Pierre Bismuth

Lisson Gallery, London, UK

The wall behind the gallery reception was painted a cheap, over-saturated pink. Whenever the assistant bent to straighten a pile of press releases or tap something into her computer, the word 'dazzling' appeared, flouncing across the fuchsia plane in fuzzy-edged silver spray paint. This was Pierre Bismuth's From Hot to Something Else (2003). Although its title sparkled, it was a pretty drab affair, like the T-shirt that looks great on the beautiful boy in the club but looks thin and tawdry on your bedroom floor in the morning and the boy is snoring in your bed, his pimples and panda eyes exposed to the cold light of day.

Such grim calling cards littered Bismuth's Lisson show 'Collages Fit For General Audiences'. Not all of the works were collages (or at least not in the scissors-paper-glue sense), but each of them dealt, in its own way, with familiar things that generate familiar fantasies: action films, pornography and newspaper front pages. Bismuth takes these things - I suspect he'd call them sign systems - and tweaks them until their meaning is suspended, neutralized or critiqued. That, at least, is the theory; in practice there's a problem.

Take Bismuth's Respect for the Dead - The Magnificent Seven (2003), in which footage from seven films - including Dirty Harry (1971), Dr No (1962) and A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) - flickers out the moment the first on-screen death occurs (usually in a matter of minutes). The piece is less about Bismuth's indignation at cinema's laissez-faire attitude to suffering than about the discursive function these deaths play; the way in which they foreground threats, frame arguments and validate violence to come. Although the piece has a nice Oulipian poetry (only arbitrary rules, it seems, guarantee a perfect, deathless world),

I can't shake the feeling that I've come across this idea before. In Mike Myers' spy spoof Austin Powers (1997) an anonymous henchman's death is followed by a self-aware gag about cinema's 'unknown soldiers'. Crucially, this doesn't defuse the fact that Myers is still trading on the fight 'em and fuck 'em thrills of the action genre. At a time when Hollywood films are hip to their own workings - and, more importantly, are happy to expose them - Bismuth's piece seems strangely bloodless.

The series 'Collages for Men' (2003) is similarly anaemic. Here Bismuth has enlarged several glossy shots from porno mags and primly covered the models' bodies with white paper garments. These blank robes speak of the absence that's at the heart of desire, and the series proposes a half-funny scenario in which the artist misunderstands the function of pornography so badly that he intervenes to replace the 'missing' clothes. This is fine as far as it goes, but the images Bismuth 'edits' have more in common with the arty pornography of Terry Richardson than with mainstream masturbatory material (magazine porn is currently in circulation free fall, while its low-res Internet counterpart fizzes on half the world's desktops). Like dressing paper dollies in period costume, 'Collages for Men' is good, retro fun but it's not a game for the contemporary world.

Newspapers feel important right now, and maybe that's why the works in Bismuth's 'Newspaper' series (1999-2001) were the most powerful in the show. Here front pages were reproduced with their lead photo doubled so that, for example, two images of Sarah Payne sat beneath the Evening Standard's headline 'It is Sarah, it is Murder'. What is intriguing about this device is how, depending on the pictures, it plays itself out. Twin images of Gilbert and George become a game of Spot the Difference, while a pair of solar eclipses transforms the Irish Times into an interstellar gazette. The most striking front page featured a doubled shot of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, as though this were the inevitable outcome of the event's brutal maths (two towers, two planes, two '1s' in 11 September). For all this, though, Bismuth's newspaper series seems to reprise the truism that the medium is the message. This is too blunt an instrument with which to critique the popular press, and a bad salve for human pain.

Andy Warhol once commented that the thing about the 1960s 'was not that Western art was becoming commercialised, but that Western commerce was becoming so much more artistic'. Bismuth's work may deal with late capitalism's sign systems, but it fails to acknowledge their sophisticated co-opting of many of the methods he employs. Like last night's pretty boy, there's more to modern pop culture than may at first appear.

Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator and contributing editor for frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 76

First published in Issue 76

Jun - Aug 2003

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018