In 1924, competitive chess players in Paris founded the World Chess Federation, the first international governing chess organization. Along with imposing a common code on the game to better regulate it, the Federation also adopted the Staunton chess set to use in all competitions, helping to popularize the pieces that we consider standard today. At Endless Editions‘ Chinatown gallery space, the exhibition Les Mauvais Joueurs by Canadian artists Claire Burelli and Pierre Chaumont explores ways to disrupt the standardization of the chess set and questions the consequences of a lost familiar language.
The centerpiece of the show is a chessboard that reinterprets the Staunton set, with Chaumont and Burelli each creating 16 pieces of the opposing black and white teams. Chaumont redesigned the black set: he first lathed, then hand carved the wooden works into unique chess pieces to reference those that proliferated from different cultures before the game’s look was standardized. Mixed into the lot are a Japanese bishop, flat and inscribed like a toppled headstone; a Mongolian pawn in the form of a crouched rabbit; and a tall, slender, Islamic rook. While Chaumont’s set looks towards history, Burelli’s white one instead updates the game with modern technology, with all the pieces 3D-printed into white columns and marked with unicode characters that represent their different roles, as read by a computer.
These transformations introduce refreshing visuals — and in the case of Chaumont’s, slip in a slice of history and culture — to a familiar game; but they also reveal how we rely on chess’s appearance, which in turn indicates function. Entering a match without prior comprehension of the meaning behind these new substitutions renders one completely helpless; unless you have a fluent handling of both Chaumont’s cultural pieces and Burelli’s programming language, any faith you have in yourself as a player on the offense and on the defense is shattered. The game, which stands, pre-arranged, in the middle of the gallery, invites play, but those who attempt to do so are also set up to lose. Les Mauvais Joueurs — French for “sore losers” — makes its players accept the fate of the game and face the limits of their knowledge.
As an extension of the chessboard, a series of prints on the surrounding gallery walls further explore and tweak the conventions of chess. The artists, each contributing one-half of the images, play with the viewers’ understanding of codes once more, inverting our familiarity with the show’s language of color: the images are hung so they alternate like the board’s squares — one of the game’s remaining constants — but while Chaumont’s chess pieces claim the color black and Burelli’s, white, his prints are framed in white and hers, black. Again, Chaumont’s work concerns the historic; his images illustrate Roger Caillois’s six characteristics that describe play, as outlined in the introduction of the sociologist’s 1961 book, Man, Play and Games. One such signifier, “Useless,” for example, is a print of three pieces which appear as actual tokens but are actually manufactured from two different ones, stripping them entirely of their assigned functions. For her part, Burelli warps the history of chess with contemporary tools, digitally glitching decades-old photographs she found online of momentous chess matches between supercomputers and humans (who failed to win, like the gallery’s visitors will). One print, “Looser,” a landscape of rainbow-colored, fragmented shapes and lines, hints at its original image of a Vladimir Kramnik vs. Deep Fritz contest only through a section recognizable as Kramnik’s back. Any attempt at recognition is once again thwarted in these images — this time, through the disguise of narratives.
Like a chess game itself, Les Mauvais Joueurs has logic and order guiding both its content as well as its structures of creation and display. For a show that so firmly adheres to self-created regulation, it could have fallen flat from a boxing-in of ideas; but this creation of a specific visual language not only stresses that recognition depends on a shared comprehension but also reveals that room for creativity exists in even the most established of mores.
Les Mauvais Joueurs continues at Endless Editions (191 Henry Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through September 3.