Since the early 1990s, Gilles Barbier has shrewdly cast himself as the enfant terrible of France’s contemporary art scene. Mixing mordant humor with provocation, he constructs elaborate fictions of the modern world that expose the many fallacies underlying scientific and philosophical thought. His intricate drawings and sculptures, which are often kitschy, show Barbier to be well versed in discourse surrounding the relations between verbal language and visual representation. In a widely quoted statement, he admits with bad-boy crudity: “I try to get language drunk; I try to stuff it, to go down on it, to chew on it. In my drawings and sculptures, I like the idea of emulsion.”
For his recent solo exhibition, “There Is No Moon without a Rocket,” Barbier took cosmological myths and theories as his point of departure. Inherently subjective and arbitrary, in his estimation, such postulates inspired him to delve into his own psychic universe and conjure several alternative three-dimensional worlds (all works 2010). Occupying the front gallery, The World as Thong (54 by 33½ by 73 inches) is a freestanding sculpture that features a thin sheet of blue plastic in the shape of a gargantuan flip-flop’s sole, atop which several plastic volcanic islands jut heavenward. While the outsized form suggests the ocean, its multicolored straps double as rainbows. Directly beneath are similarly sole-shaped plastic shelves (three translucent and one black), strewn with plastic sharks, whales and related marine life. This miniature seascape represents Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago where Barbier was born and lived until he was 20. As a boy, he collected flip-flops, which dotted the beaches like “strange meteorites.” Next to this remote tropical paradise hung a large drawing in acrylic on transparent polyester (55 by 73 inches) also called The World as Thong. With comic-book realism, Barbier offered black-and-white studies of the various elements comprising his homeland, around which he inscribed a rambling text recounting the wanderings of an unnamed man (himself?).
Barbier’s other sculptures and accompanying drawings laden with wordy ruminations were equally fantastical. The World as Tree House consists of a living tree around which he assembled tiny wooden domiciles interconnected via staircases and walkways—a kind of sci-fi wonderland. Suspended from the ceiling, The World as Woven Histories resembles a planetlike orb composed of white papery strips on which were written phrases (mostly in English) that yield no coherent narrative. Asshole World, a scatological inversion of a black hole, presents a giant pink plastic anus flanked by two brown slopes, one covered with mini shanties, as in a Brazilian favela, and the other strewn with trash bags and refuse.
Both poetic and profane, these “possible worlds,” as Barbier defined them, wittily wedded fantasy and reality. Even though he has recognized that “the humor certain individuals perceive” in his work “can be interpreted by others as a major violation,” such subversiveness continues to stoke his imagination.
Photo: View of Gilles Barbier’s exhibition, showing (foreground) The World as Thong, 2010; at Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois.