By Robin Vanbesien
Nine canvases are on display in Stehimbiss, Olivier Foulon’s second solo exhibition at gallery Dépendance in Brussels. While the longest wall on the left side of the gallery remains blank, all canvases have been hung on the opposite corner-forming walls parallel to the right-hand side. Following the predetermined rhythm of equal distancing, the canvases continue into the open office space of the gallery. Using canvases primed with transparent gesso on stretcher frames as carriers, Foulon creates a reference to the genre of painting. However, instead of using paint or any other colouring substance, each canvas contains seven black and white A4 photocopies, laid out and mounted along the surface in a fixed pattern. By scanning the different canvases, one can rapidly verify that each canvas displays multiple photocopies of the same published text, the infamous Ten O’Clock lecture by James McNeill Whistler, held on February 20, 1885, at the Prince's Hall, London. Awkwardly, the seven pages of the complete text, laid out in rows of four and three, have been rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.
What could have inspired Foulon to select Whistler’s Ten O’Clock lecture and to mount it on each of the canvases in this peculiar way? Notwithstanding his reservations about the role as a lecturer (‘a middleman’), in his dissertation Whistler vigorously defends Art – something that simply is – against the malign contempt of educators, critics, and collectors, whom he claims project virtue and Humanity upon Art. In the same way that Nature is seldom right, there never has been an Art-loving nation, according to Whistler. It is a classic pathology of our relation to Art that when we interpret a work of art, for instance a painting, when we so to speak, translate it from canvas to paper, the work is substituted by the translation itself. In Mimesis and Alterity (1993), anthropologist Michael Taussig rehabilitates not only the resistance of the concrete to any form of abstraction, yet also that which can be deemed crucial to thought that moves us – namely, its sensuousness, its ‘mimetic faculty’. For a translation to be more than translation, more than explanation, the objectness of the object in language must be maintained.
For literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the most important characteristic of the satura menippea as a genre (Greco-Roman form of satire, usually in prose; its roots reach back to carnivalesque culture) is the creation of extraordinary situations for provoking and testing any idea or discourse. One could say that the idea that is being tested and provoked in Olivier Foulon’s Stehimbiss is what is announced by the Marabout Flash cover L’art de parler en toutes circonstances, reproduced on the invitation to the exhibition. The idea tested by Foulon is the compulsion to produce discourse – to play the game – in all circumstances, and at all times.
The press release lifts the veil on the convivial provocation Foulon has created in the exhibition, more specifically employing a quote from the text My second painting is a car by John Kelsey: ‘Is a joke a material? […] Material has a way of getting away from us, like language. […] For example, the neurotic on the couch who repeats himself (his life) into the tough crowd of the analyst’s ear, who’s already heard it all before. The joke is about not being able to hang onto yourself, about not being able to tell your own story, and also about transference.’ The situation Kelsey’s neurotic finds himself in resonates in the adventures of the narrator in Dostoyevsky’s short story Bobok (1873), where a ‘certain person’ who is on the threshold of insanity, experiences transference in a context combining elements of naturalism and fantasy. At the cemetery, laying down ‘on a long stone like a marble coffin’, the narrator suddenly hears a multitude of voices that seem to emanate from beneath the surface of the earth. What unfolds is a carnivalesque world in which a motley crew of corpses is engaged in free and unfettered dialogue, without constraints, censorship or shame. They have nothing more to lose.
The title of Olivier Foulon’s exhibition, Stehimbiss, refers to a food stand or a temporary bar where snacks, drinks and finger food are served. The term Stehimbiss calls to mind the market place or the reception and signals the open mouths of talking, drinking and eating. This metaphor certainly holds the idea of a proliferation of voices and the potential for transference. Furthermore, one could argue that Stehimbiss refers to aspects of naturalism and carnivalism, which find their reflection in the various elements of the exhibition, for instance the sensuousness of matter and the accentuation of the gestalts of the paintings (naturalism), but also in the joyful relativity and openness resulting from the provocation and depravation of the genre of painting (carnivalism). Stehimbiss could serve as a contemporary image of the threshold on which we stand as continually unfinished, consuming and reproducing subjects.