On Claire Fontaine at Gaga & Reena Spaulings, Los Angeles

— Anita Chari


Happy For No Reason

Claire Fontaine, Happy For No Reason
Gaga & Reena Spaulings, Los Angeles
September 7–October 27, 2018

Happy for no reason, yes, for what could possibly be an authentic reason to
be happy in 2019? Like an opioid addict, one is happy for no reason except that
for the moment, an addiction tenuously preserves sanity or its semblance. And the
questions of what precisely sanity or sense-making could mean in the present is a
theme that resurfaces relentlessly in this exhibition at Gaga & Reena Spaulings
by the duo Claire Fontaine, founded in Paris in 2004 and comprised of artists
Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill. Lightbox images refracted through cracked
iPhone screens provoke us to question whether sanity is to reflect, perhaps
obsessively, on the fracturing of the apparatus, in this case, through which we
view the increasing virtuality of society-become-image as a symbolof the brokenness
of society itself. A roulette wheel spins in the center of the room without ever
landing, provoking the thrill of a moment in which “all bets have been placed”
(Rien ne va plus, 2018). We can only wait against our will, in perpetual
suspension, perhaps consoled by the fact that the game is not yet over, even in
the midst of ongoing catastrophe. Several works offer yet another strategy,
suggesting that we might repair our relationship to society by investing in the
struggles that have emerged to emancipate us from disintegrating patriarchal
structures of sense-making. In this show, Claire Fontaine powerfully embraces
the undecidability between these survival strategies in the midst of the inherently
ambivalent political reality in which we find ourselves.
We live in a time of affective chaos, in which the most basic ways in which
we might make sense of the world are scrambled, foreclosed, and obscured.
So suggests The Luxury of Making Sense, a sculpturalized text pile comprised
of texts of the same name for distribution. In this work, Claire Fontaine
describes the erosion of the individual’s capacity for empathy, the ability not
only to relate to the suffering of others but also to feel the experience of the
other within one’s own body:

The latest research has proven it: mirror neurons are responsible not
only for our empathy but for our capacity of feeling things that we
watch as if they were happening to us, or as if we were the ones doing
them. We don’t need to be told that people are in pain to feel the urge
to help them when we see them suffering. The reason that prevents us
from doing so is the same one that discourages us from thinking,
experimenting, being courageous: we can’t afford it [1].

Echoing themes from an earlier work by the duo, Capitalism kills (love)
(2008), The Luxury of Making Sense laments the death not only of bourgeois
love, romantic love, or courtly love, but more tragically, of love in a collectivity
that exists in a space exceeding the individualized body. This work gives
voice to the love that emerges in the mirroring between bodies that allows
us to feel society reflected within our own sensations.
Absent empathy in a time of neoliberal precarity, the body as a vessel
of sensemaking becomes injured, desensitized, and flooded with pain. We
could read the kinetic readymade, The American, displayed in the center of the
gallery, in this light. A walker with American flag pinwheels attached to its
arms, The American captures with ruthless precision the utterly Nietzschean
dynamic of ressentiment operative in the age of Trump, in which injury becomes
mobilized as populist rage. At one level this is brutal work, yet its brutality
is purely reflective of current realities in the United States. There is a clear
reference to the devastating number of homeless individuals one sees in certain
American cities, who often have disabilities and debilitating health problems,
and who are often unemployed and unable to get their most basic needs met.
On another register, the American flag attached to the walker captures the
performance of fragility and the woundedness of its complicit subjects. If
capitalism kills love, we could say too that pain, of a certain kind, also kills
love. The American reflects the subject whose anger at his own powerlessness
in the face of structural immiseration is mobilized towards nationalism and
racial antagonism, all the while exposing the dysfunctionality of increasingly
hollow notions of liberal democracy that are blind to the vulnerability and
needs of the body.
Two lightbox works, Untitled (Lament) and Untitled (Don’t Fix It), further
reflect upon the brokenness of our perceptual capacities for sensemaking,
filtering diverse images through the frame of a lightbox whose shape calls
to mind an advertisement in an airport or subway. Yet rather than advertisements,
these two images are taken from art history and then projected through the screen
of a broken iPhone, whose cracks and fissures become magnified on a large scale,
rendering undecidable the fragmentation of the object and the fragmentation of the
very perceptual apparatus through which we view these images.
Untitled (Lament) displays a fragment of Giotto’s depiction of the lamentation
of Mary. While in the original, whole painting we would see Mary
holding the body of her dead son, in this lightbox we see only the mourning
angels flying in the sky as they grieve. The image reflects the fragility and
brokenness of the world, a human-made catastrophe that brings even the
angels to tears. Positioned within the lightbox, the image is captured within
a form that is eminently commodifiable. Whether the image is sublime, or
grotesquely violent, there are no limits, it seems, to what the smartphone will
render consumable.
But though we may consume these images, we do not necessarily know
how to make sense of them, for what does it mean to make sense? It has
a dual meaning—both of sensing physically, and of partaking in a shared
understanding, a sensus communis, as Immanuel Kant called it, that allows us
to make meaning of our individual impressions. Like a scientist contemplating
slides and Petri dishes on a light table, the scale and illumination of these
works compel a deeper analysis, not only of the source images but also of the
fracture-become-image that seems both to impede and to condition our sight.
Once the fracture becomes an image, it provokes reflection on the constitutive
brokenness of our damaged perceptual apparatus, not only on what the
cracks occlude in our vision, but what they are in themselves.
Where Untitled (Lament) is mournful and catastrophic, Untitled (Don’t
Fix It), is playful and poetic. It displays an image of Marcel Duchamp’s
work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even filtered through another
broken screen. Layering fractures upon the fractures, Don’t Fix It references
Duchamp’s original glasswork, itself broken in transit to a collector. Duchamp
exuberantly pronounced the cracks an optimal finale to work he otherwise did
not know how to finish. Here, juxtaposed with Lament, Don’t Fix It exhibits
a gesture of detournement characteristic of Claire Fontaine’s work, a wild
swerve between disaster and jouissance that emerges in the infinite multiplication
of fractures. Hovering in the undecidability between devastation and
euphoria, happy for no reason, the work speaks to a joyous mania that is perhaps
delusional, yet also necessary to recover that which is precious and real
in a damaged existence.
Amid these magnified iPhone screens that render public and massive that
which is typically private and tiny, a riff on the ubiquitous Apple logo, entitled
Good/Evil, hovers above the space, suggesting that if we refuse to make sense
ourselves, corporations will step in to do it for us. There is a counterpoint that
emerges in the juxtaposition of the lightboxes with Good/Evil, which marries
a religious meditation on the archaic story of the exit from Eden with a notorious
symbol of contemporary corporate logics and their capture of desire. The
white apple inserts a disquieting familiarity into the gallery as if to reassure
us that this experience is brand-approved.
Yet this apple bears one crucial difference from both the apple of Eden
and the apple on our computers: it appears without the typical bite taken out
of it, whole and undiminished. It is intact, prior to the fatal moment in which
Eve succumbed to serpentine temptation. Maybe she already had everything
that she desired. The Apple logo in its usual form typically embraces the
bite. It glorifies the desire that fuels our consumption of technology, where
with addictive futility we try to suture what has been fragmented. But to
display the apple without the bite, as Claire Fontaine does, is to invoke a
diabolical reimagining of the history of desire. The bite is the ceaseless cycle
of consumption. It is the lack that fixates desire. If there were no lack if we
did not exit Eden, what would we long for? Could we then imagine a world
in which love was not almost entirely captured by consumption?

  1. [1] The Luxury of Making Sense (2018), text pile.