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Francis Alÿs Fabiola

Dia at the Hispanic Society of America
September 20, 2007 - April 6, 2008

The necessary back story is as follows: Fabiola was a wealthy 4th-century Roman woman who, after divorcing and remarrying against the Church’s ordinances, renounced her sins and, alongside her more art historically canonized peer-saint, Jerome, embarked upon a life of penitence and service. Though famous in her time, Fabiola remained a more or less obscure figure of Christianity until the mid-19th century when, intent on mobilizing Britain’s Catholic minority, Cardinal Nicolas Wiseman published a popular novel depicting her life. Shortly thereafter, the French academic painter Jean-Jacques Henner painted what Lynne Cooke describes as his “disarmingly conventional rendering” of Fabiola—a now-lost work that has served as the prototype for countless subsequent amateur renderings. Enter Francis Alÿs. Sometime in the early 1990s, the Belgian-born artist set out to acquire a private collection composed entirely of flea-market replicas of old master paintings. Finding Da Vinci-wannabes in fewer quantities than he had hoped, Alÿs soon began amassing hand painted reproductions of Henner’s Fabiola instead. This collection, which now totals more than 300 paintings, is currently on view at The Hispanic Society of America through the institute’s present collaboration with Dia.

Francis Huys. Fabiola, n.d. Photo: Francesca Esmay. Collection of Francis Alys. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.
Francis Huys. Fabiola, n.d. Photo: Francesca Esmay. Collection of Francis Alys. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

It is curious how an exhaustive arrangement of works based on a single prototype, rather than drawing attention to the formulaic craft of amateur icon-painting, instead has the unexpected effect of momentarily vanquishing the anonymity of each contributing artist. Signatories like “Jenny” and “Diva” suddenly become important contributors to their field—the very limited field of amateur Fabiola painters. In certain instances, the signature itself, the manner in which its handwriting corresponds to the name, invites speculation on the extent to which each painter’s personality has been projected onto the numerous faces in question, which, for all their similarity exhibit a striking array of expressions. So much depends, one realizes, upon the bridge of a nose, the pursed-ness of a pair of lips. With the original 19th-century painting having vanished, its features posited like some platonic ideal, one struggles to reconcile these crossing vectors of difference and similarity. At one moment the exhibition appears as variously composed of different elements as the lexicon of a foreign language (the language of Fabiola), but no sooner have we accorded style (however kitschy) its highest honor than the shadow of origin creeps back in, and the viewer is inclined to invoke an idealized form from the geometrical average of the lines and tones—to conjure a “real” Fabiola from these composite simulacra.

Francis Alys. Fabiola. Installation view. Dia at the Hispanic Society of America, New York, September 20, 2007 April 6, 2008. Photo: Cathy Carver. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.
Francis Alys. Fabiola. Installation view. Dia at the Hispanic Society of America, New York, September 20, 2007 April 6, 2008. Photo: Cathy Carver. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Such are the politics of collecting, which, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, have the effect of transforming “the everyday prose of objects…into poetry, into a triumphant unconscious desire.” But there is an alternate view to be taken of this charming, if somewhat fanatical, meditation on the poetics of banality. Putting aside the limitations of dialectical structures predicated on seriality, the nature of collecting is such that, howsoever primacy is accorded to “the object,” the specter of the collector himself—his infantile, acquisitive pleasure—is never far from hand. In the case of Fabiola, the egalitarian premise of the exhibition, exalted in the accompanying pamphlet with conspicuous reflexivity, is marred by the internal motivations adhering to its organizing principle. “Even when a collection transforms itself into a discourse addressed to others,” writes Baudrillard, “it continues to be first and foremost a discourse addressed to oneself.” As a result of the pains taken to abstract Alÿs’s name from the project (this is not an “art installation,” but, rather, “an investigation”), a somewhat disingenuous air hangs about Fabiola. More problematic, still, is the manner in which the show claims to transcend the tired critical mechanisms of contemporary art even while disdaining the unavoidable preciousness of the amateurism on display.

That the works in question are presented not at a mainstream gallery but at an unassuming venue generally reserved for old master paintings may indeed exempt them from what Cooke disparagingly refers to as the “well codified discourse of institutional critique.” But this emphasis on site-specificity also lends false credibility to the notion that the project finds significance outside the dynamics of Alÿs’s greater oeuvre. Despite claims to the contrary, the hand of the artist responsible for conceiving the exhibit is no less present than that of the French academician to whose prototype the many faces of Fabiola pay homage. It remains a simple fact that there is but one signatory, here, and it isn’t Jenny, Diva, or even Jean-Jacques Henner. Perennially a poser among “the people,” Alÿs is still the anachronistic European standing alongside workers on a street in Mexico City, except this time he has chosen to forgo the self-ironic sign labeling him a tourist.


David Markus

DAVID MARKUS is last child of Generation X. A disaffected critic and belle-lettrist, he resides in NYC.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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