How to make sense of what’s to come – a period which, while shaped by a very real present, is eternally a product of the imagination? This is one of the many questions beating at the heart of Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni’s new body of work, ‘Infantia (1894–7231)’, which, in the press release, the artists call ‘a performative speculation on the future of value’. A tale of sorts – expressed in film, theatre, found objects and sculpture ranging from the years 1894 to 7231 – this exhibition-cum-stage experience pivots on atmosphere.
A number of interlinked galleries contain what the artists described to me as ‘an improbable ecosystem’: from a film featuring animals and plants once used as currency, to faded reproductions of Albrecht Dürer’s Virgin and Child (1516), to former US President Richard Nixon mouthing a deepfake speech about the dismantling of the world. Cryptic fragments – an incubator, fluorescent lights, bone and terracotta weapons – jostle for attention. Like a dystopian camp, old sneakers, sleeping bags, broken umbrellas and plastic bottles litter the spaces while performers, hired from a nearby retirement home, doze on floor mats, attached to oxygen tanks. The detritus is enlivened by moments of understated beauty: ancient masks from the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart cast in salt; amber resin flakes – a material Ancient Egyptians used to embalm bodies – scattered like tiny jewels across the floor. Like history itself, the show is a mess of allusion and reality, hearsay and fact.
To look for logic here is a doomed enterprise. The show’s press release is no help: metaphor and symbol are flung around like grains of sand in a cyclone: ‘Infantia is the exhibition of a birth. Before becoming a museum, the Institut d’art contemporain was a school. The school has become a child. Within this child’s body, there is: a sunset at midday, immortal communists sleeping under a rain of salt, death as atavism …’ Political and environmental collapse appear to be the order of the day. References abound to actual events and real people – in particular, to William Lane, a charismatic journalist who, in 1892, founded a utopian socialist community in Paraguay called ‘New Australia’. After disagreements about alcohol (Lane was teetotal), race relations (he wanted the commune to be white) and his dictatorial tendencies, in 1894, he left the colony to form another one, Cosme. However, it too failed and, in 1899, Lane, disillusioned, relocated to New Zealand where he became a hard-line conservative.
One of two epic films, The Everted Capital (1971-4936) Season 2, Episode 1 (2018) – which the artists describe as a study in ‘bodies tested by a repeated fiction’ – is a 24-hour meditation on Lane’s doomed experiment. (I saw about an hour of it.) Shot at MONA with no attempt at naturalism, the film is set in 7231. A ‘dyson sphere’ – a man-made megastructure devoid of nature – is populated by a group of at times seemingly sedated adults and children (‘communist immortals’) who, in whispers and declarations, allude to Lane’s enterprise: ‘I am William Lane and I am a traitor’ and ‘Is this what you hoped after waiting all these years?’ It’s like an archaeological dig populated by ghosts from the distant future. A sense of devastation and loss prevails: history, even this far off, is still unresolved; humans are still dysfunctional.
‘Infantia (1894–7231)’ is an ambitious, at times baffling, exhibition: a mise-en-scène formed in equal parts of catastrophe and regeneration. Within the chaos murmurs an incoherent hope that the failures of capitalism and the devastation of the natural world must inevitably lead to some kind of resurrection – but what shape that will take is anyone’s guess.
‘Infantia (1894–7231)’ runs at Institut d’art contemporain, Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes until 3 May.
Main Image: Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni, ‘Infantia (1894–7231)’, 2020, installation view, l'Institut d'art contemporain, Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes. Photograph and © Thomas Lannes
Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s ﬁrst podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.