The most famous work by Gilles Barbier depicts the superheroes of the so-called Golden Age – the mid-1930s to the 50s – finally showing their age. The sculptural installation L’Hospice (Nursing Home, 2002) finds Superman bespectacled and hobbling about on a Zimmer frame, Catwoman wrinkled and slumped comatose in front of the TV and Captain America bloated on a gurney with a drip running out of his arm. This work, flavour of the month for a while on such click-hungry websites as Trendhunter and Io9, nonetheless provides an immediate portal into some of the Marseilles-based artist’s central preoccupations: time and its suspension, and the fantasy space between the two.
Barbier has long used his own image in his work, and he tends to be as honest about his own changing features as Marvel’s comic artists aren’t. So after an association of some two decades with the Vallois gallery in Saint-Germain (he was one of the very first artists they worked with), and as he approaches fifty, Barbier’s own ageing process can be mapped in a walk around Nathalie and Georges-Philippe Vallois’s storage space. The latest addition to Barbier’s catalogue of doppelgängers sits in a side room of the present exhibition. Still Man (2013) is a mixed media sculpture, 180cm long and 135cm high. This photorealistic self-portrait presents the artist slumped down in the forest, apparently for so long that he has become a part of its undergrowth – vines wrapped around his arm and moss growing from his skin, he is thoroughly immersed in foliage. Like his earlier reference to superheroes, what we are being presented with is again a fantasy about time: of having so much time simply to sit and think that you become almost reabsorbed into the environment.
From the wild profusion of nature to the superabundance of gluttony. The centrepiece of the present show, dominating the main room at almost 4m in length, takes its cue from the food replicas beloved of Japanese restaurants. Le Festin (2013), however, goes way beyond any Shinjuku sushi spot, proffering an almost obscene array of meat and cheese, gleaming gateaux, brightly coloured fruits, fondue oozing over sausages. Everything glistens with a pregnant ripeness, as if captured on the verge of spoiling. But only when you look a little closer do you realise that this feast is also a city. Miniature white anonymous-looking tower blocks bisect a rondelle of Emmental, burst from the breasts of pheasants and perch precariously on cream cakes. Utopia has always promised luxury and plenty; in this case, the modernist utopia seems to have been swallowed up by the promises of the hyperreal, just as our Still Man was swallowed by his jungle.
On the wall hangs a pencil and acrylic design on polyester tracing paper, laid out somewhat in the style of the old Larousse Gastronomique (Barbier has for some time been copying sections of the Larousse encyclopaedia). This work, La Recette du Festin (2013), reveals the ‘recipe’ for Barbier’s medieval cornucopia – in fact the actual materials for the work: ‘Resin polyurethane 84 A & B… a mould of silicon… a real bay leaf’. Once you read this, finding the solitary bay leaf becomes a kind of treasure hunt, a desperate search for the one real thing amid Le Festin’s sickening glut of overglossed goo vying for your attention. It is perhaps in just such a quixotic hunt for the real, for meaning or for truth lost in the white noise of the Internet, that we might locate the appeal of sites like Io9 and Trendhunter. They promise a treasure map for the nonplace of the web, a recipe for utopia. In the meantime, the paradise of Barbier’s Still Man – of having enough time to reflect and re-wild – becomes ever more elusive.
This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.