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Alexandre Singh, Assembly Instructions (Manzoni, Klein, Colour Theory and Statuary), (detail), 2008
Courtesy: the artist and Monitor gallery, Rome.

Artist as circumlocutor

by Luigi Fassi

A storyteller, an 18th-century-like novelist, and a performer, Alexandre Singh’s work encompasses a range of diverse and multifaceted practices, all of them embedded in a fascinating cross-cultural incursion throughout Western literary myths, traditions and genres. Our fetishistic relationship to commercial brands and commodities is explored by Singh in its closeness to superstitious beliefs and Gothic horror tales, demolishing modernist certainties and established geopolitical scenarios. The Pope is now based in Memphis, Tennessee.

I just finished re-reading The Marque of the Third Stripe. What drove you to create an intricate Gothic narrative out of the life of Adolf Dassler, the founder of Adidas? In The Marque of the Third Stripe you depict him as a man struggling to preserve his mental safety, surrounded by an increasingly fantastic and uncanny environment. It seems like a mimicry of the classic Gothic genre, mastered by authors such as Lovecraft, Poe and Monk Lewis.
alexandre singh: The desire to build a body of work around Adidas came out of my own intensely personal relationship to the brand. They are the only shoes that I wear – absolutely no others. I was interested in reinvigorating what I find to be a quite stale, even orthodox tradition of “pop art”, taking it outside of reproductions of marketing materials and packaging, and instead focusing it on our highly personal relationships to these companies and the objects that they fashion.
This relationship is, at its apogee, utterly fetishistic (in the anthropological sense). And it seemed natural to try and collapse back together this modern Marxist conception of a commodity fetish object with our more 18th-century idea of the frightening fetish object, the primitive statuette, fashioned as an aid in rituals whose ancient provenance brings to mind magic, curses, and a terror of the unknown. The natural genre to work within therefore was obviously that of Gothic horror. As a convention it opened up a lot of interesting avenues. The most intriguing of these for me was the role of the narrator. He is already in that period of literature a problematic figure; a circumlocutor, a teller of tall tales (see Laurence Sterne et al.) and in the Gothic genre we have the added bonus of having all these tales within tales. Like a Russian doll, each narrator passes the baton of the storyteller on to another narrator, or manuscript, or found object, confusing the issue even further.
Quite often in a novel like Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, readers find themselves quite confused, forgetting after a while exactly whose story- within-a-story they are listening to. It seemed possible to apply a sculptural formal manipulation to the narrative structure of the text I was writing. In The Marque of the Third Stripe therefore, we never resurface into the original story, we never come up to the surface for air: every narrator keeps passing his baton down and down, each story embedded within the next one, forever and ever and ever.

Alexandre Singh, Assembly Instructions Lecture, performance, Renwick Gallery, New York, 2009

In that work, everything is reverse: Europe is the newly discovered continent, inhabited by savages and Indians, while America is the Old Continent, decent and civilized; accordingly, the Pope is based in Memphis, modernism and modernist aesthetics are presented as antediluvian and disagreeable, and geometrical abstraction as an aberration of tribesmen. It seems like one of the main threads going through the tale is the attempt to mock the canons of modernism and its master narrative, making them collapse into obsolescence and absurdity.
Aren’t they already obsolete and absurd? I guess opinion is divided but... I’d like to think so. What was interesting about the modernist axiom was its paradoxical balance between a quasi-religious contemplation of the work of art and the simultaneous acknowledgment of its simple materiality, its actualness. In the universe of the story, the European primitives unabashedly worship the Gnostic Demiurge. They find in this actual materiality of geometrical objects a sublime present which is contrasted with the immaterial timeless spirituality of the Church. Within the tale this reversal seems to make a lot of sense; the non-pictorial work of art being so much about presence (rather than an imaginative projection), becoming symbolic of our unbreakable bond with the physical manifestation of reality.

Your work is all about language, narrative and evocation. Recently you performed at Renwick in New York, holding a fascinating lecture on dreams and imagination. That night, for a moment, I had the feeling you were like Mercutio telling about Queen Mab...
I like that. It’s a really good analogy, not only with regards to that particular lecture but also to Mercutio’s character in general. I think he and I both share a healthy cynicism and a love of bad puns. Within that speech, Mercutio’s wryness conjures up such a wonderfully complex picture of absurdity that we almost wish it to be true. I really like that mechanism. For example, I’m making a work about superstition; extrapolating into absurdity the logical consequences of the notion of ‘touching wood’ when making an assertion about the future. I have questions about the percentage of pulp that constitutes true wood, how much contact is necessary (can one be wearing a glove?) and who will be the arbiter of such a law? Are there courts of “touching wood” – or for the opening an umbrella inside a building? Who says I broke a mirror? It was Plexiglas, and either way, it’s more of a crack than a break...

Alexandre Singh, Assembly Instructions Lecture, performance, Renwick Gallery, New York., 2009

It seems in that performance you were enacting the same logic that informs Assembly Instructions, a constellation of photocopies of books and pictures taken from the most diverse sources and connected together in visual diagrams to generate imaginary cause-and-effect systems. I especially like the Ikea part of Assembly Instructions, with its absurd mimicry of Giordano Bruno’s ars reminiscendi staged in Ikea retail stores.
I describe this thought pattern as “tangential logic”. In the systems of collages presented in the Assembly Instructions, as in the performances, I meander through ideas and suppositions that digress quickly from their departure point; sometimes they meet back up with a previously discarded sequence of ideas and flow off in another direction. Sometimes they just run into dead ends. I guess I could also call them academic daydreams.
That work about Ikea came from my endless visits to different Ikea stores. I am always struck by how each one is uncannily like the rest; the layouts, the products, everything almost always the same. The only clue as to where you are comes from the tell-tale dollar sign, euro or yen in front of the price. And so walking about in my own Ikea daydreams, I started thinking about Renaissance mnemonics, and the practice of constructing memory palaces in the mind, populating them with objects whose imagery would help the acolyte remember vast quantities of information. An Ikea store would be perfect for something like that, and of course they’re everywhere, each one almost exactly the same as the next.
However they’re always in flux, displays are constantly being revamped, new products appear, old ones are retired. The mammoth system of knowledge that you’d build up would undergo continuous corruption. Old knowledge would disappear, replaced by new knowledge in seasonal displays, items on sale and featured products. The Assembly Instructions might be a good metaphor for that. In its own way, it’s a corrupt system of knowledge. Slides appear and disappear, each performance of the material always different, always mutating.

You told me you’re aiming to write a proper movie script and all that you have achieved up to now is part of a self-learning process headed toward that goal. In this regard, I have the feeling that content and narrative in your work, to a certain extent, are more an excuse for experimenting with language rather than what it is really at stake. Is that true?
Well, aren’t we always trying to learn something with each project we undertake? I’m still quite a mediocre writer, but I have ambitions to do better. These experiments or restrictions that I create are helpful for a beginner. Genre stops you from straying too far into places you don’t have the skills to deal with yet. That’s not to say that I’m not invested in these works. The one that I’m writing at the moment, The Antecinema, is a full-length Hollywood film script. I wanted to learn how to write a film without having to worry about whether I could ever film it. So what I’m working on is a massive big-budget Cold War epic that no studio would touch with a ten-foot bargepole. The text will eventually form the kernel of a performative installation, the first incarnation of which will be shown in New York for the Performa Biennial in November, 2009.
Whilst I’m playing with the verbal and textual, manipulating it or including it within frameworks of contemporary visual art, I’m not beholden to it. Quite often the work straddles genres, but if there is ever a choice: is this threatening to become simply theatre, or a conventional film? I would never insist that it remains visual art. The story is more important than any formal conceits or trickery. I don’t care that it might become problematic as art – as long as it’s rippin’ good yarn. But yes, it’s all part of a plan, and it’s something I’m conscious of not only in my writing but in all the work that I’m making; that each work is a stepping stone to the next work, and to the next, each one more ambitious and more challenging to bring into being.

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