Claire Fontaine: Breakfast starts at midnight
18 April–20 May 2012
Paris-based readymade artist Claire Fontaine began her activities in 2004. Executed by her assistants, her projects develop collective methods without the traditional demand for artistic authenticity. She conceives of her work as a quest for personal liberation and a critique of the increasing political impotence.
The exhibition takes its title from one of the included works: the neon sign Breakfast starts at midnight (2011). Originally the text advertised a 24-hour fast food chain. The artist expropriates the sentence by changing its colour into a blue shade reminiscent of a constant dawn. It points to the fact that time has been dislocated. Our disturbed circadian rhythm results in a constant need for breakfast – anytime is the time to wake up and go to work. The omnipotence of late capitalist society, with its precariousness, demands for flexibility and around-the-clock availability is evoked by the fragility of the neon, a fragility the material shares with the biological and ecological systems as well as with the individuals who are subject to an ever-present economic and social violence.
The expression of physical violence is the starting point for the film Situations (2011). In the film the protagonists engage in a lesson on how to behave in a street fight. As is the case in other works by Claire Fontaine, the film is influenced by the idea about “the human strike”. The actors’ continuous interruptions and retractions from their roles enable reflection on the subject at hand. By turning directly to the audience the actors create a conspiracy with the viewers, placing them in the same room and context as themselves – an ambition which is enhanced by the fact that the lesson takes place in a gallery room. The action is in fact a mutual game, an imitation, where the gestures take on a slightly different meaning. The actions are instructive but at the same time the gestures are defused – a function of the notion of play as profanation that connects to the other film in the exhibition.
The celebrated notion of individuality in today’s society – an alleged possibility of freedom to form yourself as a consumer of goods, time and experiences, and thereby as a person – will, in the end, be nothing more than a dream for the many customers at the all-night café. The café, populated by all the assistants of the few who live up to the ideals, becomes an emblematic image, a gloomy room of despair.
However, the assistants may have a secret significance. In the film The Assistants (2011), which Claire Fontaine regards as a kind of self-portrait, she employs a text by Giorgio Agamben, The Assistants (a chapter from Profanations, 2007), read by the British poet Douglas Park. The text explores the figure of the assistant from different angles, starting with the half creatures in Kafka’s novels. They lack personality, are all the same, cannot be distinguished from one another. Old and childlike at the same time, they are always present, always trying to help, but somehow failing. Always busy but still idle and careless. They do not fully belong, they are representations of what is lost, our unfulfilled dreams.
Other assistants appear in the fairytales: the helper who points out the direction, solves the riddle and then disappears into thin air, always forgotten when the hero reaches his goal. They stand with one leg in this world and one in another and can thus be seen as translators. Ambiguous and independent, they do not obey any laws and like the King’s jester they tell the truth laughing.
It’s not surprising that Agamben also includes the Persian Sufi poets of the 12-13th centuries in this circle. The Sufis belonged to an unorthodox, mystical and often blasphemous branch of Islam who searched for wisdom in that which is considered low and undignified and who always strove to lose their way in order to find it. In their irreverent attitude towards society and traditional religion, they personify what Agamben argues is the political task of today, the profanation of our dominating religion – capitalism. Profanation as a tool for liberation is, in Claire Fontaine’s film, presented as the way to defeat the current political impotence and escape the apparatus of commodification.
Of special importance in this context is of course Agamben’s view on personal identity. He argues (in other parts of his book), and Claire Fontaine with him, that human creativity and genius are located beyond the personal. In the second part of the film, Douglas Park stands silently before the camera, his face empty as if to give space to the impersonal forces.