I spent 20 minutes in Eric Baudelaire’s show ‘A Form that Accommodates the Mess’ reading the newspaper. During this time, I read a 2008 Wall Street Journal article about the Iberico pig, a delectable swine raised on a diet of wild acorns, which had just been legalized for American import. This piece of culinary journalism hung in Baudelaire’s work Chanson d'Automne (2009), in one of two large frames, alongside other articles all published during the 2008 financial crisis. Prismatically, the montage registered bizarrely discordant responses to this defining event. Searching for a more salient meaning, Baudelaire circled words in the articles in red grease pencil to spell out an 1866 poem by Paul Verlaine, also called Chanson d'Automne. In 1944, the BBC broadcast the poem as a radio code, alerting the French resistance to the invasion of Normandy. Baudelaire’s poetic gesture reflected a harsh reality – even our seemingly trivial social atmosphere is suffused with volatility. Further registering the seepage of paranoia into domestic life, in FRAEMWORK, FRMAWREOK, FAMREWROK… (2016) Baudelaire collected and assembled diagrams mapping the structure and psychology of terrorist cells, into a pastel-coloured wallpaper.
The fact that wars of every kind – civil, official, proxy, covert, terroristic – are increasingly threaded into our daily lives gives Baudelaire’s work a soft sting. The late December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin was another catalyst for that amplifying anxiety. With a deft sensitivity for language, Baudelaire's work retains a sense of humour while teasing out the emergent link between war and quotidian life. This is what separates his politics from sanctimony. When the artist loses his grasp on the subtle absurdities of human behaviour, however, the work suffers. Site displacement / Déplacement de site (2007), for instance, began with a photographic commission for the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. While Baudelaire’s photos of trees, bushes, pillows and modernist architecture flickered from one projector, the second showed echoes of these pictures, taken in India. Baudelaire asked the artist Anay Mann to shoot these images, mimicking his own. The bon mot is that Clermont-Ferrand is home to Michelin tires, who outsource production to India. While Mann was mimicking Baudelaire, Baudelaire was mimicking corporate profiteering strategies. Timely as this subject matter is, the human dimension and impact felt eclipsed by Baudelaire’s clever structuralist manoeuvre.
A similar obliqueness dogged Everything is Political II (2016), a stack of books with miscellaneous subjects, but all titled Unfinished Business. The piece seemed to signal a dark joke, tying the platitudes of hack copy-writing to the lust for vengeance that simmers in our culture. But the joke never quite landed. What remained was a mildly clever observation that pat phrases are used over and over. It’s important to notice, though, that the failure of these pieces would not be nearly so evident if Baudelaire’s language games weren’t so keenly penetrating in his other works.
Ante-Memorial (2011–16) could have held the show on its own. Since 2011, Baudelaire has been emailing the British Prime Minister’s office, requesting access to letters written by sitting Prime Ministers, outlining their contingency plan in case of nuclear attack. Earnestly, the requests explain the artist’s intent to use this correspondence as a kind of written monument. We see Baudelaire’s letters, alongside the government’s rebuffs, which are alternately patronizing, brusque and playful. Here, Baudelaire has teased wisps of personality from the Kafkaesque. This is a literary accomplishment, even if it won’t prevent our shadows from once more being etched in pavement.
Main image: Eric Baudelaire, Everything is Political II (detail), 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin