Giving Voice to Objects
11 August 2011
Su-Ying Lee: You recently exhibited The School for Objects Criticized at the New Museum, New York (October 20, 2010 to January 23, 2011) and La Critique de l’Ecole des Objets at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (April 22 to June 19, 2011). Both New York and Paris are seen as style capitals and shopping destinations. Having lived in and between both cities, what essential differences or similarities do you see in the treatment of consumer products and the act of consumption?
Alexandre Singh: I think the influence of American culture on New York is under-recognised. As cosmopolitan and urban as the city can be, there’s still an undercurrent of the more-is-more and the-bigger-the-better in New York. And when you visit the hardware store, it’s apparent from the selection of lawnmowers, outdoor grills, leaf-blowers, salt for sidewalks that there’s a different relationship with nature. The USA is big; the outdoors is hostile, something to be tamed. For the Europeans, nature is a garden, something to be tended to.
SL: The distinction you make is that the American mentality is to resist/conquer nature and the European is more yielding/nurturing. It’s interesting that a trip to an ordinary hardware store is so revealing for you. In The School for Objects Criticized you employ the ordinary (i.e. a toaster, a bottle of bleach, tape players, a slinky toy and taxidermic skunk), enchanting them into conversation and banter from their various intellectual viewpoints (feminist, Marxist). Although this work is satirical, would you suggest that we can all be informed by everyday objects?
AS: Giving voice to the objects was a simple mechanism by which to give a sense of distance between the protagonists and the subject matter. In reality their conversation turns incessantly around human concerns. For example Sergei the toaster is obsessed with the pursuit of young women. It turns out that this is a result of him being marked by an expiration date stamped to his bottom—though he refuses to find out when that date might be. This removal gives the satire a gentler tone than if it had been placed in the mouths of flesh-and-bone people.
SL: Did you make any adjustments between the American and French iterations of the exhibitions?
AS: The original text was peppered with quite a few references to geographic locations, television shows, and so on. It was quite amusing to try and find equivalents to them in France. For example Penny, an impressionable young woman was described as hailing from Ohio which we translated to La Creuse—a region noted for its lack of distinguishing features. There’s a whole section about rebuses featuring some rather terrible word-play in the English that also needed a great deal of re-imagining for the French version.
SL: Do you mean rebuses in the context of games or puns or the original function as heraldic emblems? With French as our official second language, many Canadians are bilingual. Can you give us an example of the word-play in each language?
AS: Here’s a passage in which the characters discuss the appalling illiteracy of the cast of Saturday Night Live (and in the French version—Le Grand Journal) who are required to read their jokes from pictographic cue-cards.
sergei: Thank you, Penny. OK, let’s say the card has, for example, a picture of [He begins to draw.] a stick man and then a picture of a crown.
daphne: Are you sure you’re an artist, Sergei? Because you don’t draw very well.
sergei: Very droll. So… The ‘man’ here represents, say, the quality of being thin, since he’s a stick man, and the crown here signifies the word ‘king.’
daphne: So that means… The thin are king?
lucian: Sadly, that’s doubtless true. The thin are king. One need only open any fashion magazine to see that.
penny: But couldn’t that also mean the king is a man who happens to be thin? Or at least quite tall and gangly, like the President?
daphne: Ah, no, wait a minute. [Realising.] Thin. King. Thin, King. It’s the word for thinking!
sergei: Very good, Daphne! That’s what we in the semantics business like to call a rebus—two images representing two sounds combined to phonetically spell out another concept, one that would be quite tricky to draw.
Et en français…
Sergueï : Merci, Penny. D’accord, disons que cette carte comporte le dessin (Il commence à dessiner.) d’un paon et ensuite l’image d’un homme qui a un doigt sur la tempe.
Daphné : Êtes-vous sûr que vous êtes un artiste, Sergueï ? Parce que vous ne savez pas très bien dessiner.
Sergueï : Très drôle. Donc… Le paon signifie la vanité, tandis que la tête de l’homme symbolise la conscience.
Daphné : Donc cela veut dire… Que les hommes sont vaniteux ? De vrais paons !
Lucien : Je ne vous suivrais pas sur ce sujet. Mais la vanité des hommes est effectivement un grand sujet de l’art. Il suffit de songer un instant à Holbein.
Penny, timidement : Ne serait-ce pas ce que l’on appelle le memento mori ?
Daphné : Ah non, attends un moment. (Elle se rend compte.) Le paon. Le doigt sur la tempe : il sait. Paon. Sait. Penser. C’est le signe pour « penser ».
Sergueï : Très bien, Daphné ! C’est ce que nous, qui sommes dans les affaires sémantiques, nous plaisons à appeler un rébus – deux images représentant deux sons associés pour exprimer phonétiquement un autre concept, qui lui serait assez difficile à dessiner.
SL: Please discuss the influence of Molière’s comedies of manners, L’Ecole des femmes and La Critique de L’Ecole des femmes, upon this work.
AS: The structure of La Critique de l’école des objets is directly inspired by Molière’s La Critique de L’Ecole des femmes. His play is a one-act rebuttal of the various criticisms that had been levelled at his first play L’École des femmes. We witness a group of citizens arrive at the apartment of Uranie and Élise and being all drawn into a discussion of the merits of Molière’s own writing. I thought it was a perfect structure to try and attempt something along the same lines but rather than taking 17th century theatre as its subject, it would address some of the discourse around contemporary art. As amusing as it is to point out the foibles of others it was also a springboard to bring other ideas into the freewheeling discussion. The objects end up discussing a great many serious topics, but always from the somewhat whimsical perspective of an inanimate object.
SL: This year you were selected to exhibit in the Art Statements section of Art Basel. Continuing from The School for Objects Criticized, you created Dialogue of the Objects for Art Statements. What role did the context of the prestigious art fair have in shaping the work?
AS: An art fair is not a place conducive to the display of most types of art. And one of the most difficult things to deal with is the limited attention span of the public. The piece for Basel was an attempt to take some of the physical and conceptual mechanisms of the work from the Palais de Tokyo and distill them down into a form that could work in less than ten minutes. So rather than a one hour play with endless digressions, we presented a series of five short dialogues, each one operating a little like a morality play or one of Aesop’s fables. As a result we were forced to follow a choreographed routine removing and replacing each set of objects every five minutes or so which was quite an endeavour. I thought it was quite an amusing reflection of the dance of objects on and off the walls of the booths in the rest of the fair.
SL: Works such as Dialogue of the Objects and other time-based works that unfold are a nice respite and antidote to the frenzied overload of the maze of dealer’s booths at Basel. Much of your work requires the viewer to invest time in order to experience it unfolding. In addition to the dialogue of inanimate objects, you have performed lectures and presented intricate stories live with overhead projection. What have you learned about the attention span of audiences?
AS: Jean Cocteau once said that there are certain works that are long but feel short, and then there’s Wagner’s operas that are long and yet feel even longer! I think it’s important to entertain as well as to edify.
SL: Please tell me about your curious interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler, Director of the Palais de Tokyo for Palais No. 14 and your upcoming work with Palais (the magazine).
AS: The interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler is the first of seven interviews with Leah Kelly, Michel Gondry, Danny Rubin, Donatien Grau, Simon Fujiwara, and Alredo Arias that I’ve been conducting throughout the year. These texts have then been rewritten in a highly fantastical context that accentuates the ideas of the people interviewed. I think of them as operating somewhere between an interview, a portrait and a visual essay. Each interview is accompanied by a series of collages that illustrates either the ideas they talk about or the visual universe in which our discussion takes place. The thematic of the magazine is “The Pledge’, or how do we understand the world to be? What are our preconceptions about a fact, a story, consciousness, etc. And in that sense, the interviews themselves play with this idea; hopefully the viewer is never really certain what was really said, what is really true.
SL: Yes, in the interview with Wahler for example, the Director discusses disappearance, tricks and magic in relation to art and exhibition making — all the while performing tricks. Various characters such as an old lady, parrot, white-gloved art handlers and a little girl move around and into his slight-of-hand illustration of illusion.
Story telling is a large part of your practice. What are the most crucial elements of story telling to you and how do you adhere to or work against those?
AS: Well, that’s actually a subject discussed in a few of the other interviews in the magazine. Danny Rubin, the author of Groundhog Day, says that a story is about the transformation of a character. Michel Gondry in another interview talks about a story as a journey with various stages, but that eventually brings us back to the same world, but one that has somehow become different. I think they’re slightly different emphases on the same truth. Personally I often consider the telling of a story to be about the creation of another world (even if this fictional place resembles our world closely). What makes that world so compelling is that it follow its own internal logic. Every invention and movement the creator makes its own repercussions that ricochet back and forth creating yet more inventions. Perhaps that’s why these fictional realms are so appealing, they can often seem more logical than our own lived experience.
SL: Thank-you for taking the time to discuss your work. Where can we see it next?
AS: The materials from the Palais magazine project will form a new body of work that I’ll be showing at galerie Art : Concept, Paris in Sept-Nov and Monitor Gallery, Rome Nov-Jan. And of course there’s the magazine itself that comes out first week of September.
Su-Ying Lee is interested in the capacity of a curator as an active agent, co-conspirator, and accomplice. She recently received a Masters of Visual Studies, Curatorial degree from the University of Toronto and is currently Curator-in-Residence at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery.
Currently based in New York, artist Alexandre Singh explores a variety of media and exhibition formats, working in literature, collages, installations, and performances. Singh was born in Bordeaux (France) in 1980. He received a BFA from Oxford University (UK) in 2001 and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts (New York) in 2005.