Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

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Michel Fran├žois - 2002 - Jigsaw Pieces for a Changing Story [EN, essay]
Text , 19 p.


Hans Theys

Jigsaw Pieces for a Changing Story.
A Few Words on the Exhibitions of Michel François

In my first text about Michel François’ work*, I described how his sculptures and images often speak about the essence of sculpting: removing, adding, assembling or scattering material, the opening or closing of objects. In a second text I attempted to show how his works of art, without being explicit, have political consequences because they question the demarcation of public and private space. In today's text I would like to say something about the way François’ sculptures and images relate to the exhibition spaces.


Perfectly isolated, unequivocal images or objects do not exist. All objects and events are interpreted in a context and only receive meaning through the spectator’s gaze. I believe that François is in search of a sculptural, spatial form that makes the temporary or ‘mediated’ meaning of objects visible or tangible.
François’ first arrangements of pressed-to-the-wall sculptures were inspired by a painting attributed to the Master of Flémalle depicting the instruments used to torture Christ. François named this enumerative display an ‘inventory’. His recent exhibitions can be compared with the Mérode-triptych attributed to the same painter. In this painting the open doors and shutters, the barely visible door jamb, the towel, the extinguished candle, the vase of lilies, the clouds in the background and the tools of Joseph’s trade are distributed over the space like clearly outlined emblems constituting a never clearly outlined, perpetually shifting story.


The first public works by Michel François were spatial interventions. For his ‘Apartment for rent’, he and a number of friends built a decor in a storefront window. Passers-by saw a narrow tapered space with exaggerated guidelines based on the way interiors are represented in magazine advertisements. Two couples lived for a week each in this space.
For his second exhibition, which took place in a weaving mill, Michel François gathered spiders and set them free in the space. For the remainder, the exhibition consisted of a desk and a few transparent, didactic panels.
The similarity with Michel François’ present preoccupations is striking. He still shows didactic panels, which have become more abstract. He continues to mingle private and public spaces, e.g., in the form of a rampantly growing office – while his sculptures make us think of spiders or spider-webs that appear to have fanned out randomly over the space.
When, at the occasion of his first museum exhibition in 1989, Michel François installed some fifty sculptures all on the same wall next to and above each other at different body heights, he did this in order to endow his sculptures with an added meaning. This meaning had to spring from the link the spectators established between the sculptures and their own body.
The way a sculpture is displayed – for instance in series, at particular heights, with or without a pedestal, with or without a showcase – influences the gaze, the sensations, and the thoughts of the spectator, thus injecting the sculpture with new meaning. Still, I thought these manipulations of the sculptures detracted from their intrinsic worth. It struck me that François often hung his sculptures on the wall as if he wanted to make two-dimensional images out of them. I connected this with the many heads that pop out of turtlenecks and other figures that would ostensibly pop out of Michel François’ photographs, but that are slowed down, blocked or forced back. It seemed as if the birth of the sculpture, despite everything, had to be prevented. Many artists who have discovered a form of their own eventually drive that form to its extremes, making their work opaque or difficult to enjoy. Michel François has this tendency as well. He makes sculptures, but at times he wishes to display them in what appears to be a denigrating manner, i.e., as signs. And yet in this way he has developed a new form where various sculptures or images can function as parts of a greater sculptural whole without losing their intrinsic value.
In 1992, for Documenta IX, sculptures such as the Female Soap and the Chocolate Bench were integrated into the wall of the exhibition space. François’ exhibition space had become an organ, an illuminated intestine, a hollow polyp lined with gems. In 1994 this approach saw a variant at the São Paulo Biennial, where a pit was excavated in the concrete floor, and where a reading nook was built into a hollow partition. Sculptures and space became one and the same plant. Finally, the space itself came to be treated as a sculpture, or conceived of as raw material for the production of images.
Ever since 1997, with his exhibitions in the Witte de With Museum in Rotterdam and in the Tecla Sala (Barcelona), it has been apparent that François no longer wants merely to show his work in pressed-to-the-wall series, or taken up in a shell-formed structure, but instead wants to scatter it about over a space that has been made or kept as transparent as possible.

The contaminated space

In his sometimes funny, sometimes bitter, 1993 essay ‘Some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular’, Donald Judd deplores the lack of interest historians show for space and colour in architecture and sculpture. "Space in architecture is no longer known," he writes. "It’s not unseen, it’s not there. Within the clothes there is no Emperor. The most important and developed aspect of present art is unknown."
Donald Judd fancied himself the first artist to have exhibited a sculpture directly on the floor, to have combined sculpture and colour and to have mounted three-dimensional sculptures onto the wall. I think he temporarily lost sight of Duchamp’s snow shovel and bike wheel and of some other works of art, but I don't care, for I really had a ball reading his plea for space. He proposes that we finally embark upon a genuine reflection about space and, in order not to make it too difficult, he suggests that we first think about a stone and then about a second stone, which we come upon a bit further on. How does the space change around the stone or between the stones? "Space is made by thought," he adds. "Some architects and artists are conscious of space. Most are not." As examples of early creations of space, he mentions the skinny figures of Giacometti (of which he is not especially fond) and Oldenburg’s works with canvas. Elsewhere he cites the plaster bas-reliefs of Oldenburg’s ‘Store’, which he points to as one of the first works of art that involved an entire space. Michel François told me that he saw fragments of this work long ago. He was affected by the presentation of the sculptures as merchandise and by the resulting ambiguous character of the space.
"Oldenburg's Store piqued my interest because of the way his sculptures influenced the space. The space was no longer merely a neutral or neutralising shrine serving as the backdrop for the exhibition of a work of art. The status of the space wavered. It became something else: a shop. The way the sculptures were made and displayed was more reminiscent of a greengrocer’s shop than of an exhibition space. This is an effect that Judd never reached nor ever wanted to reach. The sculptures – meat, flags, chairs – presented themselves as merchandise on sale. They infected and disfigured the space, much in the same way as my work ‘Apartment for rent’ transformed a storefront window into an apartment."

The opened space

Now that exhibitions have become something other than the mere display of pre-made objects, the artist is forced to think about space as well. Public space, and the buildings it consists of, often come across as oppressive. In Western Europe, public life is kept to a minimum. People withdraw into their homes. Encounters are painful. Museums arouse the desire to create a new public life. Every observant visitor feels the need to make holes in the walls, to let trees grow through floors and ceilings, to allow water to stream in, to prepare meals, to invite children and to discuss loudly. Such experiments have already been undertaken in the 1970s, but without lasting results. For that reason, it seemed a good idea to Michel François to shake up the institution itself from top to bottom; to pull the office areas into the exhibition spaces, to make hidden spaces accessible to visitors, and to utilise as many doors, windows, stairs, and landings as possible to let the activity of the museum stream outward, there where the space, however oppressive it may be, can make the ideal of a living art tangible through the clouds skipping past, the variable light, and the wind in the trees.
In Munich, a portion of the carpet has been rolled up and the underlying planks removed to display a marble floor donated by Mussolini. The lighting system meant to make the ceiling appear lower has been tampered with. A wall has been perforated, and surfaces have been illuminated with rectangular patches.
Inside the almost completely twilit space of Le Blac, on a sort of concrete podium surrounding a rectangular concrete pit, François attaches wooden beams to the floor of the podium. Resembling thick, narrow diving boards, they invite the spectators to engage in a precarious walk above the pit. They are new balconies. They lengthen the podium like stripes that pop out of a void. They are solid and flexible at the same time. A video image, incomprehensible at first sight – made with a camera attached to the furthermost end of a long strip of wood – shows Michel François, who appears to be turning round his axis in a peculiar skating step, while behind him the space spins around vertiginously. Elsewhere the spectators are invited to pull clay from a stack lying ready at hand and throw it at a lighted wall surface. In the vicinity hangs the superb, yellow, Male Soap, large enough to soap up your whole rump in one easy swipe. On the opposite side of the pit stands a rack of receptacles filled with water and small drifting balls of polystyrene. We see a polystyrene couch that has been hollowed out by hand. To the left hangs an artificially-lit, transparent tulle printed with a photo of a house that had lost a façade only moments before. A man attempts to rescue a few books, balancing himself on the remaining floorboards.
The half-collapsed house is a pried-open volume, the couch is a half scratched-open, massive form, and the spectators shred the clay to pieces. All of the images and sculptures refer to each other. They attempt to create space, an illusion of openness in a dark cave. They make it possible to weave a web of meanings, one in which each sculpture, each intervention and each image can be linked to the others.

The intermediary state of a work of art

Works of art are textures added to reality that, without our gaze, remain meaningless. An object does not exist outside of our interpretations. Form, colour, and material wait for our perception in order to be felt, comprehended, classified, or held up to scrutiny once again. Every work of art is a medium, an intermezzo, a mediator between the intention of the artist and the projections of the onlookers. By confronting his images and sculptures with each other in a new way at every exhibition, François emphasises their nature as mediators. They stand between the other sculptures. They stand between the spectator and the building. They only exist if they are perceived and thus brought to completion. By making his sculptures dependent on each other and on the surrounding space, François emphasises their ‘incompleteness’.
Due to this, it sometimes seems as if they are being used as decorative elements. And yet this is not the case. François does not want to make his images invalid or meaningless, he is in search of non-theatrical, non-hierarchical, open forms that redeem the sculpture from the age-old pretensions about definitive truth, eternal validity or immortality. In this way he tries to create a concrete form that captures the intermediary state of all things.
Another way in which François does this is by making sculptures that seem to appear to us in the moment that precedes their disappearance. The assignment is not a simple one. How to make sculptures that announce their mortality or finality without lapsing into a sentimental iconography? François translates this question as follows: How can you show the same ball of string both rolled up and unrolled? François has tried it many times, with video, with photos, and with plaster- or polyester-drenched strings. Until you discover that he has found out a masterly form, such as the ball of string on the windowsill in the museum of Albi. A string escapes from the rolled up ball and reaches a house situated fifty meters away, on the other bank of a river. François took the string to the other bank with a small boat and asked the house’s inhabitant if he might fasten the rope to one of the balconies. A photograph shows us how the string was carried by the wind so that it stretched out in a taut sidewards bow, as if the ball could unravel itself at any moment.
When I interviewed Michel François for the first time, in 1996, there was immediately some confusion concerning the usage of the words ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’. I was fond of his work because it spoke to me in a concrete way, while he was primarily happy with work that had become ‘abstract’. Now I see no contradiction anymore. François not only wants to present objects, he also wants to allow them to say something about art and about society. He does this not by endowing them with a ‘content’, but by allowing them to evoke a mental image. One of the ways that he attempts to do this is by dispersing them about the space, and by treating the space as if it were itself material for a sculpture. Just as he used to saw parts of a house and assemble them into non-functional and abstract compositions, he now cuts up the exhibition spaces and in this way makes them at once more concrete and more abstract. Buildings become raw material for the creation of space. Space comes about when a building becomes abstract, when it is torn loose from its functions, making the projection of open images possible.

Space as raw material for a mental image

Michel François compares his exhibitions with networks of rhizomes. He does not want to make works of art with just one identity, with one reading, with one linear descent. He searches for the manifold, the simultaneous and the changeable. He wants to make objects, images and exhibitions with an open identity. As a reference, he points to a renowned philosophical work that I haven’t read, but that reminds me of the gay self-contradicting Nietzsche, who ascribed our belief in a personal identity and in the existence of a ‘subject’ to mistaken conclusions drawn from the grammatical habit of using the pronoun ‘I’. Just as Nietzsche juxtaposes thousands of aphorisms, Deleuze sees the world as an enumeration of elements linked by the word ‘and’. The convincing nature of this image rests not only on the rejection of synthesis, but also on the idea of the ‘being-in-between’ of all things. "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness," writes Nabokov. "Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman – a rope above an abyss," writes Nietzsche. "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is a passage and a going under."
To what extent do we need philosophy to be able to appreciate François’ work? Just as it is marvellous to see an image that stirs up intense thoughts or emotions within ourselves, it must also be marvellous to see images or sculptures that can do this together and, depending on the exhibition space, in a different way each time. It is also fascinating to observe how the continuously interchanging distributions or combinations of sculptures, photos and video images can be coupled with a specific approach to the exhibition space, which is totally implicated in weaving new links between the individual works. The more links there are, the more space one gets.

I would like to refer to the description of a village in ‘Tristes tropiques’. A river runs through the centre of that village. Every ritual of importance, from marriages to funerals, have to be carried out by someone from the other side of the river. What’s more, everyone is required to marry someone born on the opposite side of the river, and following that, to go and live there too. This means that no one lives in the part of the village where his or her parents and children live. Everyone is in exile just a few meters removed from their birthplace. I find this to be a fine example of a mental picture with a concrete basis and a concrete, as well as a spiritual, goal: to become conscious of being-other and to accept it.
When I told Michel François about this village, he answered with a story he once heard about the Vietnam War. "Whenever the Americans were advancing through a forest on foot," he related, "the North Vietnamese always tried to shoot down the soldier to the right-most as their first target. As soon as the Americans became conscious of these tactics, the soldier most to the right always kept trying to be a little less to the right. His neighbour, who noticed this, would also gradually drift to the left, and so on. In this way these platoons had the tendency to crumple, to fold inward. I find it an amusing thought that a simple geometrical configuration, combined with fear, could bring about a spatial absurdity."

Jigsaw pieces of a changing story

In his recent, exquisite book on the masterpieces of the Flemish Primitives, Dirk De Vos relates that in the symbolism of medieval painting, nothing had a simple unequivocal meaning. The world of things was a cacophony of disguises for God’s being. The possibility of a divine revelation could only proceed from a still more complex and ambiguous world-view. The same held for the paintings of the Flemish Primitives. "By means of an all-too-literary search for symbolic meanings," writes De Vos, "this concept has frequently resulted in a system of iconographical explanations which actually contradict the idea of a visual revelation."
There exists a similar sort of misconception about Freud’s teachings on dreams. Freud held that people would not be able to sleep if they did not dream. According to him, our predecessors were threatened by so many dangers that during sleep their mind was forced to ‘play the fool’ for them, such that they would not awaken through sheer anxiety. The dream’s role is to mask our anxieties so that we can continue to sleep. To succeed at this the dream may engage all the tricks at its disposal: displacements and reversals, reflections and confusions of all sorts, amongst which figure not-recognisable-as-such truths as well. (We can conceive of this matter in a less teleological manner by observing that man is a viable creature only thanks to the fact that when he sleeps, his brain is confused.)
Freud helped his patients not by explaining their dreams, but by letting them freely associate on the basis of their dreams. Utilising their apparent denials or attempts to camouflage, he would then try to deduct more deeply buried truths or hidden fears.
What he actually did (and, in the wake of this wondrous charlatan, thousands of his copycats), was to compose new stories that evoked recognisable emotions in his patients and provided them with a new and more useful explanation of the world.
Every ideology rests on an identical game with mental images that make a particular approach to reality possible. In all probability the art of painting achieved by the Flemish Primitives came into being as the ideal medium for a reflection on the illusory nature of the appearances of reality, and on the manner in which we try to grasp reality by manipulating images.
In my view, Michel François has a similar conviction concerning his works of art. Sometimes he calls them symbols, for lack of a better word, but they are in fact intrinsically meaningless chess pieces, textures or dapples of light that are combined and interlaced to evoke a new story, new thoughts or new emotions in the mind of the spectator, and in the first place in the mind of Michel François himself.

Montagne de Miel, October 28th, 2002

* The texts by Hans Theys referred to in the above essay are

"Nothing up my Sleeve (and Nothing in my Pockets, Either). A Few Words about the Work of Michel François", published in "Michel François, Le monde et les bras. Une résidence terrestre", FRAC Limousin, 1996, and in "Michel François. Where I am, Seen from the Sky", La Lettre Volée, 1999.

"Enter Without Knocking. A Few Remarks about the Relation between Art and Politics in the Work of Michel François", published in Cahier Witte de With #7, Düsseldorf, Richard Verlag, June 1998, and in "Michel François. Where I am, Seen from the Sky", La Lettre Volée, 1999.