Artists' Political Action Collective (APAC), Nether Mind, Place & Show, Spontaneous Combustion

4 April 1996 - 15 May 1996
Opening Reception 4 April 1996 8pm

Project Room:

Review 4: What is the Difference Between Alienated and Collective Cultures? (1990-1995)

Un Canadien errant

Je vais et je viens

Entre tes mots…

What was that? Did Jane Birkin have a prude-attack? Did Brigitte Bardot forget the words to the most famous French pop song ever recorded (je t’aime, moi non plus; composer: Serge Gainsbourg)? No, though Serge may be turning in his grave, “I come and I go/Between your kidneys” is now “I come and I go/Between your words” for the purposes of a new poetry radio show originating with CBC Montreal. Not that many Anglos would even notice the revision, and if they did they wouldn’t care -the divide that exists now, as it has for centuries, between the two cultures is huge. (Quick: sing the most recent French pop song you can remember.)

The bowdlerization works much better as a subtext to the work of Paul Collins. In his most recent work, Collins gives a new legitimacy to the concept of un Canadien errant, a linguistic rather than a literal voyager, perpetually flirting with the two languages that form a great part of the Western canon, yet always straying far enough from either to to avoid being snared. He comes and he goes between your words, worrying at their etymologies, mocking their freight of intention by changing them into visual motifs, “painted tigers,” laughing at your cultural inability to pick up puns, slang scatology in a language not your mother tongue.

Not that he’s anything but a lad. he may have spent the past fifteen years in Paris and produced a sizable body of mature work (including a family); he is, nevertheless -by upbringing and by choice- a product of the late twentieth-century rock-and-roll/painting/literary scene of the international English-speaking world. This is an idea that’s easily understood and cheerfully accepted in France, where everything that comes from outside the hallowed borders of “the Republic” is considered foreign; it’s treated with much more suspicion in multi-culty North America, where we pay lip-service to cultural inclusivity. “Bloody Gallic bastard!” sings Collins at a dangerously speeding car on avenue de la République, while locals at his neighbourhood café still call him le Canadien.

Which when you think about it, is the ideal situation for an artist to be in. By living away, he’s managed to miss the crippling introversion and identity-searching that perennially afflicts his Canadian homeland (and acts as poison to the arts); yet he’s maintained relative freedom from the stultifying conservatism that binds the French art scene. He’s mucking us about, whether we’re French or Canadian, and enjoying taking us to the cleaners. “Qu’est ce-que vous faites, vous? Vous êtes interprète?” (“Are you an interpreter?”) the café proprietress asks him. Not exactly.

Start with (S)he(it), a bubble-printed painting on canvas from 1995. Now say it out loud to your imaginary spliff. Without the vocalization, this is a structural/textual, proper example of late concept painting you might find anywhere between the Riviera and Düsseldorf; say it, though, and Cheech and Chong cast their shadow much longer here than James Lee Byars (the American expatriate artist, ubiquitous in Europe). A picture that can speak: the artist’s dream from Pygmalion right up to the talkies. The essence of all these paintings’ zeitgeist is that they spill the beans, shuck off the discreet muteness of formalism and get in between your teeth. It can help not to know what you are saying (like the formalist trick of hanging a painting upside down to see it better) so the other-language meaning can hover in ambush. A common question from French viewers to the artist about another bubble-print, I buried Paul(1994), was: “pourquoi vous êtes-vous enterré?” (why have you buried yourself?”)

Before we Anglos can smirk too hard, Collins’s 2nd Hand Smoke (1995) is loaded in the opposite direction -against us. The common nightmare about North American shared cultural space, from office buildings to food courts to airplanes to picnics in the park, is that you might dare to breathe on me, afflicting me with airs and vapours that, at best, will offend my nostrils, and, at worst, will kill me with whatever dreaded diseases you’re carrying around. The cigarette issue, with its “Weedless Wednesdays” and bumper stickers saying “Break Away” and “I butt out”, is an effective metaphor for this continuing hygiene hysteria that must be a hold-over from the prissy, suburbanite America of the ’50s. Far from being demonized, “second hand smoke” has been for France and the rest of Europe a rich and nurturing medium in which ideas can gestate and be circulated. It is a substance that’s almost holy -as it remains for many of the aboriginal peoples of America.

Je hais le passé simple (1994) is, as it claims, a more complex idea. On the most literal level it refers to the past verb tense that uses no conjunctives, employed when the effect desired by the speaker is terse and clipped; it (arguably) isn’t the most beautiful form of speech. But metaphorically, the phrase refers to the compulsion of news media, beginning with print, to shallow history, rendering events just passed with a flat and simplistic finality. The result is the construction of an audience that is passive and fatalistic, the very opposite to the uncertain and involved audience constructed by paintings, and by art in general.

The look of Benday dots conferred by the bubble-printing medium is another subterfuge: if these are prints, they’re mono-prints, because the bubbles of the Bubble Wrap get popped in the process of realizing the image. These are indeed paintings that put on the authority, the “duplicity” of the mass-reproducible image, and so acquire a platform from which to speak about these inescapably delightful and moronic eyeball-fillers that ink up the world. though there are high priests galore in the worlds of structural linguistics and philosophy who ream on about the subject in their books, really painting is a much more appropriate form with which to address it: visual to visual; and yet very few contemporary painters have had the temerity to take it on.

Collins, an artist with some bottle, has. In fact the bottle in question might be a fine Sauterne, 1986. If its appearance in the bubble print of the same title, in the form of an embossed base with the words “Made in France” around the circumference and “Duralex 9” in the middle, recalls an entirely different species of object, you obviously know your “French letters.” And if you think of a tom Hanks movie (circa 1986) in which a bodily fluid replaces the light, dessert wine, you’re in the loop. Still, if you simply read it as an homage to the French wine-bottling industry, perhaps in the spirit of Duchamp’s bottle rack, don’t despair. He’s got lots more puns and twists on our two un-shared cultures, waiting to jazz you, amuse you, and give you another chance to get inside.

– Oliver Girling