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Claire Fontaine
Museum of Contemporary Art - North Miami (MOCA NOMI)
770 NE 125 Street , North Miami, Florida 33161
June 2, 2010 - August 22, 2010

Watch Your Step
by Nancy Jones


With daily warnings of environmental disasters on top of sleazy Wall Street frauds, it appears everyone’s on hyper-alert today waiting for the next shocker. Truth is, most people will just tune out and get on with it, vente Starbucks in hand.  Though if you live in steamy struggling South Florida you’ll probably crank up the A/C and hit those Craigslist Classifieds again.   Or bag the whole thing and head for the beach.

Here’s a better idea.

Take off your sunglasses and give your brain cells a workout. Get over to the remarkable Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, the place high-profile Executive Director Bonnie Clearwater refers to as the “laboratory for new art.”  You’ll lose yourself in some political and socio-economic conundrums you’ve never even dreamed of.

The current show, Claire Fontaine: Economies, curated by MOCA’s innovative young associate curator Ruba Katrib, is the first comprehensive museum exhibition of the internationally known Paris-based artist collective known as Claire Fontaine.  The year was 2004 when two artists from the UK and Italy, surviving in a cramped, derelict Paris apartment, decided to “put on a show” (which included live songbirds) right in their apartment.  In those years the notion of individual artists’ claims to authorship was already comatose, so Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill  went about declaring themselves a readymade.* The name they chose for their collaborative work, Claire Fontaine, was lifted from a famous French paper company known for fabricating everyday school notebooks.

At roughly the same time, but philosophically light years away, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (like Warhol before him) went about exploiting mass-produced art. And his giant cartoonish paintings and sculptures soon made him a star.  There was up-market kitsch -- bright red cherries adorning $5,000 Louis Vuitton handbags (with millions of knock-offs). And low-- manga tee shirts, key chains and mouse pads sold retail and in gift shops he’d create alongside his museum shows.  Parody and pointed nonsense have long played a role in selling the global Murakami brand of razzle-dazzle.

By contrast, you won’t find a smidgen of spectacle in the Claire Fontaine collective.   What persists is a fierce to the barricades passion for inquiry: into issues of art and politics for example, or institutions and the public trust, along with investigations into the perspectives and pre-conceptions of other cultures. (Here’s looking at you, Miami!)

The first tip-off is a neon sign that hangs over MOCA’s front door announcing Capitalism Kills (Love). The love portion blinks on and off, hinting to visitors that they may want to pause and reflect on how the system they have been brought up to believe in  is really affecting their lives.    In Untitled (fist) 2008, the sculpture of a clenched fist at the end of an amputated arm catches my attention. The wrist sports a fake Rolex. The Rolex includes a Pepsi Cola dial.  At first it looks like Pop, but Fontaine refers to the piece as honoring the hand of the laborer who can no longer find honest work to make a living.  Hmmm. I like that.  On the floor at the gallery’s entrance lies Recession Sculpture (American Gas) (2009), a large vacuum cleaner hooked up to a propane gas meter that’s sucking air out of the meter. The counter, conveniently for the owner, is running backwards.  The question becomes: who will be held accountable for basically cheating the system? Or to turn it around: might this be a last-ditch money-saving device for some beleaguered homeowner?

In another gallery a floor installation, Untitled (Tennis Ball Sculpture) 2010 comes across as a real head scratcher.   Hundreds of tennis balls have been slit open and filled with items like gum, batteries, toothpaste, tampons or condoms; they roll around the gallery floor.  I discover that the thinking behind this piece is a probe into the US prison system’s need for legal currency.  Contraband in the form of illegal drugs often find their way into prisons via such tricked-up tennis balls thrown into prison yards by friends of the incarcerated.  But all smuggled materials, no matter how innocuous, are seen as illegal behind bars. So Fontaine’s piece is suggesting that a facility could create an alternative economic system based on trading for necessities.

I duck into one of the darkened screening rooms to witness a vertical text scrolling down the screen.  Fontaine calls it Suicide Stack (2010) and it turns out to be the notorious suicide note posted on the internet by the late Joseph Stack when he rammed his small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas earlier this year.  An excerpt, “Now when the wealthy f---k up, the poor get to die for the mistakes,” becomes part of a plaintive cry for much of America’s middle class drowning in debt, foreclosure and ruin.  If Americans bought into media reports that the guy was just another nut case with terrorist tendencies, this text will, at the very least, provoke viewers to think twice about previous assumptions.

Fontaine’s assistants make a habit of exploring their host cities by addressing social and economic conditions as they see them.  One of my favorite pieces in this show of over 30 works is a video, Passengers (2010). A female cabdriver takes the artists on a 25-minute ride around Miami and we get to experience an on-the-spot, everyday conversation about life in this town. It struck me as honest and touching.  The show ends with Foreigners Everywhere (Creole). Here a large painted neon sign is set up for us to meditate on issues of exclusion and inclusion in a baffling, multi-cultural place like Miami.   Once more Claire Fontaine invites museum goers to reconsider reality through the stimulating, sometimes perplexing experience of looking at art.

*“The readymade artist…makes artworks by taking existing models and filling them with different content to elicit a transformation in meaning.” From the catalogue essay by Ruba Katrib.

Images: Untitled (Tennis Ball Sculpture), 2010, detail, Courtesy the artist and MoCA; Change, 2006, Twelve twenty-five cent coins, steel box-cutter blades, solder and rivets, plinth and vitrine, Dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin; Capitalism Kills, 2009, neon;  Suicide Stack, 2010, Digital animation,Courtesy the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art and Metro Pictures, New York.

Posted by Nancy Jones on 6/27/10 | tags: conceptual mixed-media

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