dialogue over-literally with the concepts of labour and leisure, and set up tangents that weaken Bon Travail’s conceptual weave and paradoxical proliferation.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue.

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