Mathieu Briand, Et Libertalia Ego, Vol. II, 2015, installation view, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). © the artist

Superfictions and adventurism: The art in everyday life

Mathieu Briand, Et Libertalia Ego, Vol. II, 2015, installation view, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). © the artist

In November 1989, I attended the Cologne Art Fair. As I walked around the maze of art fair booths, the Berlin Wall was being demolished, hammer‑blow, by hammer‑blow. Across Germany, Europe, and the world, there was a feeling of excitement that I haven’t experienced before or since. “New Beginnings Are In The Offing”, as Joseph Beuys once wrote across a photo‑portrait. How the world hasn’t changed since then, as we once more consider the threat of nuclear strikes and occupy a world fraught by new global terrorist threats. But back then, it did seem like a new beginning. Just as, fifteen years earlier, the end of the Vietnam War had, to my generation, appeared to mark a step back from the edge. One of the things we didn’t see coming was neoliberalism and the rise of the super-rich. And here I was, in 1989, surrounded by the nascent super-rich, because Cologne was the world’s leading art fair at the time. There were Richters to the left, and Warhols to the right …

Then I came across something very odd. It looked like a booth occupied by a commercial airline. Had it been left over from an aviation show the previous week? There were posters and brochures, and behind the desk a young man in a black suit and tie appeared to be selling airline tickets. Standing in the line, I recalled a friend, Alf Lohr, telling me about an artist called Res Ingold who had created a fictional airline as an artwork.

In the years to come, many contemporary artists working in the areas of relational aesthetics, psychogeography, potlatch ecologies and radical public art would retreat from this market‑driven aesthetic and the excesses of the auction houses and art fairs. But back then alternative practices were not a regular occurrence in art fairs. I had just created my own fictitious Museum of Contemporary Ideas on New York’s Park Avenue, the world’s biggest new art museum bankrolled by the billions of dollars flowing from the equally fictitious Cameron Oil company. A German magazine called Wolkenkratzer received my press release and, thinking it was real, published a feature about it in September 1989. The magazine editor, Wolfgang Max Faust, was asked to chair a meeting of German industrialists and curators to see if Frankfurt could build a similar museum based on this blueprint for ideas as art. Nothing came of this, but the writer, Gabrielle Knaptstein, then went on to become the curator of the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin's leading contemporary museum.

Returning to Res Ingold, Alf Lohr told me he thought we would have a lot in common. Ingold Airlines, complete with promotional videos, branded cigarette lighters, and very professional business plans drew me in. Res was the first of many artists I’ve met around the world since, who have created a liminal space between installation art and literary fiction; in some cases, between visual art and other disciplines and practices of everyday life. Res suggested I should meet SERVAAS, in Amsterdam, with his fictional world of deep‑sea fishing; SERVAAS recommended I should contact the Seymour Likely group, who ran a bar as an artwork near the red light district of Amsterdam. They also produced large‑scale movie posters for films that were never made, posing James Bond-like, with a nod in the direction of Cindy Sherman’s early photographs masquerading as film stills.

Res Ingold, Ingold Airlines, 1989. Installation view, Cologne Art Fair. Photo: Peter Hill. © Andreas (Res) Ingold/VG Bild-Kunst, Licensed by Viscopy, 2016

Word of mouth led me to a few other artists back in 1989 whose art production took on a fictional turn, including David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles, Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, a Catalan duo who were behind the mythic beasts discovered by zoologist Dr Peter Ameisenhaufen: a griffin shaking hands with a scientist in a white lab coat; an owl with a unicorn horn flying off from an Easter Island statue. In Belgium, Guillaume Bijl has for many years been creating realist superfictions as slices of twentieth-century life—driving schools, mountaineering shops, 7/Elevens—in galleries, museums, empty shops and theatre foyers. In a work called Central Airport, presented in a theatre in Basel, he created an arrivals hall as a trompe l'oeil installation.

Most superfictions use, to a greater or lesser extent, notions of trompe l’oeil, metonymy, the oxymoron, and what I call “heroic amateurism”. Over the years, I have made contact with a huge range of artists whose practices adopt alternative personas, or agencies, including Suzanne Treister, whose current exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, HFT The Gardener, features artworks created by the fictional character Hillel Fischer Traumberg, a banker turned outsider artist. In Australia I have caught up with Klausian philosopher and artist Rodney Glick, who is behind the Glick International Collection; Eve Anne O’Reagan, also from Perth, and her fictitious cosmetic company Babyface; Tricky Walsh and Mish Meijers in Hobart, the creators behind the work of fictitious collector Henri Papin; Luke Roberts in Brisbane as Pope Alice and his alien alter ego; and the never-ending, always changing, collective DAMP from the VCA in Melbourne, a city that also gives us the strange fictions of Patrick Pound and Michael Vale.

There is a historical context for these kinds of undertaking, going back to Marcel Broodthaers and his fictional Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, an installation constructed in his house in 1968, and subsequently funded by the sale of gold bars, stamped with the museum’s insignia, at double the current market value of the gold. In the mid‑to‑late 1980s Group Irwin, part of Neue Slowenische Kunst, started mimicking government departments in their native Slovenia. In one action, parodying the work of Kazimir Malevich, they covered Red Square in Moscow with a huge black square. But, of all the large‑scale fictive projects, the example responsible for the most devastating impact, has to be the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles of The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, which resulted in the death of several people following the panic that ensued across the United States when many believed it to be a news report of a real alien invasion.

Laresa Kosloff, Documentation of Live Performance, ACCA, Pop-Up Program, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011. Cast credits: Jennifer Allora, Hany Armanious, Richard Bell, Karla Black, Christian Boltanski, Mikala Dwyer, Dora Garcia, Charles Green & Lyndell Brown, Thomas Hirschhorn, Anastasia Klose, David Noonan, Michael Parekowhai, Grayson Perry, Stuart Ringholt, Renee So, Kathy Temin, Luc Tuymans, Angel Vergara, Catherine de Zegher. Courtesy the artist

Travel and what I call “adventurism” is a further mutation of the idea of the superfiction. In such works, artists create a fictional narrative, often connected to exploration or travel as a form of psychogeography, following the example of artists like Sophie Calle in Follow Me, a project in which she followed a man she had met at a party through the streets of Paris, and eventually across Europe. In a similar vein, in June 2011 Melbourne artist Laresa Kosloff flew to a Venice Biennale opening with her leg in a plaster “as if” she had a broken leg, and spent the week on crutches negotiating horrendously steep staircases and endless bridges curving over endless canals. Whenever she met a well-known artist she would invite them to sign her cast, which was eventually exhibited at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, surrounded by the photographic evidence of her journey.

More recently, in Singapore, artist Adeline Kueh told me that for her smell is the ultimate vehicle for travel. There is something about a smell or a scent that will trigger something in the unconscious, take form and then transport you to a particular moment, a particular space or person. It invokes such an emotional and bodily response. “It’s far more immediate, and unexpected, than looking with your eyes. It’s more like looking with your nose. That’s why I use it in my artworks,” she says. Kueh, in the tradition of Cindy Sherman and Seymour Likely, has adopted an alter-ego in the form of Lulu, a disruptor both in the world of financial markets, and the karaoke (sex) bars and spas as well as “Love Hotels” where many residents in this space-scarce country go to play. 

Adeline Kueh, Love Hotel, LED Lights, aluminium, acrylic, sex appeal. Installation view in What It Is About When It Is About Nothing as Mizuma Gallery, Singapore. Photo courtesy Tan Hai Han

I recently caught up with artist and adventurer Michael Candy, whose Digital Empathy Device, was presented at Melbourne’s Not Fair in 2016. The Digital Empathy Device was highly complex to realise. Whenever a bomb explodes in Syria, a few minutes later, a statue in Paris’s Place de la République starts to weep. As Candy explained, “This grew out of a project I made in Peru where I attached wings to the statue of a gold miner in a very dangerous mining town where the mayor was part of the local mafia. I then took part in an exhibition in Perth, WA, about terrorist technologies and the misuse of technology. I’d been thinking of “weeping Madonnas”, and wondering how I could get a statute to cry. I flew to Paris and started looking for possible sites. I eventually chose Madeline, the goddess of Liberty at Place de la République, where the ISIS attacks happened last year. And the memorial site is right below the statue. Directly after the Paris attacks the French government agreed to join the war.

In the video, you see Candy in his hotel bedroom, assembling his own device with components he’s bought in local Paris markets and $1 shops. He looks very like a terrorist preparing for a bombing. This is intercut with explosions in Syria, and large numbers of police guarding the Place de la République. He has to get past them, with his equipment, and climb the statue.

“I climbed the statue at 3.00 am. I used brass tubing for the tear ducts and I kind of just guessed the size of the head by staring at it. And so I curved these brass rings, which look like large fishhooks and hung the device from the tear ducts over the back of the head. And, as a final touch, to disguise it and make it look less like a potential terrorist object, I wrapped an old plastic bag over the electronics, so it looked like a bit of rubbish had blown up against the back of the statue’s head. To record it all, I had to position my video camera on the ground and just hope I’d angled it correctly.”

 “And what about the electronics themselves,” I asked, “did you use Wi‑Fi?”

“You may have noticed in the gallery version of the head, there’s a tiny cell phone. There’s a router that’s connected to the Internet. It monitors a website called Live Map which is an online social mapping service for war zones. People reporting events can let family and journalists know whether they are safe, or whether they are being attacked. Videos are uploaded, and whenever there’s a reported bombing in Syria it triggers the statue to cry. The technology I’ve used is actually the same as terrorists have used to remotely detonate explosives. IEDs, roadside bombs, just use a simple cell phone to trigger a relay, and you can just call it from a payphone booth. If it was an explosive device, it would be untraceable as to where it was detonated. It’s a super simple technology that is often used in these very bad terrorist events. What was important for me was to turn all that evil stuff on its head and to instead trigger empathy.”

Michael Candy, Digital Empathy Device, 2016, IED activation technologies, live digital social war-mapping service Livemap, syringes, model bust, tears, copper, and various electronics, single-channel HD video with sound. Installation view, Success, Fremantle. Photo: Dan McCabe. © the artist

Another artist, with an interesting backstory that fuelled his adventurism is Mathieu Briand, who grew up in Marseilles looking across the bay to the Chateau d’If, the island home of the fictional Count of Monte Cristo. He grew up to love islands, and to love adventure. Briand, who now lives in Port Melbourne, had a large solo exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart earlier this year and, as I write, is exhibiting a related exhibition at the Murray White Room in Melbourne. This is the story of his latest artwork, many years in the making.

One day, he received an email postcard from his sister. She was staying with an aunt, who worked in the tourism industry, on a small island called Nosy Be, off the coast of Madagascar. He could see from the image that there seemed to be an even smaller island off the second island. He decided he would go there, and make some kind of artwork or intervention. Over many years, the project grew into something quite wonderful. And it would involve the participation of some of the world’s leading contemporary artists, all friends of Briand: Pierre Huyghe, Mike Nelson, Annette Messager, Francis Alÿs, Prue Lang, Thomas Hirschhorn and Damian Ortega.

I meet Briand in the MONA galleries in late 2015, two weeks before the official opening, and we walk around the installation together. It was like being inside a huge puzzle. You started at the centre, where there is, in fact, a giant jigsaw puzzle spread out on the floor. It depicts the island, with palm trees, and a clichéd golden sunset. Many of the pieces of the puzzle have been removed and underneath another jigsaw puzzle, of Poussin’s great painting Et in Arcadia ego is revealed. It is, if you like, a clue. He has titled this whole project Et in Libertalia Ego, Vol II. This references a book called The History of The Pyrates, published in 1728. “No one knows the true author”, Briand tells me, “but some people speculate it was Daniel Defoe”.

Elsewhere, you came across, by turns, a video lightbox on one wall showing Briand, wearing a three‑cornered hat and standing on his sister’s island looking out to the tiny third island as if wondering whether he could swim there or just wade across? “The whole project began”, he told me, “with a dug‑out canoe, a three‑cornered hat, and a smile”. The entrance to the gallery was occupied by a large, almost boat‑sized, canoe complete with mast and sails, on which are painted scenes from the island. A tri-corn hat and a gold coin sit in the prow.

On the opposite wall, there was a complex cats‑cradle arrangement, inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages from 1913. Red cords shoot up towards the roof and are attached to a globe of the earth. The whole experience of the exhibition was like walking through a fairy story, one that might turn on the spot, like a suddenly angry tiger.

Mathieu Briand, Et Libertalia Ego, Vol. II, 2015, installation view, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). © the artist

In one gallery there was a life-size recreation of the studio he built on the island, reconfiguring a large, palm‑thatched hut. Inside, there were clues, and a map to the artworks made by his friends. Pierre Huyghe, for example, wanted to play with the idea of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths. He instructed that a real path through the island should be located, and then a second forking path be created, branching out from it like a desire path to another, possibly very different, world.

“Thomas Hirschhorn often places bookshelves within his installations”, Briand told me, “so I asked him to curate a set of books—his own personal library—for the studio, which you see over there. And Damian Ortega has produced a corncob with all its kernels numbered. So, in keeping with the theme, I like to think I have pirated the works of my friends”.

The exhibits in this installation veered between the ultra-modern and the animistic. A hard‑to‑watch video showed the slaughter of a zebu, the cow’s blood spilling from its severed neck, its heart still beating as its rib‑cage is opened. All this, in large‑screen, high‑definition close‑up. The handful of islanders who lived there, dance enthusiastically as the blood spills across the white canvas. Between leaving Madagascar and arriving in Hobart, the blood‑and‑shit‑stained canvas shroud was sent to Mexico, where a neo‑expressionist painter was employed to decorate it with a Goya‑like human figure that has the head of a cow, rising from the sea.

Ten days later, I was sitting in a rooftop bar in Swanston Street, with a more subdued Mathieu Briand. Between our meetings, the ISIS massacres have occurred in Paris at the Place de la République, a football stadium and rock concert. I pressed him again on his views about animal sacrifice. I’d had a few weird dreams about the slaughter of the zebu, since last seeing him.

As Briand explains, “I was forced to ponder long about the notion of sacrifice. Then something happened in October 2013. A strange rumour went around the island of Nosy Be. I never found out what it was, but it resulted in a kind of collective madness. Something took hold of this crowd of people and there was a lynching. An Italian, a Frenchman, and a Madagascan were burnt alive on a tourist beach, and Utopia suddenly felt very distant.”

Also a lover of remote islands, Robert Zhao is an artist from Singapore, who trained in London at the Camberwell School of Art. This year he exhibited at Carriageworks, for the Biennale of Sydney, and in “The Museum of Doubt” at Despard Gallery, Hobart. I first heard from him in 2008 when I started receiving emails from The Institute of Critical Zoologists. It seemed like a wonderful superfiction. On a recent visit to Singapore, I asked him how it all began.

“Very early on, I was an animal activist. I was very concerned, and I still am, about how we treat animals, and the welfare of animals. I realised a lot of my motivations come from the media, and science, and my own feelings. It was an emotional thing. I was reading about nature and science. I read Peter Singer’s text about animal liberation, and John Berger’s text Why Look At Animals.”

Zhao’s most recent project, exhibited in the biennale, involved trying to find the last cat on Christmas Island. I thought about Mathieu Briand’s adventures on Nosy Be, and later Pitcairn Island, of Michael Candy on the “island” of the Place de la République in Paris, and of my own art adventure Kidnapped by Curiosity (2004), to find the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, high on a mountain behind Apia, in Samoa, leaving a Cameron Oil pen in the boll of a tree overhanging his grave.

In addition to photographs, installations, and models, two important elements to Zhao’s work are his website (criticalzoologists.org) and the publication of artist books. Of the former, he told me, “People don’t really know what they are looking at on my website when they first see it. They are not sure what is real or false. But as time goes by they understand it better. For example, I had a project about a ‘camouflage cloak’ that allowed the wearer to become invisible to what was around them. They could look at animals without disturbing them. And a lot of people visited my website and made contact because they wanted to borrow this cloak to use themselves.”

And of the beautiful book he produced for the current project, “I made a series of fictitious conference papers about the Christmas Island Conservation Plan. It would lead up to the relocation of humans after the very successful killing of the invasive species. It also asks the question of whether these environmental problems can be managed remotely? Are they a good thing or a bad thing? So much of the island was already abandoned, so I used these spaces as a scenario, and I modified the animals a little bit to add a feeling of on‑going evolution. It is possible to do many things through fiction.”

Robert Zhao, Christmas Island, Naturally, 2016, mixed-media, installation view, Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Leila Joy
Robert Zhao, Christmas Island, Naturally, 2016, mixed-media, installation view, Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Leila Joy

Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is currently contracted to Deakin University, University of Melbourne, and Goldsmiths, University of London with external examining duties at La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore. He is currently completing a book called Curious About Art: Conversations With Fifty Contemporary Artists, from Marina Abramovi to Robert Zhao.