Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens: Putting Life to Work
by Gentiane Bélanger
Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens’ Putting Life to Work presents a strong – albeit paradoxical – injunction: To let go of our desire to be productive, and to find meaning in our actions beyond the reductionist binary of failure and success. This principle of non-productivity traverses the history of their collaborative practice and a larger part of their corpus – an observation guest curator Véronique Leblanc is eager to bring forth in this exhibition.
Leblanc situates Putting Life to Work in relation to the idea of cognitive capitalism, where the complexities of life are reduced to a one-dimensional productivist imperative. The so-called creative class is often considered a standard bearer of cognitive capitalism and work–leisure integration. Leblanc reads Ibghy and Lemmens’ conceptual materialism as an attempt to restitute the richness of life, which falls between the cracks of imposed models of productivity, framing this attempt as an act of political resistance. She emphasizes the corporeality of their practice, wherein the body is simultaneously treated as a depository for internalized ideologies, and as a potential site for overturning embedded ideologies.
Putting Life to Work is structured around the critical appropriation of abstract representations of human labour and corporeal experimentations in non-doing. Half of the works on display, including Each Number Equals One Inhalation and One Exhalation (2016), The Many Ways to Get What You Want (2011/2016) and Diagrams Concerning the Representation of Human Time (2009), speak to Ibghy and Lemmens’ interest in diagrammed forms. This part of the exhibition presents an epistemological inquiry into rationalized configurations of knowledge, and the distillation of reality’s rich complexity into a reductionist language. Forms of data visualization like graphs, charts and diagrams shape our knowledge of the world in a rhetorical way. They are not merely a reflection of the real – as if ontologically separate – but a conceptual space that constructs meaning out of phenomenal reality. Ibghy and Lemmens present a constant shift between abstract thought and concrete forms, as occurs in Each Number Equals One Inhalation and One Exhalation, where abstract visualizations of labour efficacy are re-materialized as delicately crafted sculptures. Countless graphs, meticulously built with acetate, thread and wood skewers, and propped up on makeshift tables throughout the main gallery, are reminders of the careful narratives and rhetorical power produced by visualized data.
An art historical paradox percolates at the surface of this work, as its aesthetic is strongly reminiscent of Russian Constructivism – a movement that was notoriously infatuated with a productivist ideal. For the Constructivists, the world order epitomized by modernity and its sweeping tendency to rationalize labour and social structures was liberation from the stifling embrace of tradition. Ibghy and Lemmens overturn this ethos, but by way of recourse to a similar aesthetic, thus undermining the pervasiveness of productivism through all realms of human desire and social behaviour.
The same goes with Real Failure Needs No Excuse (2012), a series of filmed and interleaved performances enacted by Lemmens in an abandoned office building, where she undertakes the Sisyphean task of endlessly stacking office furniture into precarious constructions that inevitably crumble down. Throughout the film are suspended moments when these structures hold, for a time, their angular mixture of disparate materials resonating with Vladimir Tatlin’s turn-of- the-century counter-reliefs. But again, a contrario to the Russian avant-garde’s apology of progress, the somewhat incidental formalism that emerges from this piece is meant as a stumbling block to productivism and a celebration of its dismissal.
Selected by Leblanc for its corporeal exploration of non-productivity, Is There Anything Left to be Done at All? (2014/2016) was produced in close collaboration with four other artists: choreographer Justine A. Chambers, visual artist Kevin Rodgers, community- engaged artist Rodrigo Martí and singer Ryan Tong. It consists of an experiment held in four parts, where each artist enacts prescribed recalcitrance to produc- tivity in his/her own medium. Presented in a single contiguous space, the films blend into one another to form an endless cycle with no tangible results – other than the process itself. The sounds, images and ob- jects from each session form an immersive context, punctuated by the regularity of a metronome, the sweet melancholia of a refrain, shuffl Ving sounds and sporadic laughter. The absence of productivity turns out to be surprisingly comfortable – soothing, actu- ally. It is tempting to linger in this convivial refuge, cradled by repetitive noises and contaminated by the enthusiastic business of non-doing.
The performance work of Ibghy and Lemmens points to a sustained practice of unlearning productivity, resisting the comfort zones of know-how, avoiding efforts at optimization and embracing the deterritorializing horizon of incompetence. Highly proficient in the world of art,1 Ibghy and Lemmens find an exhilarating sense of freedom in non-doing. Véronique Leblanc shares with the artist duo a fascination for a meaningful world outside of productivity. This is perhaps the most convincing sign that all three are active participants in a post-industrial economy, where individuals cannot find refuge from productivity. One can only crave standing “outside” when occupying a fully integrated and functional stance. Anyone who struggles to integrate society at its full speed knows the violence of such exclusion. The crucial factor separating Leblanc, Ibghy and Lemmens from actual unproductive outcasts is intentionality, as intentionality is power.
This contradiction can be sensed in the art world’s propensity to question – while fully partaking in – capitalist power dynamics from the standpoint of an expanded institutional critique. In the early 2000s, Andrea Fraser acknowledged the conundrum faced by art forms undermining the very conditions that allowed their existence. In the face of what appeared like an intellectual impasse, Fraser framed the question from a different angle, arguing that we cannot be against the institution since, “we are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of re- wards we aspire to.”2 Provided that the “institution” referred to by Fraser becomes the imperative of productivism in Leblanc’s curation, and in Ibghy and Lemmens’ practice, the on-going issue shifts from complete avoidance of productivity to a questioning of the trap it has become in our lives and how it has come to exert violence on our existence. We shall never stop producing, but we shall produce more sensibly.