Comparative Viewing: Olivier Foulon
An entire arsenal of copies and reproductions circles around every masterpiece. The installations of Villa Romana Fellow Olivier Foulon deal with this phenomenon. Kito Nedo takes an excursion into the universe of duplicates.
||His relationship to design, says Olivier Foulon, is determined by honest, upright hatred. If he had to work with graphic designers, he says, they would often have fierce quarrels. Where does the problem lie? In Foulon’s view, the job of graphic designers is to follow his instructions at the computer. Most designers, however, see things differently. But Foulon is reluctant to leave creative decisions regarding his publications to others. For the artist’s work focuses on the significance of duplicating art, an area in which the slightest nuance can change the reproduction. His work centers on stories that pictures tell about pictures, on countless reproductions in catalogues, on postcards and calendars, which for generations on end have influenced our ideas about works that we have never seen and will never see.
Should we therefore assume that the Belgian artist, who has lived in Berlin for a few years now, is an imperious control freak? No, Foulon, who recently began a half-year stint in Florence as one of four winners of the Deutsche Bank Foundation-sponsored Villa Romana Prize, is a pleasant conversation partner. Speaking English with a slight accent, he chooses his words carefully. Only in relation to his art is he utterly uncompromising, proceeding with the toughness of a slick trickster.
That Foulon evades all questions aimed at assigning his work to specific categories is part of this attitude. Instead of showing his colors, he prefers to reply with sentences such as: "I think my works should be as simple as possible – next to nothing." But to conclude from this that he works in the tradition of Minimalism or Concept Art would, in his opinion, be completely erroneous. Foulon talks about his time at the art academy, where he regularly attended a painting class but never got beyond stretching the canvas. He simply lacked the ideas to paint his own pictures. But his disinclination to produce material art objects does not seem to bother him in the least. He finds the relationships that arise when pictures or objects are combined with one another and presented in configurations much more interesting than producing them. The material used does not have to be his.
So his art deals with art-historical references. Foulon vehemently denies this. One cannot really believe him, though. After all, lying on the table during the interview is, among others, his publication L' Enseigne de Gersaint (2004), which in 16 uncommented pages collects half a dozen reproductions made using a facsimile method of the painting of the same name by the French Rococo painter Antoine Watteau. Many stories surround this work, which Watteau executed shortly before his death for his friend, the Paris art dealer Edme Gersaint, and which at first actually served as a "sign" for Gersaint’s Paris shop Au grand monarque.
Today L' Enseigne de Gersaint is one of the most important paintings at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace, the former residence of Frederick II. The Prussian king, who was a greater admirer of Watteau, acquired the work in Paris in 1744 for his representative apartments. As though on a theater stage, elegantly clad dealers, assistants and buyers are brought together on the canvas in a room richly decorated with paintings. Their facial expressions and gestures express different attitudes towards art that Watteau may have encountered in his day: disinterested, covetous, expert or narcissistic.
Not only the motif but also the painting support demonstrates the brutal dealings with art. Originally, visitors to the palace discover, the work was about 40 centimeters wider and ended at the top in a semicircular shape corresponding exactly to the architecture of Gersaint’s shop. Shortly after it was completed, however, two stripes on the side were separated from the work, reattached to the painting on the upper edge and overpainted. What is more, Frederick II very likely acquired the painting in two parts in separate frames. It was only in the 1920s that the palace administration put the two halves of the picture back together again in one frame. But the type of frame changed several times over the decades, and since the 1970s the work has been shown in a heavy gold frame, whose ornamental floral decorations extend into the painting in places.
At first, says Foulon, he knew nothing about all of this; he stumbled across the "shop sign" by chance when he was preparing to visit Berlin. The fact that nearly all the reproductions of the painting extended over two pages and thus divided the work in the middle aroused his curiosity and ultimately led to his collecting over 20 Watteau reproductions, which he presented in a display case and partially facsimilized for his publication. Indeed, many of the existing reproductions stretch over double pages, with the fold between the pages concealing the actual separation of the painting. The division is invisible where the edges of the work disappear into the interior of the fold. In other reproductions the exact opposite is true: The picture halves are so far apart that they look like two autonomous paintings. An early black-and-white photograph from the 19th century goes so far as to portray them in different scales. With the advent of color reproduction, the variations increase. While one copy leans toward red, another seems to be devoid of all of the colors except for brown, while yet another is inundated with green shades.
By documenting different modes of reproduction, Foulon extends the history of the Watteau painting and perception of it into the present. This is not conveyed by scholarly texts, but solely by different reproductions of the painting. The series even includes an x-ray image which, according to Theodor W. Adorno, is the only true form of reproduction. With his collection, Foulon uses the means of art to refute Walter Benjamin’s popular hypothesis that technological reproducibility entails the loss of the aura of a work. Instead, we have to imagine a universe of duplicates for every famous original, which due to excisions, color shifts and different printing processes each have their own character, not to mention forgeries. Since there is no such thing as a definitively valid, true reproduction, the old obsession with originality is up for debate again. In his most recent book Raffinierte Kunst (Refined Art), the art theoretician Wolfgang Ullrich calls for reproductions to be not "imitations" but "a reprise and a second attempt, a differentiation and a counterpart, reflection and refinement."
In his display case installations, publications, projections and performance-like slide shows, Foulon appropriates classical ways of imparting art history and at the same time stresses the importance of comparative viewing. For the artist, this manner of looking at art has become more and more important particularly since the establishment of photographic reproduction – curiously without really having an effect on the view of the reproduction. Still, according to Foulon, at his next exhibition at the Villa Romana in October originals will also be shown – not his originals, but works by Max Klinger, the founder of the Villa, and the eccentric Michael Buthe, who received a Villa Romana fellowship in the 1970s and whose contribution to the history of the house particularly interests Foulon. There is no direct link between Klinger and Buthe. The connection, says Foulon, is "purely intuitive." But who knows. Perhaps a speculative exhibition concept such as this one will bring to light a long-concealed story about the artists’ residence.