Jacques Julien



Marking time

What do herbivores do? Just one thing: they spend their time patiently keeping the land evenly cropped. Why bother with them? A game of consequences involving football goals and basketball hoops, five elements the size of large mammals bow to zoology, and out of it: The Herbivores — which is how Jacques Julien titled this piece that was shown in 1997 at the Sète Regional Contemporary Art Centre (CRAC). Are they cousins many times removed of those prehistoric skeletons which, in infrared light, introduce Robert Smithson's film about the building of his Spiral Jetty, where the commentary, which borrows from Beckett in The Unnamable, suggests that they are trustees of a latent memory? Are they kindred brothers of a modernist sculpture steeped in primitive stylization? Are they related to Pino Pascali's subtle bestiary? Genealogical links are legion, and, in the end of the day, count for less than the feeling of an altogether calculated form of derision — the caustic counterpart to the lyricism of Kounellis' Horses, for example. As it happens, sporting architecture, here diverted in favour of rudimentary representation, is undoubtedly the occurrence of a landslide which sets the museum and the Natural History Museum back-to-back, like two ancestral figures brought together in a Jurassic Park reserve. So we are warned: art history runs the risk of acting as a construction kit where all manner of chimaera are authorized, just as certain palaeontologists have been suspected of cobbling together far-fetched reconstructions of dinosaurs.
Without wishing to use these quadrupeds as the hostages of an apologist, let us nevertheless admit that, even when reduced to the scale of meccano kits, they allude to that sovereignty, for which Georges Bataille found no better illustration than "a cow grazing in a meadow".
But, to put it in a nutshell, Jacques Julien has no meadow at his disposal — where a meadow is a glorious monochrome color-field, an Eden-like expanse where the "work of the negative" proceeds painlessly. And the Herbivores are beyond any doubt, despite their stiffness, a naive and melancholy exception. For it is precisely this type of space — the guarantee of invariably available and in some ways fortifying ground — that is missing, and it is this prerequisite that the artist doggedly makes use of. Jacques Julien may insistently lay claim to the pictorial origins of his art, and there is certainly nothing either tricky or insignificant about unearthing its many different traces, but it must nevertheless be agreed that it now only comes across in the form of an obsession, and has in the end bequeathed him, as sole legacy, just his exactingness, the radicalness of his procedures, and the intangible law of his delimitations. So Jacques Julien's many and varied propositions (drawings, objects, photographs, videos) must be credited to an active painterly oversight. Thus, unlike Betrand Lavier, with whom, out of sloth, it might be tempting to make comparisons, there is no juggling here with any general indecisiveness about the status of works, involving conceptual irony. Nor, in an at once generous and frank movement, as both Jessica Stockholder and Thomas Hirschhorn have successfully demonstrated, is it a matter of pushing, not to say tipping, painting in its entirety into an unfettered, three-dimensional arrangement. This is why, if the Herbivores can be erected on a foundation, and for their own part allude to the canons of sculpture (the merger from which they result, like a witty reference to an artist like Gonzalez crossed with Brancusi, refers its constituents to the famous dialectic of the plinth), the remainder of Jacques Julien's work ventures into less easily predictable areas, where the familiar landmarks act as decoys and soon turn out to be false trails. What he strives towards more, in an operation subject to the dictates of urgency — or an itch — is gaining ground.
Jacques Julien has his own term for this, if we may borrow the title of an early piece (a charcoal sketch on a 50 x 1.50 metre expanse of paper, which reproduces three colours of a running track): "covering the distance". It is this tight summation which has dictated the way the walls in the large exhibition room at the Villa Arson are used, based on a principle of alternation which pretends to juggle with a classical harmonious symmetry, the better to disconcert the eye. In this sense, this sweeping frieze of playing grounds complies with what Jacques Roubard called, in Oulipean terms, the "Canada Dry restriction", namely the production of a work offering the deceptive certainty of being the outcome of a domineering manufacturing rule, even though no such thing ever governed it, apart from its need for contraband. In Golf (4), likewise, the expanses of green fitted carpet are organized in compliance with a sweeping random composition, seemingly headed for an imminent development, and only conjuring up the golf green in the single orifice made in the palette — unavoidable centre of attraction, black hole that the disorder of the arrangement seems to exorcise by ebbing.
Likewise, too, the very beautiful ski track built at the Brétigny art centre (Ski (saut)/Ski (jump)), 1995) reproduces, in reverse, the rounded shape of the adjacent partition wall. This clever trick enlarges the space and saturates it, turns the canonical white into snow, and obliges the visitor to make a shift which accordingly turns him into the onlooker of his own make-believe slide. Unlike Mosset and Armleder's Rampe de skateboard/Skateboard ramp, located outdoors and designed for actual use — a perfect example of formal rigour used with the public in mind, Jacques Julien's piece juggles with space in a metonymic or concertina-like way: despite its obvious sculptural elegance, it is not altogether an enclosed object, either function-wise or volume-wise, because it describes the other side of immensity in a zone beyond the jump.
So, for Jacques Julien, "covering the distance" — and let us be quite clear about this — does not mean recovering it. Neither under the artefact of illusion, like the eponymous piece and that other roll of paper, perspectival drawing of a squash court (Untitled, 1995), with the risk of wrapping things up too fast. Nor, on the other hand, in the opaque light of its announcement, like Manzoni's 1000 metre lines, which might come to mind (a similar keen sense of the real life hoax incidentally links the two artists together). Less recovering space than retrieving it.
In other words, subtracting it, first and foremost. The pieces resulting from a sampling, of whatever sort (ready-made, reduction, quotation, more brutal extraction) are sufficiently numerous for the subtraction to look like method. But this method is not the result of a placidly assumed formalistic strait-jacket. Rather, it resolves to make do with the means available. They might as well be used in a heavy-handed way, as shown by this football pitch layout summarily hewn in macadam with the help of a pneumatic hammer (Football (1), 1993), this ping-pong table made by using a jigsaw to cut out an area of the hanging surface at the ARC (City of Paris Musuem of Modern Art) (Le mur du musée/The Museum Wall, 1994), or alternatively this council-housing version of a golf course where the holes are actually made directly in the concrete floor of the gallery in Nice (Golf (1), 1995), a modest, miniaturized and dispersed revival of de Maria's Vertical Earth Kilometer. Whence the hunch about formalism in which there might be a risk of compartmentalizing this work finds a novel reverberation. If there really is a sustained concern for form, it has been tried and tested: it is that concern that is familiar to all those who have no other option than to scrape the bottom, known, without beating about the bush, as "the economy of means". This, what is more, is the title that Jacques Julien has given to a huge series of small drawings of football pitches scratched directly on the wall of a whole room, like those groups of lines that prisoners draw to help them keep track of the countdown to their release.
So the principle of economy referred to here does not allude to an espousal of minimalism, that invariably profitable touch of elegance betting on surplus value; it is, conversely, and in a trivial way, tantamount to unleashing materials. Thus we have, at the Villa Arson: Ping-pong (5), two outdoor table tennis tables made of very thick concrete, wedged into a cramped nook, in such a way that, head to tail, one with its legs up in the air, resting on the ground on its top, they make any thought of actually playing on them inconceivable, and turn instead into cumbersome hulks that have survived some natural cataclysm. In all sobriety, this piece with its albeit Morris-like emphases consequently hails from a disaster (here, a table spun about its axis). It is worth noting, in passing, that the ping-pong tables, as surfaces of sheer convivial exchange and hackneyed figures of dialogue — in a word, sporting micro-stages (one is reminded of the diplomatic parable used by the Americans with China; or the table-tennis playing cop in Jérôme Charyn's Zyeux bleus/Blue Eyes) are subject to one outrage after another, as Sade might put it. Jacques Julien seems to take an obvious pleasure in seeing them as victims of varying degrees of oppressive treatment: abandoned up against the wall, as if "in the corner", in Ping-pong (4), Handball (2), Basket-ball (2), 1997 (but along with other recluses nonetheless); broken up like a definitive jigsaw puzzle, under the fierce effects of the chainsaw (Sans titre/Untitled, 1995, at Montpellier); relegated behind steel bars (2 tables, 1995).
A musty whiff of prison emanates from all this, and from other pieces too (the basketball hoops of Basket-ball (6), hanging chained to what serves as their matrix; at Sète, a window obstructed by ironwork; this cardboard golf kit, an impractical toy like those made in jail). It is as if, forced to posit the hypothesis of an elementary mathematics — covering the distance implied the economy of means — Jacques Julien were deducing therefrom the relentless invariance of marking time.
This, as you will have gathered, in no way involves informing the line, or dramatizing, precisely where severe abstention is made up of all manner of gesticulatory congestion. On the contrary, the business of devastation at work here has an effect, first and foremost, on the ordinariness of the private sociological and political meanings to which so many laborious demonstrations have accustomed us ad nauseam. So to do justice to this corrosive sobriety is the same, in the first instance, as saying that it belongs to that sort of weird humour, the black variety that might be illustrated by Football, a short story barely one paragraph in length, written by Richard Brautigan: a priest standing beside the grave where a young sportsman is being buried forgets for a split second why he is there, and says nothing before coming to his senses and saying: "The young man before us today was a footballer". It is a dry declaration which ill conceals the confession of disaffection, an elocutory inability to add to the essential, an incongruous situation where the idea of the goal is abruptly presented, by default, furthermore, with its metaphysical character, etc. All this austere bluntness quite accurately lends the tone of a prodigious work of what Hegel cannily qualified as "somehow objective humour". It is probably by dint of this kind of mental disposition that Jacques Julien decided to install his exhibition at the Villa Arson under the cipher of division. Using the fraction bar used in sports headings to describe what is known as a match, he has here introduced a discreet caveat. The fact that his work thus declares itself a prisoner of the alternative of a confrontation — albeit that of a mere game, pitting himself against himself, Jacques versus Julien — should be enough to disturb any hasty interpretation and do away with any taxonomic impulse of the genre: Jacques Julien works on sport the way certain people, so we hear, might work on space, on the body, and so on. Needless to say, the different sporting disciplines constitute the exclusive resource of his work. It is even this singlemindedness that lends his pieces, taken all in all, this air of simplicity and familiarity, displaying an imaginativeness that has been intentionally doused. Neither mystery nor gag, unhesitatingly identifying the many different activities by way of their attributes, without any of them, either jointly or severally, being favoured.
In other words, without any of them explicitly serving the cause of a metaphorical manoeuvre. In plain language, then, if sport represents his reservoir of references, it still does not become a theme; rather, a context, in the strictest sense, a known and limited repertory, yielding, once and for all, something quite different.
The fact remains that this kind of involvement has origins and kinships in recent history, and that, at the risk of getting bogged down, it is not easy to turn such a context into an abstraction.
It is well known that, by revising in their own way the ancient representations of Olympic disciplines, the avant-garde movements at the turn of the century sought, in sport, the model of a renovated form of representation. Its purpose?
To draw up the contemporary canons of a democratic heroism aligned with the taste of the day. From Dziga Vertov's Man with Camera to Leni Riefenstahl's Gods of the Stadium, by way of Fernand Léger's canvases of cyclists, the heyday of Jarry's Surmâle/Super-male, Satie's Gymnopédies, and Arthur Cravan's boxing match performances, there are plenty of examples attesting to the strictly political glorification of what turns out to be nothing less than a mythological device. So this insistence on sport is not just part of the programme of a typically modern extension of the iconographic register (which we are still witnessing today: Matthew Barney is the approved occurrence of this recyling that can only seek refuge in kitsch). Much more significantly, it puts itself forward as a metaphorical system offering solid criteria for what would henceforth be defined as an athleticism. Cleansed, it is to comply with sporting ideals that art can turn towards the horizon
of a humankind that is master of its means, and finally free of its fate.
It was ensnared by this robust syntax that someone like Bertold Brecht, in 1926, could clamour for "more good sport". We are all too well aware of the consequences of such an exhortation to breathe fresh air into an art form deemed to be sickly. In the name of a broader public (in other words, of the History, which it embodies) and of the demand for a more open visibility of artistic decisions, art, by modelling itself on sport, openly admitted to being more technical, more strictly — and also more indifferently — professional. On the one hand, it agrees to becoming diluted (in the prosaic, in the topical, in the didactic); on the other hand, it opts to become harder (in the tautening of its devices, in the over-exposure of its processes, in the intentional display of its effects). This is an untenable position in its voaction which in no time revealed its innermost paradox, as demonstrated by the unfortunate experiences of the various involvements of artists with totalitarian regimes. By the impasse of this contradiction, we know the Brechtian outcome — it always commands the most decisive part of what remains for us of art: no longer crossing the boundary between viewer and work, compartmentalizing them in a respectful distance, but getting it to divide the work itself (these are the famous processes of "estrangement"), involving the onlooker in merrily taking part in this iconoclastic surgery.
In any event, however, the sporting playfulness turns out to be the alibi of an orthopaedic wish: reformatting, bodybuilding, to give adequate and worthy girth to the emancipated Man. The formula has since been widely and successfully used, duly becoming the law of a henceforward established fearsome sanitarianism: from Perec's descriptions in W ou le souvenir d'enfance 1to the mass sports on our small screens and in our exercise gymnasia, the report is final. The fact is that it is precisely these gestures that promote the figure, and this rhetoric that persuades and involves the onlooker, which are suspended in Jacques Julien's work. Unlike some of his colleagues, who, like enthusiastic teachers, try to capsize the sporting metaphor in favour of a more or less critical approach (Maurizio Catellan, Uri Tzaig, Perrin...),
sport, for him, is not a test-bench. It has nothing spectacular about it, it contains no instructions for use or interactivity. In a word, it contains no lessons. The work presents the enunciation of its rule in synchronization with the announcement of the results: without any event, there are no bets to be laid. So it is with the fixed match with the erstwhile holder of the world table tennis title, Jean-Philippe Gatien, where an agreement was reached ahead of time about the victory of the fiction of art over the effectiveness of skill and training; the result was credited, or at last commented upon, as tradition has it, in the sports columns of Libération (Cravan, if you recall, the authentic challenger of authenticity, was, for his part, laid fairly and squarely out by a knock-out punch during his fight with the champion Jack Johnson on 23 April 1916, in Barcelona; the task of the fisticuffs of harsh reality was then to make art quiver on its legs and toll the knell of a period come full circle). Fixing again in the video 10" ou presque/10" or thereabouts, which shows the artist tensed up at the starting-blocks for the start of the 100 metres, then the finish: the stopwatch giving the random times (wavering between various certified records) obtained by stopping the timepiece as and when. Accuracy to the nearest hundredth of a second, but imprecise, where the performance is quantified, in a fleeting and erroneous inscription on the screen itself. This performance, an absurd gauge of value, invariably summons the artist incarnate — luxury goods, fabulous product of gestural expressionism, body art and market share ("For sale", Rimbaud wrote in Solde, "sports, perfect fairylands and comforts, and the noise, the movement and the future they make"); all this is the illusion of editing.
The challenge, be it Christ-like or heroic, is left behind in the changing room, and this includes the grotesque mode. Jacques Julien never really wins for real, it is fair play in the manner of Philippe Thomas: victory belongs to everybody, in other words it always goes to the other. A discreet but accurate example, Personal Pong, a book produced, despite its title, in tandem with Pierre Alferi 2.
Exit the champions: his tactic of generalized reception, a lapsed courtesy in this world of effort (thus this video where, with indefatigable politeness, he sends the ball back to invisible partners), is a strategy of generalized deceit.
The favoured viewpoint
presents the assemblage of a series of photos taken at a football match at Parc des Princes. All you see in them is a few advertising hoardings, a little turf and the backs of some spectators. If sport presupposes exploit, and
if exploit explains its clearly didactic etymology of explicare, then there is no trace of this in Jacques Julien. The tiers in
the Monaco stadium are empty, and in this video, 400 m, the picture of the running track, off-screen, sometimes stays actionless for several long minutes. Jacques Julien off-screen, the way we say off-track, refuses to be exploited.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner, to borrow Sillitoe's title, acts much less as a model than a similar Nauman-like episode where Buster Keaton, in The Cameraman, himself mimes a whole baseball game. He stands in for himself, divides himself into parts, not to become involved in an abstract and absolute game against himself (like Kafka's champion faster; or the very beautiful phantom ping-pong training in Michael Haneke's 71 fragments d'une chronologie du hasard, for example), but to vanish into the thin air
of possibilities. Having become a moving point of light, he traverses the empty and impressive space of the representation, and shows it as it is: depopulated.
As we know, Keaton makes sport the subject of a large number of his films: all confirm the distinctive features of his character: pigheadedness across the board, first of all; self-exhaustion to the point of anonymous catastrophe, next. It is the precise conjugation of these two — extremely rare — qualities which govern the work of Jacques Julien.

Jean-Pierre Rehm
Translated from the French by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods

Note : 1. Xavier Francesci, in his essay in the Brétigny-sur-Orge catalogue, already referred to this novel. In it, Perec describes a utopian city governed by sport, a metaphorical version of Nazism where sporting competition is the mirror of the concentration camps. Francesci reads similar, if encoded, echoes in Jacques Julien's work.

2. Personal Pong, éditions Villa Saint-Claire, Sète, 1996.