For Inhibitions, their third exhibition at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Claire Fontaine, the generically titled Parisian “readymade artist” created by Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, has created a show about the concept of “human strike.” On a table at the entrance to the gallery is a three-page text authored by Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike Has Already Begun,” which defines the term as a movement of revolt in which anonymous people interrupt those aspects of their behavior complicit with existing power structures. The text functions as a kind of theoretical key to direct reading of the objects on display.
What do these instruments of protest look like? They’re very clean, fastidious—inhibited, even. The readymade artist isn’t allowed to indulge in stylistic panache. A pink box filled with Swarovski crystal kitty litter and three hanging plastic plants (meant to evoke Miami during art fair season but, given the location of Reena Spaulings, more suggestive of a Chinatown interior) surround the pièce de résistance, entitled Grève humaine (interrompue). The mural-sized panel comprises thousands of matchsticks treated with flame retardant, arranged to spell the non-parenthetical part of its title, French for “human strike.” In its magnitude and obsessive repetition, it evokes a brand of spectacular installation endemic to the Biennial circuit. But blocks of empty space creep into the letters and the impressive effect of completion is put on hold.
The gallery’s press release describes Grève humaine (interrompue) as a “material translation of the contradictions contained in the idea of human strike.” It’s worth lingering on what this material translation might mean. Is the idea of human strike, a “pure means” of refusal without an explicit political end, meant to transubstantiate into these impotent matchsticks? The danger here, as with much historic conceptual art—including that of forbears Art & Language, for whom the explanatory text is likewise used in a forceful, preemptive way—is that the artwork becomes an illustration of the theory.
Human strike is an instance of the “non-productive attitude,” to use Josef Strau’s term, which has gained currency in a certain sector of the art world as a mode of social recognition of artistic practice without necessary output. Take as its opposite Lee Lozano’s General Strike Piece (1969), for which the artist withdrew from the conventions of art production by refusing to appear at events. (She would eventually boycott art entirely.) Claire Fontaine seems less concerned about object production and channels of distribution. Then again, Lozano’s case also brings up the uncomfortable fact that the efficacy, and, indeed, legibility, of a human strike depends largely on who surrounds the person who chooses to drop out. Her particular disengagement was less than liberatory; rather, it yielded a return to her parents’ house and a drug problem (and later commercial vindication by her peers).
This is not to say that Claire Fontaine’s productive entanglements, in themselves, make “her” practice merely an instance of radical chic. What troubles me is that the work isn’t ambivalent or difficult enough, that the translation between political theory and artistic practice is made to seem too simple. The shells of objects in Inhibitions, as generic surrogates for engaged art, might have been more genuinely disquieting if they didn’t try so hard to make a point.