PARIS — Located in La Chaux-de-Fonds near Neuchâtel in the Swiss Jura Mountains, watchmakers Greubel Forsey are celebrating their tenth anniversary by honoring the gadfly artist Robert Filliou (1926–1987) in Paris with a rather curious show called Chapeaux! Hommage à Robert Filliou — and with a nonfunctioning watch in his name.
Filliou, an early proponent of social networking as art with his La Fête Est Permanente/The Eternal Network, held that art didn’t have to express itself in the form of objects. For him, art was a means of action in the world. As such, he is a very rare and fascinating artist, one closely associated with Fluxus.
In 1962 Filliou started walking around with a traveling miniature gallery in his hat, which he called La Galerie Légitime (“The Legitimate Gallery”), an idea reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Boîte-en-valise” (1935–1941/1958). The group show Chapeaux!, curated by Raphaël Cuir, picks up its distinctly obscure aesthetic vibe and conceptual linkage there — in January 1962 — when Filliou showed his own works in his hat. This he followed with a roving one-man show of Benjamin Patterson in his hat in July 1962. That October, the idea moved to London and took up a Chaplinesque bowler hat form (used in this show) full of works by Filliou, Ben, Emmett Williams, Robin Page, Addi Köpcke, and Daniel Spoerri. When Filliou clicked with Fluxus head organizer George Maciunas, La Galerie Légitime began inviting other artists to exhibit in the hat.
Such an intimate scale encouraged attitude and gesture: this meant small objects, event cards, poetry, photographs, film strips, music scores, art games, drawings, and letters rather than larger, more saleable, art objects. The emphasis was on the discreet small scale, time, and nomadism. Take for example his own work “Poussière de poussière de l’effet Chardin: La raie” (1977) that by-and-large consists of a small dusty cloth in a small box, with the dust collected from Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting “La raie” (“The Ray”) (1728) in the Louvre collection.
Similar to La Galerie Légitime, Chapeaux! Hommage à Robert Filliou features small works placed in a hat, here by Pierre Ardouvin, Ben, Thomas Hirschhorn, Guy Limone, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Yoko Ono, ORLAN, Mary Reid Kelley, Franck Scurti, Tracey Snelling, Jeanne Susplugas, Stéphane Thidet, Pierre Tilman, and Joana Vasconcelos.
Each artist received a bowler hat from Cuir and designed a small work to fit into it. These hats were then set within a sprawling mirrored architectural structure created by Jakob + MacFarlane that echoes the form of the bowler hat with its perforations. Noticeably, Thomas Hirschhorn refused the bowler hat, showing, rather, a large coarse conspiracy-looking panel called “L’importance du travail de Robert Filliou pour moi” (“The importance of Robert Filliou’s work to me”) (2014). Also, Stéphane Thidet preferred headphones for his audio spoken-word piece “Dedans” (2014). But the most successful and respectful approach to Filliou’s hat-as-gallery idea appeared to be the simplest: Franck Scurti’s delightfully poetic “Museum In Your Head” (2014), in which the bowler holds a beautiful butterfly where your head would go.
Despite “Chapeau sentimental” (2014), ORLAN’s carnivalesque string of pennants overhead, Chapeaux! succeeds in gratifying despite the obvious dangers of what Peter Schjeldahl calls “festivalism” (crowd pleasing environmental installations that tend to exalt the curator) thanks to Cuir’s distinctive sense of properly modest scale and light touch. This coherent combinational dexterity blends diverse generations and media together without sinking into the prevalent low-tech craft disposition that indeed was Filliou’s. Elegant handmade works, like Yasmin Jahan Nupur’s “Stay Well” (2014) and Joana Vasconcelos’s “Microvalkyrie” (2014), were frequently enchanting. But Cuir also succeeded in advance through the equality of representation of women present here, and by making available new work from outside the well-worn art centers.
Moreover, Chapeaux! nurtures a conceptually-oriented quasi-political hostility to commodity capitalism by including Fluxus artist Ben’s contribution “This hat contains the universe of the mind thinking about things” (2014) and Yoko Ono’s subtle “Write your wish and put it into my hat” (2014).
This quirky show will inevitably leave visitors feeling either tickled and pleased or simply baffled. And that is as it should be, as it embodies Filliou’s puzzling philosophy of art as a playful conceptual means of resistance, rather than a finished product.
I found that such a philosophy plays hell with the other focus of this show, the relationship between art and brands (such as Greubel Forsey). Indeed the hosting organization, La vitrine am, proclaims to be a “dedicated space for art and brands.” But Filliou-style flippancy can also play around with social criticism, as it does with Guy Limone’s piece “64% of the French are opposed to a military intervention in Syria by an international coalition, in which France would be involved” (2013). It can play with forms of denying commercial value, as Stéphane Thidet’s audio text piece does. And it can play at refusing to serve the profit motive by flipping our words and motives in the mirror of poetry, as Pierre Tilman’s “Les mots sont des miroirs” (2014) does.
That’s why Filliou’s philosophy of art as something in play appears here sternly useful in suggesting artistic strategies valuable to the salvation of nonfunctional art in our age of hyper-branded capitalism.
Chapeaux! Hommage à Robert Filliou continues at La vitrine am (24, rue de Richelieu, Paris) through October 31.