In 1969, with student riots and the smell of tear gas barely quelled in the Paris streets, a horde of artists, gallerists and art critics attended Mass. Despite being held at the Galerie Templon, the event had the requisite chalice and hassocks, Latin Bible-reading and all the slow circumstance of a liturgical ceremony. The ‘priest’ was Michel Journiac, a former seminarian turned painter turned Performance-artist-cum-photographer-cum-social-critic. And the ‘communion sacrament’ he served up at his Messe pour un corps (Mass for a Body, 1969) was a sausage made from the contents of three syringes full of his own blood, spiced up and lightly grilled. An ordinary Mass it was not.
The event is the best known of Journiac’s performances, even if that may seem to suggest that the artist is much known at all. Hardly mentioned in compendiums of Performance and Body art outside France, little visible in international exhibitions of photography in which his work would actually fit, Journiac has yet to find a place in history. His native France now offers him his first large-scale retrospective, ten years after his death. Paintings, photographs, objects, performance props, films and other documents spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-’90s convene to speak of blood, money, corporeality and the sacred in a way that still hits a nerve.
For his Piège pour un voyeur (Trap for a Voyeur, 1969) Journiac constructed a human cage of white neon lights in a gallery, ensnaring the body of the ‘hostage’ in the strict geometries of Minimalist sculpture. It wasn’t clear who was more trapped, the naked actor or uncomfortable viewers. When, years later, Journiac branded himself with a hot iron rod as part of a Ritual initiatique (Initiation Ritual, 1986), the skin scarring took the form of neat circles and triangles. Unlike the gestural acts of the Japanese Gutai movement or the chaotic orgiastics of the Viennese Actionists, Journiac’s performances followed the cool logic of systems and ritual. And if the Actionists are remembered by way of half-peeling and bedraggled photographs, Journiac’s are much like his performances: one bloody but orderly thing after another.
In this way his actions and their documentation relate more to Chris Burden’s controlled violence than to Paul McCarthy’s innuendo and mess-making. After all, alongside using blood and meat, Journiac also spent a lot of time cleaning up. For Lessive (Laundry, 1970) he labelled pieces of clothing with the names of famous artists and divided them into two piles, whitewashing and hanging out to dry those (artists) that were worthy of attention and throwing the others in the laundry bin. Extending this, Parodie d’une collection (Parody of a Collection, 1971) mimicked the signature style of those ‘worthy’ contemporaries and made copies à la Journiac: invariably religious or phallic and rendered in immaculate white, this critique of the predictability of style was also, of course, self-critical.
Journiac used photography to document his performances, but also for biting commentaries of society. Using the family portrait style, Journiac père and mère are seen next to the artist in Hommage à Freud (Homage to Freud, 1972); in Incest (1974) he is suggestively enlaced in their arms. The serial photo-story-like portrayals of himself in drag in different quotidian scenes for 24 heures dans la vie d’un femme ordinaire (24 Hours in the Life of an Ordinary Woman, 1974) are at once brilliant, absorbing and meticulously staged, anticipating Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80) by several years. Recette du boudin au sang humain (Recipe for a Human Blood Sausage, 1969) combines a carefully typed recipe for his sacramental delicacy, alongside a black-and-white photograph of the bloodletting. Like his election posters and voters’ certificates for the Référendum Journiac (Journiac Referendum, 1969) or his bank cheque as ‘work’ in Manifeste du chèque (Cheque Manifesto, 1970), the sausage recipe mixed humour with the language and aesthetics of Conceptual art.
From the mid-1980s on some of the work lost its edge; it even began to look dated, kitschy and redundant, as Journiac started to produce icon-like images of teen idols on massive gold and blood-stained backgrounds, or lacquered black surfaces with white Journiac effigies. But all in all, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue managed the difficult task of baring Journiac’s flesh while not betraying the artist’s composed rigour. Sparse rooms displayed photographs, blood samples and flickering filmic documents in a way that echoed the artist’s sense of intensity and order. Thus caught between the visceral and the cerebral, the viewer gets a whipping. Sublime flagellation.