Stores are often closed on Sundays, especially in Paris. Walking by 113 boulevard Richard Lenoir and peering through the window grill one could be forgiven for thinking it was just another boutique selling nice stuff that people don’t really need. On another day – maybe a Thursday or Friday – this particular address would be open and you could go inside to take a look at these alluring objects more closely. Only then would you notice that the carefully arranged containers are unlabeled, that the gold in the window display is fake, that the colorful tower-like sculpture is made of old yogurt tubs, that the dresses have no neck-hole, that the perfume bottle is empty. That there are no price tags.
Upon closer inspection you may note that the carpet doesn’t quite fit the floor, that there is no mirror in the changing room, that the watercolor has the same pattern as a shirt displayed emphatically upon a table with too many legs, that the dresses are made out of heavy curtain lining, that some of the assembled ornaments are made of HubbaBubba Bubble Tape holders or the bits of plastic that protect parts in DIY furniture kits. What kind of store is this?
French-born, Denmark-based artist Al Masson’s recent project at Le Commissariat (the curator-run initiative currently inhabiting the above address in Paris) works with questions of shop-object versus art-object and exists in the indeterminate territory between gallery and store. The exhibition, titled CBO Concept, asks the question: what is the real difference between a concept store and an art exhibition?
Such questions do have a number of significant art-historical precedents. The Store, for instance, set up in 1961 by Swedish-born North American artist Claes Oldenburg on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a way for the artist to circumvent the gallery system by setting up ‘shop’ himself, and selling his own work-stock directly to the public. Oldenburg’s art-merchandise was inspired by the stuff one would find in regular stores in the area: bargain clothing, sandwiches, mannequins, cash tills, and price signs. The idea was ‘everything must go’, and products were sold to individuals and institutions alike. Just over twenty years later, in 1993, English artists Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas rented a shop front and set up The Shop in London’s East End. There they made and sold objects such as ‘Complete Arsehole’ T-shirts and ashtrays with Damien Hirst’s face on them. Emin and Lucas’ project was less focused on creating an alternative to the gallery, like Oldenburg, than on creating an alternative to the studio. The Shop allowed the artists, according to Lucas, to ‘get on with a lot of work which might seem trivial within a studio context’. (1) The Shop works were thus, in many ways, products of the shop and not solely products in the shop.
Undertakings like the aforementioned concept-store-cum-gallery projects interrogate art’s most established practices and foundational conventions (the gallery, the studio, the gallerist, etc.) and furthermore, destabilize assumptions about high and low culture (and what might constitute the commodities of those respective cultures). The art-products created by Takashi Murakami take these ideas yet further. The Japanese artist’s enterprise Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., established in 2001, is an art-production and artist-management corporation, whose goal is to ‘revolutionize the concept of art itself’ and build a Japanese art market as strong as that in the West. ‘Art’, according to Murakami, ‘is the supreme incarnation of luxury entertainment.’ (2) His limited edition leather goods, created in collaboration with Louis Vuitton, testify to this philosophy and further blur the margins between that which is deemed art and that which is deemed product.
In the context of such spectacularly commercial practices, it would be perhaps too easy to state that Masson is coolly criticizing so-called concept stores, which are in fact often devoid of a concept (apparently the show’s conception came from one such joke between artist and curator). One could go even further and say he is criticizing the sophisticated, ‘aesthetic’ fetishization of commodities that comes with such stores. By extension, one could conclude that Masson’s ‘point’ is that art is merely a commodity equal to that shown in shops labeled conceptual, and is thus nothing more than a product. There is, however, a real sense of jouissance in every improvised plastic assemblage that constitutes this project; in the trompe l’oeil window display; in the fact the functionless clothes are the result of a carte blanche commission to a dressmaker in the artist’s hometown, Marseille; in the tension present between throw-away and fetish cultures; indeed in the whole decoration of the space – including the dark carpet, the odd MDF tables, the lighting, the leather armchair – all of which are created by Masson.
With this spirit of enjoyment Masson addresses the complexity of classifying concepts, of hierarchizing vendor spaces, of fetishizing objects (whether deemed art or not), and he does so through the lens of ‘concept store’, which conveniently allows almost anything to pass beneath its broad banner (as does art, it would thus seem, further complicating things). Masson confuses the viewer by blurring the terms and toying with ideas of function and non-function, but he does so with a generosity one might not expect from such an enterprise, surpassing sarcasm and irony completely. Boutique it may well be modeled on, but this ‘store’ is not simply selling nice stuff people don’t really need. There is a difference after all. Maybe we could call it self-awareness, or simply put it down to context, after all the products at CBO Concept aren’t technically for sale, Le Commissariat is a ‘non-profit’. But this concept is selling us something, maybe something we need. We, who want to classify, hierarchize and fetishize; we who love a concept; we who love irony and cynicism, triple entendres and self-referentiality; we who love to be alternative and not-for-profit and conceptual – what is Masson trying to sell us?
During the opening performance, while throwing his small bricolage, ‘brut’ creations out to the audience, Masson wrote something in chalk on the pavement inside Oberkampf metro: “je vous donne tout” [I give you everything]. The question, here, is not ‘how do I buy it?’ but, ‘how do we not buy into it?’
all photographs are installation views of Al Masson’s CBO Concept at Le Commissariat, Paris