'Fantastique!' proclaimed Catherine David at the opening of Jean-Luc Moulène's recent show, explaining that she had never seen the work before. It initially seemed an odd statement considering the photographer had recycled 11 images shot in 97, which were used as logos for Documenta X (which David curated) at Kassel. But her comment acknowledged the artist's intention to use the same cibachromes to create a unique event.
All over Kassel, 3000 versions of Moulène's banal images of nudes, eggplants, oranges and sausages infiltrated the media; plastered on posters, tablecloths, playing cards, 34-metre billboards, newspaper and magazine spreads. Presented anonymously and without commentary or titles, they simultaneously served as publicity for the exhibition and commented on its identity as a high-end consumer event, a contemporary art Olympics.
For this show, the photographs were presented in a more structured, traditional format than at Documenta but reproduced in the same size, in plain, unadorned frames and hung at eye-level. Related to Pistoletto's 'Minus Objects' Moulène's photos embody the contemporary obsession with the banal, an obsession that has been present in French art since Baudelaire and Balzac. Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre observed that 'the concept of everydayness' and its ability to 'reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary' has been particularly relevant to post-World War II France, where the minutiae of the quotidian has come under intense scrutiny by artists, writers and filmmakers from Cartier-Bresson to Rohmer and Sautet.
Moulène's photographs borrow from the conventions of commercial photography - shot on monochrome backgrounds, they are reminiscent of advertisements on billboards. Similar in feeling to the photos of Claude Rutault or Jeff Wall, they look as simple and straightforward as publicity shots, but are in fact extremely sophisticated. Covering natural elements (matter, body, food), they appear anthropomorphic (in one, a bone fragment leaning against a leaf whose surface lined with veins and wrinkles suggests the body or a skeleton). But their complexity is not only visual but conceptual. These images are recyclable, expandable, adaptable, mutable, living rather than static. Unsigned, and with a format fluctuating according to context and environment, the works are not technically artist-created originals - the mundane is transformed into the extraordinary.
The strength of this show is its reflection of the model of open exhibitions, or exhibitions in progress; these might echo the ideas of Felix Feneon, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, used dailies, books, and magazines he published himself as supports for his work, or of curator Alexander Dorner, who in the 20s redefined museums as Kraftwerk - dynamic, elastic, mobile spaces.
As with Moulène's former series, 'Disjunctions' and 'Products' the photographs present contemporary icons of mass communication that reflect on art itself: its form, its cost, its diffusion, its consumption. Moulène sees himself as a media planner -- an advertising executive whose job is to select supports (print, film) and distribution. Yet if the work is his response to advertising conventions, it has little to do with seduction or manipulation, nor with goods and services; rather, it uses these conventions as a starting point for a more surprising discourse on presentation and flexibility, on the potential of art to extend beyond traditional limits.
Still, these lyrical, vaguely poetic images share with advertising the engagement of imagination and the collective unconscious. But presented in random order without explanatory text or slogans or a signature, the images become as enigmatic as a whispered conversation. Spare and elegant, they have a kind of mute, opaque presence that is quietly unsettling - like the way we see things in memory or in dreams.