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Issue 225

The Many Aliases of Philippe Thomas

At Jan Mot, Brussels, the artist's still lifes reanimate his 1987 installation at New York’s Cable Gallery, giving tangible proof of his fictional narrative

BY Emile Rubino in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 06 JAN 22

As with all of Philippe Thomas’s work, the exhibition currently on view at Jan Mot is attributed to one of the French artist’s many alter-egos – Edouard Merino. The three large-scale photographic tableaux and the smaller triptych that make up this concise presentation are a part of Thomas’s ‘Insights’ series (all works 1989), which includes six additional photographs (not on view here) attributed to Jay Chiat, another alias. These still lifes provide quasi-forensic ‘insights’ into Thomas’s 1987 installation at New York’s Cable Gallery, where he launched ‘readymades belong to everyone®’ – the agency he operated under until he died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. The seemingly simple service offered by the agency enabled collectors to permanently affix their name to the pieces they acquired. This protocol is best described by Claire Fontaine in her 2012 essay ‘G.C.A.’ as a genuine way to ‘re-enchant the everyday prostitution of commerce’. In signing the work, clients like Merino would thereby take on the authorial function of the artist and partake in art history as Fernando Pessoa-like heteronyms within Thomas’s discursive apparatus.

Edouard Merino, 'Insights', 2021, installation view, Jan Mot, Brussels. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels; photograph: Philippe De Gobert

Central to the exhibition at Jan Mot is the photograph of a folded newspaper on a stiff couch, which discloses the beginning of an article describing how Cable Gallery was ‘transformed into a simulation of an office’. An installation view of the office in question accompanies the article, presenting the viewer with a mise en abyme of ‘the stage’ where Thomas made the pictures. On the opposite wall, an abstract composition focuses on the smooth metallic rim of an ashtray that can also be spotted on the newspaper image. From one picture to the next, Thomas’s approach to photography mirrors the logic of his meta-fiction. As in the photograph of his own name – which appears in reverse lettering and as a projected shadow – everything is doubled and folded onto itself. This moody and monochromatic image also reads like a pastiche of modernist experimental photography, such as László Moholy-Nagy’s 1925 photogram of his hands with the inscription ‘I Moholy’ in reversed stencil letters. In this light, Thomas’s work demonstrates a twofold attempt to project authorship outward so it can be probed and, as in Michel Foucault’s terminology from his 1969 lecture ‘What Is an Author?’, turned into a function.

Edouard Merino, Insight, 1989, cibachrome print mounted on aluminum, title card, photograph: 120 × 180 cm, title card: 4,5 × 11 cm. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels

In her essay ‘Philippe Thomas’ Name’ (2018), Elisabeth Lebovici insists on the vulnerability of the Foucauldian ‘author-function’, which strips the author of their creative role. She identifies the inherent precariousness that comes with ‘undoing the legal and affective protection of the “I”’ as something ‘duly exercised by queer lines of thinking’. Similarly, Thomas’s ventriloquist strategy disrupts the assumed autonomy of the tableau by introducing theatricality through the fictional context in which his pictures exist. With great formal command, he twists the photoconceptualist narrative around the photographic tableau – a form that emerged as a reaction to the prevailing deskilled uses of photography of the 1960s. His slick Cibachromes bring the tableau closer to life by positioning it not only in front of people as an object for passive absorption, but also in between them – within the interdependent network of the art world.

Edouard Merino, 'Insights', 2021, installation view, Jan Mot, Brussels. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels; photograph: Philippe De Gobert

Paired with plexiglass labels attributing the works to Merino, Thomas’s ‘Insights’ offer themselves as tangible proof of his fictional narrative. Yet, there is also an unforeseen intimacy to be found in these large-scale photographs. Provided with clues to the plot, the viewer actively engages with the pictures and the corporate surfaces they depict. As beholders, we act on these photographs as much as they act upon us, so that, beyond the death of the author, they continue to perform the play devised by Thomas and his cast of characters.

Philippe Thomas’ s ‘Insights’ is on view at Jan Mot, Brussels, until 29 January 2022.

Main image: archival materials from Phillipe Thomas’s 1987 installation at New York’s Cable Gallery

Emile Rubino is an artist and writer based in Brussels, Belgium.