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Claire Fontaine at MOCA NOMI

Installation View of Claire Fontaine: Economies.

My arrival into Claire Fontaine: Economies was marked by the sound of a vacuum
cleaner and the appearance of a guard. The sound came from American Gas, a gas meter hooked up to a vacuum cleaner that turns on when visitors enter the gallery, and the guard turned out to be a very useful guide who had observed both the installation of the show and the visitors’ patterns of interaction with the objects in the room. Fitting, for work about deconstructing hierarchies, exposing economic systems and re-conceptualizing relationships between people and things. I was then forced to navigate around a black cord to avoid setting off a loud alarm bell.

The work in this show deliberately links to a subversive and highly political French artistic lineage, leading from Marcel Duchamp to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Most of the work was generated through a process Claire Fontaine describes as “expropriation,” or the recontextualization of mostly readymade objects from one set of meanings to another. Claire Fontaine herself is not a person, but a pair of artists who took their name from a brand of French notebooks.

The major conceptual and political themes surface, over the course of the show, in varying degrees of subtlety. One of the most stripped-down uses of expropriation is Suicide Stack. This video work re-presents the suicide note of Joseph Stack, a man disenchanted with the American way who flew a plane kamikaze-style into an IRS building. His message, which might have read as lunatic hysterics, was displayed as a scrolling white sans serif text on a sober black background, typographically lending Stack’s rants the authority of legalese.

Suicide Stack.

Another work, Passe-Partout, is a keychain filled with a wide range of lock picks, happy Barack Obama knick-knacks and an airplane charm, among other things. It describes corruption and disaster underneath a cheesy façade of hope. Then, of course, there was the brick-as-a-book, the blank checks signed by Claire Fontaine’s gallerists, and many references to keys, locks, and the potential of theft as a means of “sharing private property” (this comes from the title of Claire Fontaine’s instructional video on lock-picking).

This is a very U.S.- specific show. Overt references to American systems of exchange and value are made in almost every work – not just the usual checks and cash, but also labor and even prison contraband. At the same time, the theme of thievery and crime appears continuously, with the so-called criminal coming out as a legitimate player. Clearly, we are being asked to wonder who, in this country, is stealing from whom.

Untitled (Tennis Ball Sculpture).

Suicide Stack reminds us of government bailouts and escape clauses that allow corporations, institutions, and people in high places to walk away scot-free from large-scale theft. On the other hand, as Untitled (Tennis Ball Sculpture) reminds us, the street criminal ends up incarcerated, trading socks for batteries. Class and race emerge as the major dividing lines between who ultimately wins and who loses, and institutions and government structures are framed as the legitimizing forces that keep power relationships in place. It’s not so much about reversing roles as it is about calling a criminal a criminal. Like any argument, this one has exceptions, but it’s a provocative and in-your-face look at the state of the American Dream that cannot easily be dismissed.

Within this very serious subject matter, there were moments that could not be tied up into neat little theoretical packages. God of the Doors is an odd two-faced mannequin head with a skin-like surface on a very slowly rotating base. The political meaning is there, but it’s trumped by the weirdness of the head, a found object. There was also something mesmerizing about Untitled (Sculpture Suspendue), a long row of artificial plants hanging from the ceiling, slowly and mechanically spinning on disco ball motors as if by an artificial breeze. And who could forget the dishwasher filled with dildos et cetera? This breathing space was welcome because, after all, the world is run by human beings, even the most evil bastard was not 100% bad since birth, and the apocalypse hasn’t arrived just yet. We still have to laugh, be curious and make room for the possibility of transcendence.

And then, my visit to the exhibition closed much as it began, with a poignant detail. I asked another guard standing quietly in the corner whether a neon sign that said “ETRANJE TOUPATOU” was in Haitian Kreyol. She smiled and said yes. This was a brief second when all the discourse, the references, and the politics played out in an exchange between two people. The neon sign, part of an ongoing series about access and dominance through language, translates as “STRANGERS EVERYWHERE.” The guard was able to read the sign without translation. She was at that moment, in some small way, empowered through language while the majority of the patrons of the museum, the administration and donors, were the strangers. In the very back corner of the space, Claire Fontaine’s neon sign had pointed to an actual, lived economic and social dynamic in the very institution that was hosting the show[.]

Claire Fontaine: Economies runs through August 22, 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

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This post was contributed by Annie Hollingsworth, winner of this year’s Miami Writer’s Prize.

Images: Steven Brook, courtesy of MOCA NOMI.

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Claire Fontaine at MOCA NOMI