‘A joke about the metre’ – this is how Marcel Duchamp described his work 3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages, 1913–14). Displayed within a wooden box and consisting of a set of metre-long threads and curved templates, these peculiar, quasi-practical-looking instruments were used by Duchamp to plot his diagrammatic painting Network of Stoppages (1914). Each one was dropped onto canvas, remaining – nominally at least – a one-metre unit, though simultaneously becoming a twisted, irrational image of itself, determined by chance. Duchamp’s gag, of sorts, depends upon both the supposed certainty of the metric system and the relativity of any given measurement.
The work of Benoît Maire also questions a presumed ‘known’. For ‘Weapon’, his first institutional exhibition in the UK, the French artist proposed a series of alternative modes with which to engage theory. Sets of correspondingly irrational objects – described by Maire as ‘measuring tools’ – were presented at David Roberts Art Foundation: in Suspended Weapons (2013), for example, curio-like objects float within framed pieces of glass; a metal, gridded construction holds the marble tabletops that support them. One object appears to be a handle of smoothed ceramic or bone; another a flush of ossifying coral, tentatively affixed to a wooden rod that has been weighted with quartz. Quite how these measuring tools might function, and what they might measure, remains perplexing – perhaps each is tasked with a single purpose that is equally bewildering in its specificity. The facetious playfulness of Duchamp’s ‘stoppages’ is, however, tempered in Maire’s objects by his designation of them as the exhibition’s titular weapons. The moniker disquietingly suggests the performance of miniature violences on the world each time they are deployed.
Any narrative Maire drew through the show was synecdochic and – in a tactic central to his ongoing practice – insisted upon through re-occurrence and repetition. Socrates (2013), a misshapen bust of the philosopher cast in soap, was doubled in the next room by a halved golden head of an anonymous classical figure (Untitled, 2012). Dice, a recurrent motif, are short-hand for a system producing ‘randomness’; they become the central theme in a series of large serigraphs, ‘2 Tools’ (2013), which fill the third exhibition space.
There is a kind of elegant anxiety to Maire’s sculptural works, a near-talismanic quality in his materials countering the acetic formalism which might otherwise exhaust their fragile, economic forms. Works occupied the gallery in syntactical rhythms and patterns, rephrasing and reiterating; broken shards of Perspex suspended by wire read as brittle, tautly strung sentences (Untitled, 2012). Equally, Maire renders his works precarious via their modes of display, with plinths purposely left marked and scratched, or turned on their heads to become elements in assemblages (Untitled, 2013).
The exhibition’s multifarious references to theory as well as art history and philosophy are made adroitly but felt occasionally disorientatingly opaque. For example, a copy of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book Discourse, Figure (1971) a text which has been a longtime study of Maire’s, appears in a portrait of the artist’s wife: but it is presented so that its content, and ostensibly whatever importance it holds for the artist, is closed-off from view. Maire is interested less in signposting a series of theories, than proposing questions about how we can both construct and unfix meaning through such moments of concealment and opacity.
A similar kind of disorientation occurred in the final room of the exhibition, where the film I.E. No 4 (2013) makes several references to mise-en-abyme, an effect partially echoed in The Cave (2013) – a mirror installed so as to reflect and double the preceding exhibition. At times, it is easy to feel trapped in a void of Maire’s making, scrabbling for meaning. What we are confronted with seems to be less the Socratic ‘I know that I know nothing’, but something more closely aligned to the Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi’s assertion that: ‘We know more than we can tell.’ Allowing incomprehension and instinct to coincide, the demand for ‘correct’, measured answers is substituted for a decidedly more seductive proposal: one in which narratives are unvoiced and permitted to fall, tangled and interwoven as illogical images.