This appeared in the Art and Design section of the Guardian website on 1 June 2009:
Can Artists Create Art by Doing Nothing?
Félicien Marboeuf, a fictitious author who never wrote a book, is the inspiration for a new exhibition. Andrew Gallix celebrates artists who have turned doing very little into an art form
More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published — and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.
Jean-Yves Jouannais, the curator of this exhibition, had already placed Marboeuf at the very heart of Artistes sans Oeuvres (Artists without Works), his cult book that first appeared in 1997 and has just been reprinted in an expanded edition. The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life — perhaps even more so.
Jouannais believes that the attempt at an art-life merger, which so preoccupied the avant garde of the 20th century, originated with Walter Pater‘s contention that experience, not “the fruit of experience”, was an end in itself. Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the fabled pugilist poet Arthur Cravan — who kick-started the dada revolution with Francis Picabia before disappearing off the coast of Mexico — embodied (along with Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady) this mutation. Turning one’s existence into poetry was now where it was at.
“I like living, breathing better than working,” Marcel Duchamp famously declared. “My art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.” The time frame of the artwork shifted accordingly, from posterity — Paul Éluard‘s “difficult desire to endure” — to the here and now. Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature — sometimes for several decades — like a fine wine.
Phantom works abound in Jouannais’s book, from Harald Szeemann‘s purely imaginary Museum of Obsessions to the recreation of fictitious exhibitions by Alain Bublex through Stendhal‘s numerous aborted novels or the Brautigan Library‘s collection of rejected manuscripts. There is of course the case of Roland Barthes, whose career as a theorist was partly a means of not writing the novel he dreamed of (Vita Nova). One of my favourite examples is Société Perpendiculaire, co-created by Jouannais with Nicolas Bourriaud and others in the early 80s. This “hyperrealistic bureaucratic structure”, dedicated to the “poetry of virtual events”, had no other function but to produce reams of administrative texts pertaining to projects that would never see the light of day.
The Société Perpendiculaire would have provided a perfect working environment for Flaubert’s cretinous copyists Bouvard and Pécuchet, whose influence looms large in these pages. Just as Jorge Luis Borges‘s Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut set about copying Sentimental Education in its entirety in 1985. Sherrie Levine also reduced artistic production to reproduction by signing famous paintings or photographs by other artists. Erasure is an even more common strategy. Man Ray set the tone with Lautgedicht (1924), his painting of a poem with all the words blanked out, which anticipated Emilio Isgrò’s Cancellature of the 1960s. The most famous examples here are Robert Rauschenberg‘s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and Yves Klein‘s infamous empty exhibition (1958).
Jouannais’s artists without works are essentially of a sunny disposition, totally at odds with the impotent rage of the “failure fundamentalists”, as he calls them.
Displaying a wealth of material — paintings, sketches, collages, photographs and installations — the exhibition focuses on Marboeuf the man rather than the author. Marboeuf as a beautiful child; in middle age, bald as a coot, with a creepy-looking smile on his face; Marboeuf looking suspiciously Proustian on his death bed; Marboeuf’s grave … This biographical angle is hardly surprising given the author’s limited output, but rather more so when you consider that he is purely a figment of Jouannais’s imagination.