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Found in translation: D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / Actors, networks, theories

French Theory finds a home at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery
November 13, 2013
By Christian Durand

Magnificent Obsession
A view of Magnificent Obsession, the exhibition organized by Geoff Miles and Mark Lewis at Optica: A Centre for Contemporary Art in Montreal, October 19-November 12, 1985. | Image courtesy of Optica and Records Management and Archives at Concordia

D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / actors, networks, theories
— the latest exhibition at Concordia’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery — explores how a written piece of text can be turned into an artwork.

A collaboration with Dazibao, an artist-run centre in Mile End, the show focuses on postmodern anglophone artists who assimilated the works of contemporary French philosophers.

Michèle Thériault, director of the Ellen Art Gallery, and D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / actors, networks, theories curator Vincent Bonin explain.

Why this exhibition, now? 

Michèle Thériault: Through a series of case studies from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / Actors, networks, theories investigates the impact of what came to be called “French Theory” in anglophone art milieux.

Given the prevalence of theory in all artistic matters today, it makes sense for a university art gallery to get a historical perspective of how that phenomenon manifested itself in the first place.

What will visitors see as they walk through the gallery?

Vincent Bonin: A very eclectic array of works that fit together because of a relationship between artists, and groups of artists, rather than a theme.

A view of Resistance
A view of Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard), the exhibition organized by Group Material (Julie Ault, Doug Ashford, Tim Rollins) at White Columns, New York, February 6- 28,1987. Photograph: Ken Schles. | Image courtesy of Group Material

The thread that links it all together is the fragmented narrative of a very contrasted reception of French Theory — for instance, Mary Kelly's use of Lacan in “Postpartum Document” in 1975, and Peter Halley's interpretation of Baudrillard's concept of simulacrum in 1987. There is no relationship between the two besides the construct of French Theory. That, in itself, becomes a metaphor for the group show, which always stitches together disparate and often incompatible ideological positions.

One artist, Jon Knowles, underlines this stitching-together and desire to find similarity in things that don’t share the same production context.

At the entryway to each of the five rooms, he placed a text work made up of various bouillabaisse recipes. This addresses the variation between the construction of an unified cultural marker — the meal — and its specific instantiations in each cook’s language. Knowles’ work also becomes a metaphor for curating, which often tweaks the meaning of materials to fit the circumstance.

The show covers a wide range of artists and theorists: Jean-Luc Godard, Laura Mulvey, Berwick Street Collective and many more. How did you decide what to include? 


VB: Some of the artists (Jon Knowles, Thérèse Mastroiacovo) made new works, but the majority were previously shown. They were selected because they generated a relationship in space that belonged to an art-historical or theoretical narrative.

In D’un discours you’ll find there are references to many other exhibitions — a temporality that echoes that of the texts’ translation from French to English. The exhibition re-establishes the interval between sender and receiver: a space where it is possible to renegotiate the meaning of theories and artworks that we took previously for granted.

In creating relationships between contemporary and historical works, both known and lesser-known, it causes the viewer to rethink his or her relationship to the present.

What: D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / Actors, networks, theories
When: November 14, 2013, to January 25, 2014
Where: Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Room LB-165, J.W. McConnell Building (1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.), Sir George Williams Campus

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