BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Michel François

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

Like Francis Ponge's poems describing pebbles or slices of bread, Belgian artist Michel François has always been moved by simple things and mundane gestures - lathering a bar of soap, yawning, blowing up a balloon, tugging a turtleneck over your head.

A fabric-covered plaster cast of an empty pocket sits on a shelf among some artists' catalogues. Pockets are abstract spaces for tissues and keys and clenched fists. The sculpture could be a metaphor for François' work - it makes concrete the gathering of trivial moments and banal objects and turns them inside-out. For Bureau Augmenté (Expanded Office, 1999) François has moved away from producing discrete artworks to explore the accumulation of interrelated objects. The installation - of sculpture, video and photography - blurs the lines between fiction, reality, art and non-art, transforming the gallery into a big, chaotic office, with gallerists, computers, archives and fax machines plunked in the middle of the exhibition space.

Computers are surrounded by mounds of empty bullet casings and capsules; a heap of metal coins spills out onto the floor; stacks of newspapers litter the carpet; primary-coloured numbers and letters seem to float on the walls; loose wires dangle from the ceiling. The busy effect of clutter and excess is accentuated by the incessant flashing of a white fluorescent light and several videos, perpetually running in various corners of the gallery. Things come apart, spill over, scatter and separate, in a series of sculptural gestures that explore chaos and order, dispersion and restoration. Both literal and symbolic elements are jumbled together without any sense of hierarchy.

At first glance, the installation feels playful; the eye moves from the colourful plastic numbers on the wall, to a chain of children's toy telephones, to a grouping of necklaces made from capsules, to a video in which a flower is blown on and falls apart. At the same time something sinister and Orwellian mirrors the disintegration of the gallery as an inert white cube, revealing the tension and deadening repetition of our daily working lives. A reflection of our culture of congestion, the exhibition reflects a Kafkaesque view of corporate life and work, of the various ways we cope with the pressures of the working world (money, violence, Prozac), and with anxieties about the obsolescence of human labour in an increasingly computerised society.

But if this enormous machine reflects the depersonalisation of an increasingly technological society, it also, in its messiness and confusion, feels alive; palpitating and throbbing like an organ. Both ordinary and fantastic, the office seems to grow and disintegrate at the same time. The piles of pills and coins and bullet shells feel out of control, like cells breeding, suggesting contamination or disease, evoking the inexorable passage of time and the eventual collapse of the human body. In taking order and disorganising it, François humanises it.

The clinking, clanging and clicking of the machinery and videos mingles with the soft gribbet-gribbet of frogs, which emanates from hidden speakers. The croaking embodies frustrated attempts at communication, engendering a sense of helplessness, but ultimately remains enigmatic, unintelligible and inaccessible - much like the monotonous '00000' pattern on the computer screen, the numbers randomly stuck on the wall or the neatly piled newspapers under the information desk. Exchange is unrealisable; classification is impossible; memory has lost its relevance.

As Bureau Augmenté sweeps away the signposts of reason, what remains are small, unimportant gestures - a ball of string is perpetually rewound; a dandelion blossom disintegrates as it is puffed on; a wooden chair repeatedly falls downstairs and shatters. Like putting your hands in your pockets, these events seem unimportant, but contain disappointment, confusion, boredom, renewal, frailty, indecision, temptation, pleasure... the humble, quotidian things that make up our lives.