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Sans titre
Agnès Thurnauer,
2010

Acrylique sur toile,
25 cm X 65 cm

œuvre originale,
non encadrée

1 900,00 €

AT-9

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"The vertue of names is to teach" Elisabeth Lebovici- 2008

 

The vertue of names is to teach

Every monographic work can only be a celebration of the “Bonne qu’à ça”, the feminized version of Beckett’s response to the question: “Why do you write?” With his “Bon qu’à ça” (“It’s all I’m good at.”), Beckett indeed voiced the radical statement of artistic commitment, this commitment like none other, which is not life or even a “life more interesting than art” .
This book that I am writing, and this text in particular, do not escape from that formula. On the contrary, they seek to be the arguments (perhaps), or in any case the description with examples, of Agnès Thurnauer’s artistic commitment. In this framework, my project tends to confirm, in particular, the qualitative change, the epistemological leap, the step beyond or to the side, which sometimes takes place before my eyes, within the experience of this or that artist—and, more specifically, this artist. Is it the experience of an “artistic becoming”, which is made tangible in her speech, actions, or gestures, like a piece of a madeleine dipped in tea? Here I mean the jubilation that is produced by this break, in which the artist has cast off convention, tradition, self-censorship, and perhaps even her own history. 
The plasticity of this “letting go” and the nurturing of the empowerment that ensue most often affects, it seems to me, woman artists.  Very often, from Louise Bourgeois to Maria Lassnig, from Rosemarie Trockel to Sturtevant, from Annette Messager to Nancy Spero, their verbal or visual expressions resemble what Hélène Cixous joyously calls “couldn’t-care-less types, tenants of an unconscious that is incapable of saying no that grows graft and its supplements” . This is undoubtedly because one is not born a woman, one becomes one— and I have intentionally removed the quotation marks from this famous sentence at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of The Second Sex (published in 1949) by Simone de Beauvoir.  Undoubtedly because women first have to find their place – what choice do they have? – in an experience of the self where one is, first and foremost, the other.
“Indeed there are not two genders, there is only one: the feminine, the “masculine” not being a gender. For the masculine is not the masculine but the general. The result is that there is the general and the feminine,”  wrote Monique Wittig, and this can never be repeated often enough.  And the concept of a “difference between the sexes”, which our societies spend much time building up, constructs women as different others ontologically. Men are not different because maleness is conflated with the universal. Men do not have to identify themselves, unlike subjects that have been constructed historically as the other; even though these subjects have been marginalized, they are nonetheless, as the other, structurally necessary, like the mirror image of a subject that has colonized the powers of reason. As Virginia Woolf states in A Room of One’s Own: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses for men possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man twice its real size. […] That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if women were not inferior, they would cease to be magnifying mirrors […] For if a woman begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks…” . But when the body is no longer subjected to opposition, attribution, prohibition, exclusion, or inclusion, then the mask of a universal that covers or envelops the masculine is removed. Accordingly, the redefinition of feminine identity involves a revision of masculine identity in the dialectical interaction that has been established between the male and female genders. 
Little by little, various forms of feminism have ended up by rejecting the binary, hierarchical nature of gender and are moving away from a victim concept of the oppressed (or exemplary, or heroic) woman in order to recognize the diversity and heterogeneity that exists among and within women. Starting with the Foucauldian notion in which power, as a creator of subjectivities, is not only repressive but also constructive, Judith Butler has asserted, in her Gender Trouble , that gender, like construction and language, is performative. It is not a natural manifestation of the subject. Gender as a performance, as mediated by a series of norms and discursive practices, constructs the subject and its sexual identifications.
The argument that I would like to make here is that similar processes take place in art and are found in the ephemeral nature of Agnès Thurnauer’s work. It is also possible to speak of a gender performance through art. It is this performance that produces her discourse of emancipating autonomy. Annette Messager said it another way, when discussing the material of her art, which consists of being “more woman” in her work than in her life. Household chores, motherly duties, curiosity, rituals of protection or submission, sentimentalism —  all these clichés suggest, in one way or another, the specific nature of a sphere of “the feminine” in patriarchal societies, and are also taken in and activated by the artist, not the individual person, and mobilized as artistic activity.
So how does this relate to abstraction, which is most often understood as a process, of universalization, and rightly so? Certainly, for Agnès Thurnauer, painting, abstract or otherwise, is, as she often says, a very concrete process, “like the thought of cold and hot”: “The picture is precisely a place where the real and the imaginary can be made to coexist, to say nothing of the figurative and the abstract. However, (…) in France, abstraction is the heritage of men in the twentieth century. This abstraction was moved by an incredible will to power!  They each invented a way of summarizing painting in a sign. Buren used a strip, Toroni has the touch, Lavier used layers, Hantai used folding, and so on. Despite all the respect I have for them, it seems to me that what they are basically doing is closing painting in on itself, not opening it to the world (even though, for some, the act of working in situ this renews this system each time).”  So for her, abstraction has a gender, and, in France or at least in the French language, it is masculine. Since her work is a public discussion of the art of painting, Her work, since it has publicly discussed painting, seeks less to question these unique of actions and authority than to go beyond it — by literally transcending the intimate pairing of frame and canvas (or cloth), by shaking up and intermingling mediums and formats, by turning things upside down and inside out and mixing typologies and markings, and not ever trying to set, define, or identify “painting” with a lapidary word or phrase. For her, that “that” must not happen. Without a doubt, this idea is behind the daily correspondence she carried on over a long period with her interlocutors, to unceasingly elaborate on this or that argument or expression that was used, so as to give back to the work of thinking its erratic nature and free…association.
Abstraction was intimately linked to the body. This is the way in which the term Concrete Art, chosen, for example, in the Switzerland of Sophie Taeuber, must be understood. Taeuber worked at a time in the history of art when dance and abstraction intersected, and it was impossible for her to have one without the other. In 1915, Taeuber taught at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. Here she produced, in gouache after gouache, an art of construction without first going through a period of naturalism, neo-Impressionism, or any other ism of the epoch. At around the same time, she devoted herself almost entirely to dance and took part as a performer in Dada soirées. Even though Sophie Taueber ended up practicing dance for only a few years, this art informed her visual esthetic until her death. As a result, her abstraction is transgressive when viewed against the wider field of modernism, which, if we are to believe Clement Greenberg, consists of specifying one’s medium more and more. A little earlier, the American Lois Fuller had also combined dance and experimentation in the plastic arts, with brilliant, colorful, even fluorescent projections and reflections that involved the work of the body. She worked on chemical mixtures for gelatins and projections and set up bright, mirror-filled scenes. Fuller was also the first to make full use of dark spaces in a hall and design visual spatial constructions with an ephemeral, luminous quality. To further illustrate this point, at the other end of the twentieth century, the Judson Church Dance Theater in New York radically overhauled the conventions of dance, using the exteriority of abstract painting as its inspiration. The contributions Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, or Simone Forti in this endeavor consisted of the abandonment of new, formalist forms of rhetoric. By dismissing both the possibility of the virtuoso gesture and the relationship of fascination, they made possible the dance of “ordinary movement” and rejected any attempt to subject their work to an internal hierarchy. Once again, this generation worked for the overthrow of the established boundaries of choreography and the pictorial.
The body, or rather its photographed surface and skin, entered into Agnès Thurnauer’s painting in a rather special way. More specifically, the representations of the body are not “inside” the painting if you think of a painting as a homogenous, transitive relationship between each of its parts. But things can be viewed in other ways, and one can try to see these photographs of bodies, which are fragmentary like a dance, as a collage or a disruption, a way to widen or thicken the frame and to once again break up the univocal tension of the stretcher. “I started photographing in the studio in 1998,” she explains, “and then I became interested in short-circuiting the notion of the body as a model for a painting by photographing it in resonance with the painting, making it another self that came after the painting and not before it. In this way, the body shakes up the painting by being involved with it.” The body is neither model nor mistress, but dimension and short-circuit, like the choreography for Les Biotopes, in 2005, which operated at the surface of the paintings, giving it an elasticity just waiting to move again. The figures are applied on representations of headlines and articles from crumpled or folded newspapers and have rolled-up, extended, acrobat bodies in acrobatic positions (poses for figures, in the gymnastic sense of the term). They are entirely covered with a leopard motif, and in this space, that of the painting, they find the stability of a brief moment of balance. These postures, which have little to do with the classical positions that we find illustrated in paintings, also give the pictorial space a theatrical quality. However, to understand certain implications of this Dissidanse, to use Hélène Cixous’s brilliant formulation once again,  one indeed has to stick out one’s tongue and shout.
Shout. Not to make oneself heard by others but by oneself. For Agnès Thurnauer, as for every woman (and whoever identifies him- or herself as a feminist) this involves pronouncing the silent e’s. In the sixteenth century, the metrics of the French language still called these silent e’s feminine, mute, and instable, and they were associated, explicitly and implicitly, with a certain notion of the place of women in society and culture.
By adding a silent e to Robert Filliou’s formula, “Bien fait mal fait pas fait”, transforming it into “Bien faite mal faite pas faite”, Agnès Thurnauer does something that is performance-like in nature. In 1968, she got caught up by the inaugural event of a Principe d’Equivalence, which was based on a red sock placed inside of a yellow box on a wooden panel. The exhibit was further developed and multiplied with the help of 85 boxes that were empty or contained socks or pieces of socks, a creation developed and multiplied with the help of 46 boards, and 11 panels without boxes. With his principle of equivalence, Robert Filliou stated that a work of art cannot be evaluated on the basis of its execution: the “bien fait”, the harmony of a model with a technique; the “mal fait”, the uncorrectable error; and the “pas fait” or uncompleted all weigh the same on the scale. This principle is reiterated using a stamp, and it is this mark that Agnès Thurnauer undertakes not only to copy, but to remake and replay as well. By adding a silent e to the principle of equivalence, the phrase “Bien faite mal faite pas faite” can be used with other kinds of skills. Value judgment as an abstract universal (the beautiful, not the ugly) is indeed endowed with a gender when the silent e arouses and prolongs it. We thus enter a new, more ambivalent and polyvalent working space – that of the performance of gender.
In terms of linguistic performativity, the articulations of gender, including those pronounced at the moment of birth, like “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”, insults, or any other form of validation or invalidation — well done, poorly done, not done — function as quotes with no origin or original.
Today, we know how crucial the matter of quotation is to contemporary art, which is weary with looking at itself in the mirror of originality or novelty. It is exactly this question that brought Agnès Thurnauer to painting. From the very beginning, or even before it: “Draw me a sheep,” she repeated while carrying around a pencil and a pad of paper at the Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982. This was an example of a quote (from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince) as a performance. Similarly or even more so, when it came to painting, which is to say desire, the matter was brought up though an “insert”: Extension du domaine de la peinture, 1998. This was a title and a program. Each of Agnès Thurnauer’s works confirms that it was constructed “from the exterior”, which works its way to the center of the canvas through the addition of materials that are grafted or added to or mixed with the stretcher. These materials may be memories of works, phrases, or words that are borrowed from the world of art history and in a way deprived of their origin and represented there as a quotation, or even inverted. They can be diagrams, numerals, or gestures. They may be dashes, scribbles, hatching, breaks, arrows, crosses, marker lines, adhesive tape, etc., fragments of posters or leaflets and also figures, contours, and so on,  that have been structured in an additive, cut-and-paste process. This is because reporting material, as they say in psychoanalysis, is also quoting it, making it present in the treatment, making it present and making it a presence. With Agnès Thurnauer, this procedure finds its spatial metaphor, when the back becomes the front in her work and formulates, before the eye, a present mixture, like a sign, like the sign, with two sides of the signified and the signifier.
Art in its post-modern form is a juncture between things that do not belong to the same frame of activity or the “same world”. This is what women artists, among others, tell us repeatedly: feminism, when we look for it at work in visual arts, functions like unconscious thought “that is incapable of saying no that grows graft and its supplements” —which has undoubtedly more to do with speculation than with the specular, with becoming (devenir) rather than looking (re-garder –“re-keeping” from regarder “look” – translator’s note). 
By adopting the formula “Well done poorly done not done”, Agnès Thurnauer marks paintings on frames— speaking of which, in the mind of a patriarchal society, is the frame not associated with the physical aspect of the body, which is most often feminine?  Accordingly, frame on frame, the purple-ink-colored images of Bien faite, mal faite, pas faite #1, 2 ou 3 (2004) have fragments of bodies, and the way they are cut out is implicitly or explicitly created by bra or panty ads, and therefore focused on clothed or unclothed breasts or buttocks. The psychoanalyst Joan Rivière, in her famous article written in 1929, “Womanliness as Masquerade”  suggests that, in certain social contexts, women perform as women as a necessary masquerade. Women learn to imitate femininity as one wears a social mask, as an ironic production that, although it is a survival strategy, is none the less theatrical. As a result, through the cunning performance of invisible standards, women ingeniously reveal the absence of a connection between gender performance and its supposedly natural origin. Well done, poorly done, not done, is the value here, and it loses all justification, causality, in short all valence. 
There is an area where gender performance is constantly taking place. It is the area in which identity is nominally made manifest. It is that which appears to us to be the most natural, when we repeat the first and last name that have been given to us. And we invariably repeat them unless we are given others: the proper name, the indicator of our family status.
The discourse of names and the question of its performativity appear throughout the order of 1% placed by the Collège Simone de Beauvoir in Créteil, which was opened in late 2003. The motto of the French Republic, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which is blazoned on the front of every public educational institution, is supplemented, thanks to the contribution of Agnès Thurnauer, by a wall containing other inscriptions: more than a hundred first names from over thirty nationalities are inscribed on it, in identical lettering, with no embellishment or punctuation: "…sybille joyce gaelle sara soraya rashin raphayla alpha agnes… " Agnès Thurnauer gathered and wrote the first names of all the girls in the school at the time it was completed. Inside, in the entrance area, we see the image of a cosmonaut on the steps of a spacecraft, silkscreened onto aluminum and signed with the first name only of Claudie (Haigneré); in the stairwells, in the gymnasium, we see Aung (San Su Kyi), Marie (Curie), Amelia (Earhardt), Lucie (Aubrac), Marguerite (Duras), for a total of about a dozen portraits of women. The forty-two classrooms in the school are called Indira Gandhi, Angela Davis, Hannah Arendt, Aminata Traoré, Elisabeth Badinter, and so on. At the end of a planning process that was conducted with students, teachers, elected officials, and parents, Agnès Thurnauer wanted to “show the girls who attended the school that women can succeed in any endeavor, and give them confidence in themselves,” or in other words, make the national motto inscribed on the school a reality, by including women in the notion of universal brotherhood.
Whether they are male, female, or ambiguous, in our society, first names indicate a position in a group of siblings. They are and will always be, “children”, because the personal Name is associated with the law. The “Name of the Father” as used in Lacanian psychoanalysis, is also simultaneously the “No of the Father”, which commands and prohibits at the same time. It often occurs that, in patriarchal and patrilinear societies, the father is responsible for the holding and handing over of the power, knowledge, and status of the subject. Or at least, that is what they would have us believe: non-dupes wander in the family register. 
In 2005, drawings, paintings, a fresco at the Biennale de Lyon, and badges circulating during the private viewing put a series of personal Names into circulation. Annie Warhol, Joséphine Beuys, Alberte Dürer, Juliette le Greco, Eugénie Delacroix, Marcelle Duchamp, Nicole Poussin, Francine Picabia, Martine Kippenberger. Feminizing the first names of these artists of the Western canon produced an effect of hilarity at first. A sense of delight also came from the promise, which these badges hold, of a field parallel to art history, opening onto a more universal artistic paradise. It seems to me that we cannot limit this act and its reiteration to the childhood memory of Agnès Thurnauer and the vain search for women’s names in museum collections.
In his critical essay “Proust and Names”, Roland Barthes analyzes Remembrance of Things Past as the history of writing achieved through personal Names. If the work of Proust can indeed be read as the story of an initiation or an “arrival at writing” that cannot be reduced to a singular personal memory and, consequently, takes on a readable form, the writer must therefore have found a “novelistic object” for his reminiscences. This object is the proper name. According to Barthes, the proper name has three properties: “the power of essentialization (since it indicates only one referent), the power of quotation (since one can, at one’s discretion, call up the entire essence encapsulated in a name by uttering it), and the power of explanation (since one “unfolds” a proper name exactly as one does a memory): the proper name is in a sense the linguistic form of reminiscence. […] it is at once an ‘environment’ (in the biological sense of the term), into which one must plunge, bathing in all the reveries it bears, and a precious object, compressed, embalmed, which must be opened like a flower’ . Distinct from neologisms, as it is inspired by a phonetic model, the proper name must, in order to be invented, be governed “by the same rules of motivation as Plato’s legislator when he wants to create a common noun: he must, in a sense, ‘copy’ the thing and, since this is obviously impossible, he must at least copy the way in which language itself has created some of its names.”   Copying the way in which language itself has created some of its names — that is, in my opinion, the adventure on which Agnès Thurnauer is embarking in her pictorial adventure.
Judging from this, it can be said that she commands her system of names. Doing an exhibition also means raising the question of the group, of its syntax and narration. Hence the feminization of proper names, those of artists but also of architects, theoreticians, and philosophers, and this feminization will seek its similarities in the history of French art, but not only French art. However, it should be noted that an operation of this type has ever taken place only in French: whether we are dealing with Kosuth, Vermeer, Cage, Amstrong, or Greenberg, the first names attached will invariably be written or rather invented in the French language, the language which in particular has the gender of the silent e’s .  This is what makes this matter different from a simple commando operation, even though that would not be such a bad idea. To the badges are added the mural paintings that will soon swell to the dimensions of the rooms, halls, vestibules, or stairways at the SMAK in Ghent. The life-size portraits magnify the shape of the badge to copy, says the artist, the shape of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, of Parmesan. These portraits of names make up an almost inexhaustible list. Not because there would never be a shortage of names, but because what Agnès Thurnauer is constructing is of a fictional nature, like every portrait and every system in which the poetical object escapes from remembrance.
This is a dimension that appears real to me in the “letting go” mentioned earlier: the things in art that come from biography and memory are not a sort of “coming out”, a confession, in Foucauldian terms. For example, Louise Bourgeois, “confiding” the traumatic nature of childhood memory as the origin of her artistic work explains nothing. But she provides a pretext for developing contradictory works, which allow the critic to lose his or her way in a child’s life and in a psychic anteriority, while they also discuss metaphors and metonyms, which is to say figures and signs, which have been sufficiently detached from their reference point to open the work to an initiation to the world.
Unfolding the noun prédelle into “près d’elle” and a series of double paintings is, it seems to me, a participation in that fabric, or rather that texture. The names: “Elle”, “Lui”, “Now”, “Buy” “Don’t” – this time, without being bound to one language—are made available here to everyone whose memory, culture, and dominant usage construct the density, or as Barthes would say, the semic dilation : graphical elements and images retell names, or rather copy the way in which language has instituted them.
“The virtue of names is to teach,” said Plato’s Cratylus . The importance of language for Agnès Thurnauer and of naming in this feminizing appropriation of painting (a reference to Cézanne’s coloring sensations) is thus to be considered as the armature of its signs, as the “frame” on which she bases her artistic fabric, with painting, enameled or not, indifferent to its technique.

Elisabeth Lebovici

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