I don’t know if Alexandre Singh has ever read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. The novel, published in 1979, has a clever structure: ten chapters and ten stories, all of which are interrupted at the moment of suspense. Every chapter is written in a different genre and is credited to a different author. It’s a tour de force of intertextuality; the reader gets lost in the confusion between transitions and reality. The narrative frame which holds the plot together begins as an instruction on how to read, and then follows the adventures of the ‘Reader’ (or ‘You’) – one male and one female – who will end up happily married to each other, as in all proper fairytales.
Perhaps I can assume that Singh has read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – after all, the artist himself could be a fictional character. But I’d only be replicating what Singh usually does to the (both real and fictional) subjects of his live performances, lectures, talks and plays, installations and sculptures. He is a skilled storyteller, as well as master browser, especially now that the Father of Stories – one of the characters of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a blind contemporary Homer, who endlessly narrates stories happening in times and places he ignores – has become the Internet.
Singh’s exhibition at Monitor was titled ‘Assembly Instructions: The Pledge’, as was his show in September 2011 at Art: Concept, in Paris. Both exhibitions were displayed in the same way: a hand-drawn dotted line across a white wall, which linked dozens of elegant black and white photocopied and framed collages, arranged in non-linear sequences. Furthermore, both shows were based on the same printed source: issue 14 of Palais (Palais de Tokyo’s magazine), published last autumn. Singh interviewed six people – playwright Alfredo Arias, artist Simon Fujiwara, filmmaker Michel Gondry, critic Donatien Grau, neurobiologist Leah Kelly, writer Danny Rubin and ex-Palais de Tokyo Director Marc-Olivier Wahler – who he then fictionalized by transforming them into a 96-page self-portrait of the artist as Author.
In Rome, three diagrams were devoted to Arias, Fujiwara and Wahler. In each room, a copy of the original texts from Palais was also available for reading. The thread I could most easily follow was Fujiwara’s, because I know his work. In print, Singh has staged his portrait as a scripted performance, with an old Fujiwara sitting alongside a young one, thus mimicking some of Fujiwara’s own narrative strategies: the father/son dialectic, younger/older self in dialogue, and the impossibility of unifying the narration into a plot. The images on show in the gallery included reproductions of photographs and old prints of the Tower of Babel and winged Assyrian lions, as well as some of the giant ‘primitive’ phalluses Fujiwara produced for the last Manifesta in Murcia, Spain: it was easy to get lost in nostalgic reveries and unreliable archaeology. Such an approach is also, of course, a recurring strategy for Singh, who constantly tests his reader’s ability to follow cross-references.
The repetitive visual scheme, the flurry of multi-dimensional images, the hyperlinks and constant détournements: all obviously echo the way we surf the Internet. But ultimately, there’s something funereal in the clinical way Singh has singled out a neat strategy for mourning our loss of control over the complicated way we organize memory – once, an ability only humans possessed. Now, assembly language is also a programming language used for computers and machine operation codes are usually called mnemonics.