Philippe Thomas, Feux pâles, 1990

by Elisabeth Lebovici

from THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #5 – in Mousse #46

Part of this story is easy to tell: Feux pâles took place from December 7, 1990, to March 3, 1991, in the upper exhibition galleries of the CAPC / Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, an old, grandiose, Piranesian-looking warehouse for colonial foodstuffs that was built in the late 18th century and converted into, first, a contemporary visual arts center (CAPC), then into a museum of contemporary art. [1] On the surface, Feux pâles might have looked like a rather ordinary group show, conventional in many respects. But, as even its title suggests, one must look closer at the “evidence,” in which the exhibition is but one piece of a far larger puzzle.

The rest of what follows is the more difficult part to tell. While I am in actuality writing in the 21st century, my account of what Daniel Soutif has rightfully called the “most surprising exhibition of the late 20th century” [2] casts itself not in the past, as one would speak of a finished project, easily categorizable, neatly definable, its author pinned down. Instead, it uses the present tense, both to keep alive the theatrical workings of the exhibition and to signal that something about it remains still unsolved, like a police case that cannot be closed. [3]

Taking the museum as theater, the presentation rooms as stage, and the exhibition as plot is a continuation of a process of self-effacement started by an artist in the early 1980s, in which each step was developed with extraordinary precision. [4]  Sujet à discrétion (Subject to Discretion, 1985), which marked a significant moment of the artist’s undoing of his proper name as a signatory of a piece and substituting that of the buyer (a practice that characterized all his future work) was followed by Fictionalism (a simulated artistic movement from 1985), and then the creation of an agency called readymades belong to everyone®, which offered its services from 1988 to 1993. The artist in question has constructed the terms for a fiction that goes beyond the naming of the author and permeates the matters and the event of presentation. It is, in short, a fiction that grasps the very conditions of production and asks: what if, as a premise, the relation—the hidden law—that identifies the sovereign artist through the fabrication of his or her symbolic doubles is disseminated to a cast of characters—to numerous identities to which a text, an artwork, or even a place in history is assigned?

Feux pâles
—the exhibition itself—looks like a standard show. It consists of objects presented on walls, in display cases, or on the floor according to a logic that is announced by “credits” (author, title, collection provenance, et cetera). It is accompanied by a checklist and a catalogue in which we can find a list of artworks, critical texts, photographic reproductions, and an index of proper nouns and other terms. Like most curatorial enterprises, it has mobilized a certain number of stakeholders to produce it, from the early negotiations and the contracts signifying its future existence to the dispatch of loan forms through to its final installation, signage, displays, and critical reception. Thus, it will have inevitably integrated a series of signatures within each of its phases, right through to the manifest or latent signature of the person to whom the exhibition can be attributed and to whom it pays tribute—in short, its “author.”

The very banality of the exhibition processes, however, hides the machinations at work, rebuffing the experience of what is actually an experiment in obfuscation. Indeed, one doesn’t find any trace of a specific curator who assumes the role of “author” of Feux pâles. It would appear, in his or her absence, that the institution hosting it actually “curated” the exhibition, the display of which would imply a reflection, a representation, even a self-portrait.

Playing on the shift between visual arts and literary strategy, the exhibition is divided into 11 chapters, as opposed to galleries—or perhaps 12 if we include its introductory section, which is devised as a “table of contents.” Its title appears first. “Feux pâles” is written in letraset lettering. Underneath this is a painting featuring a bar code in navy blue against a white background, blown up to the point of covering the entire canvas, “all-over” style. The vocabulary of the exhibition and its “paintings” is thus immediately endowed with a diffraction, a shortcut, that likens it to the language and symbols of commercial objects and their labels. The bar code allows products to be recorded (encoded) and read (decoded). What is the purpose of this kind of label transposed to a painting, placed in the (noncommercial) galleries of a contemporary art museum, giving the impression that the product for sale is the exhibition itself?

[1] Established in 1973 by a then-young art teacher, Jean-Louis Froment, “CAPC” became famous as a space for monumental experimental projects and one of the first venues in France devoted exclusively to contemporary art. It has hosted solo presentations by Sol LeWitt, Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Combas, and Keith Haring, and featured the collection of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend. First the architectural firm Valode & Pistre, then the interior designer Andrée Putman, renovated the building up to its completion as a museum in 1990, the same year as Feux pâles.

[2] Daniel Soutif, “Feux pâles. Souvenirs,” in readymades belong to everyone® / Philippe Thomas, 108. It is the first extensive essay on the exhibition Feux pâles.

[3] In 2014, the Mamco—Musee d’art moderne et contemporain in Geneva organized the exhibition Homage to Philippe Thomas, which included an exhibition within the exhibition entitled The Shadow of the Waxwing (After Pale Fires), a reconstitution of Feux pâles and presentation of archival documents about the making of that exhibition.

[4] Philippe Thomas was born in 1951 in Nice, France, and died in Paris in 1995. In his first biography, published in 1985, he would add, after his birth date: “In certain cases, things can be true… they are not necessarily right.” See press documents for Fictionnalisme, une pièce à conviction at Galerie Claire Burrus, Paris (1985).



Marcel Broodthaers, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section des Figures, 1972 – Dirk Snauwaert

Philippe Thomas, Feux pâles, 1990 – Elisabeth Lebovici