Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Jean-Luc Moulène at Modern Art Oxford (2 Sept - 25 Nov, 2012) and Thomas Dane Gallery, London (22 Nov, 2012 – 16 Feb, 2013)

(Draft material for Photomonitor, published here to coincide with the last weeks of the extended Thomas Dane exhibition)

From 'Strike Objects'

Jean-Luc Moulène (born Reims,1955) came to prominence as a photographer in the 1990’s and is probably best known for three series which explore – among other things – the nature of labour and the relationships between commerce and art:  Objets de Grève  (‘Strike Objects’, 1999-2000), goods manufactured on the assembly line by workers on strike, and sold in the parallel economy of the black market in order to help fund their cause; the closely related still life inventory of Produits de Palestine (‘Products of Palestine’, 2002-04) for which he photographed consumer products from the occupied territories, which sanctions prevented from circulating as part of the world market in the way they now circulate as photographs; and the somewhat notorious Les Filles d'Amsterdam (‘Girls of Amsterdam’, 2005, included in last year’s Paris Triennial), which examines identity at work while also aiming to combine the historically separate genres of portraiture and pornography. Moulène depicts prostitutes – to whom he showed the relevant 19th century examples - under their stage names in poses which give equal and unified emphasis to face and genitals.

From 'Girls of Amsterdam'

Moulène, however, has enough variety in his enigmatic photographic practice alone to justify his 1999 statement that ‘I think of my shows as group shows’[1] – an assessment which has been made all the more plausible since then by his decision to exhibit a wide range of films, drawings, paintings and sculptures (which he calls ‘Objects’ to emphasise their status as products) alongside his photographs (or rather ‘Documents’, as ‘they are between media and fine art, and so are called post-photographic documents and not photographs’[2]). Moulène has collectively titled his exploration of materials—manufactured and found, industrial and organic— ‘Opus’, so reinforcing the link to manufacture which has been a constant – indeed, Moulène spent a decade working for the naval arms company Thomson.

From 'Products of Palestine'

The range of Moulène’s work as a photographer is largely explained by his interest’s deriving not from his surface subject matter, but from the social and economic factors of which they are Documents, and from how the images are used and circulated as a result of their differing roles as media reportage, advertising or fine art – ‘unspecific objects but specific means’[3] is one of his slogans.  Similarly, his Objects set out to explore an underlying language of geometric forms and their mathematical expression. In both cases, it might be said, he starts from inside and tries to go outside. He also dances, as he himself has put it, between two extremes: ‘on the one side poetry, which is an invention of language with no structure; on the other side the total formality of mathematics. I don’t like the middle. So it’s poetry or mathematics… but art can be both[4]’. Or to put that, perhaps, another way: ‘the main function of an artist is to work on chaos and freedom: all the rest is left to politicians[5].’

Installation at Oxford, with blown and cast knots 

So it is that Moulène’s recent Oxford and London shows featured a dizzying variety of ways to present a giddying range of potential themes.  Modern Art Oxford featured a new film; a melted plastic bottle; a memorial stone; drawings of eyes; cast bronze knots set on trestles; a geometric construction which finds ‘order in a heap’; a video of Moulène himself ordering a different heap, ie doing his washing up; and an eclectic mix of photographs in the tradition of the flaneur. Thomas Dane’s two spaces contained his largest knot yet; birdcages enclosing ‘lungs’ of blue glass; explorations of the geometry of clocks; a cunningly simple collage of eye as finger; an adjusted model aeroplane; and photographs from his first stay in New York – in connection with his substantial exhibition at Dia Beacon and the Dan Flavin Art Institute, which itself included a hundred Objects, one scaled up by Renault to the size of a car, a set of monochromes and 299 photographs of weeds.  Both British shows included three-coloured knots in blown glass; other sets of monochrome ‘paintings’ made with biro ink ; and combinations of mirror and lycra  - so perhaps we should start with those.

Blown Knot 6 32 (Borromean) Varia 04

The topographic figure of the knot has recently become important for Moulène. He’s interested in how its mathematics has been used by scientists to describe natural phenomena, and in Lacan’s use of the three elements of the Borromean knot to represent the interdependence of the three orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary.  Moulène describes knots as ‘tools to describe complexity’, and adds that ‘my utopia for artworks is to create tools[6]’. Yet the sculptures themselves seem to cut through all that in favour of the resulting aesthetics, to move from inside to outside and from maths to poetry. The three-coloured knots, in particular, are quite a feat of glass-blowing – commissioned, in line with Moulène’s principles, through the channels of commercial manufacture rather than artistic outsourcing.  Their key characteristic is that no two of the three rings are linked on their own, but together all three are linked, and that leads to an immediate beauty.
From the series 'Monochromes / Samples'

If the knots generate complexity only to cut through it, bringing order to turbulence and chaos, then the ongoing series Monochromes / Samples (2011–) starts at the simple end but proves to have its complexities.  Moulène uses a palette knife to slather the ink from everyday BIC biros over a glossy board. Black, red, blue and green feature, but not yellow because BIC don’t make it, even though that – which is another topic – is a special colour for Moulène. That points to the industrial logic of the monochrome process, which seemed in America to parallel Dan Flavin’s nearby us of standardised industrial lighting, but felt more literary in Oxford, as if using the tools of writing to arrive at some kind of reductio ad absurdum of poetry. In Italy, no doubt, one would have thought of Alighiero Boetti’s biro works and in France of Yves Klein’s blue paintings. Moreover, the monochrome background has long been a characteristic means of Moulène denying unwanted spatial depth in photographic work. Monochromes / Samples also brings the viewer in, as partially reflected in the tactile smears. Complexity, then, reappears, along with another movement from inside to outside.

Stressed (Yellow)

The Stressed series (2012) consists of a square metre of mirror set beside a square metre of brightly coloured lycra which has been nailed so that it’s stretched to appear oblong. This visual paradox amalgamates concerns from the knots and the monochromes. The stressed element exposes how the underlying topography can be distorted by the time it reaches our perception, picking up the psychological undertones of the knots and relating to another theme of Moulène's emphasised at Thomas Dane: conflict . Stressed also effects a separation of the monochromatic and reflective aspects of the Biro works.

The Three Graces

Yet perhaps the most striking presences in Moulène’s British shows were more directly human. The Three Graces (2012) stand naked on a local hilltop in a nine minute silent black and white film, projected across a whole gallery wall in Oxford.  We’re told they are – as specifically sought by Moulène – three sisters, two of them twins. It’s far from obvious, though, which are the twins, setting up a dialogue with Stressed:   how have apparently common elements ‘inside’ led to differences ‘outside’? Moulène gave little direction, telling them to be fixed for the most part and to ‘be proud, be beautiful, be bored[7]’.  The Three Graces connects in some respects to Les Filles d’Amsterdam, examining the nature of the gaze in the context of the historic conventions of portrait, nude and landscape.  We’re placed in Paris’ position of choice, but how can we distinguish between the charm, beauty and creativity for which the trinity stand? And can we then apply the same process to the rest of the exhibition?

'Le Fontaine des Amoureux' 

Moulène, then, plays complex games in a serious way, with none of the irony or kitsch which is common in contemporary art. I’ve room to mention only part of his diffuse stream of work and ideas. Topics I haven’t said much on include systems of control; the derive and the nondescript; the eye as viewfinder; mysticism and the sun; the anthropology of cultures; his literary inspirations; and the circulation of documents and objects.

Installation at Thomas Dane

So what pulls all this together? Perhaps the relationship between art and commerce; the analysis of complexity; the movement from inside to outside; chaos and conflict; and the judgment of beauty – all touched on above. But Moulène has also spoken frequently about other potential candidates, suggesting that it’s another strategy of his to float multiple explanatory frameworks. Those include the centrality of the body; and ‘negation as a means of affirmation[8]’, by which I take it he means that one can define a position by showing what it is not, as when he pulls a knot from its surround to leave its position defined by the clay. By taking a critical stance on much of reality, one can by implication define a core body which has a different status.  That body, I suggest, is the body of the artist looking, of an artistic consciousness seeking to understand. Ultimately, what Moulène’s many approaches and frameworks demonstrate is the complex and elusive nature of our relationship to the world.

Images courtesy the artist / Modern Art Oxford / Thomas Dane

[1] Statement for show at Chantal Crousel, Paris 1999
[2] Moulène in conversation with Chris Dercon, Oxford, 2012
[3] Interview with Briony Fer in Jean-Luc Moulène. Walther König / Carré d’art, 2009.
[4] Moulène in conversation with Chris Dercon, Oxford, 2012
[5] Moulène in conversation with Chris Dercon, Oxford, 2012
[6] Interview with Coline Milliard in Modern Painters, Nov 2012
[7] Moulène in conversation with Chris Dercon, Oxford, 2012
[8] Interview with Briony Fer in Jean-Luc Moulène. Walther König / Carré d’art, 2009. 

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.