RENDEZVOUS: the mode of exchange
In 1921, on his way back from a celebratory drink to mark the opening of his first exhibition in Paris, the American artist Man Ray stopped off at a hardware store with his companion, Erik Satie, who helped him purchase a small metal iron, a box of tacks and a tube of glue.1 Upon his return to the gallery Man Ray set about sticking the sharp metal tacks to the flat base of the iron. His title for the finished work was ‘Gift’. Man Ray’s plan was to present ‘Gift’ to a friend at the end of the day, although he was unable to do so, for sometime during the afternoon it was stolen.2 What kind of gift was ‘Gift’, we might ask, if it was not given, but taken? Was there something about the implied gesture of its title that led to its theft? Does the nature of a gift as something given freely make it particularly vulnerable to misappropriation by others? The process of gift giving and receiving, as this anecdote makes clear, is a far from straightforward business. For as Man Ray discovered, the intended and actual outcomes of the gesture of gift-giving are impossible to gauge in advance; similarly the actual nature of the gift, in this instance a decidedly unwelcoming, spiky and aggressive yet familiar object, may determine how and to what ends a gift might be made but also accepted. What mode of exchange and relationship does the gift establish between giver and recipient?
Theorists of the gift economy have always insisted upon its potentially ambivalent nature. Anthropologists, notably Marcel Mauss and Lewis Hyde, have recognised the obligations and attachments that the act of gifting can produce, for reciprocity is always implied in the act of giving and receiving.3 The relationship established between the subject and gifted object is uncertain and precarious, for the gift can always be refused. Certainly the simple pleasure of receiving a gift unencumbered by future expectation is a less common phenomenon than the giver might want to believe. Man Ray certainly recognised this, and it is the ambivalence — the unstable and double-edged nature of the gift economy — that lies at the heart of Jan De Cock’s Everything For You project, in which the artist makes a series of photographic gifts to towns and cities throughout the world. For Everything For You De Cock produces a series of sculptural assemblages made from found objects and other materials such as terracotta, earth, fake plants, seeds and sacks of couscous. After their construction, the sculptures are driven about the town, village, or city of their installation. At certain points the truck is stopped and a work unloaded. The object is then placed in a public space, where it is ready to be encountered by the residents. The works function as large-scale blockages to be navigated or otherwise negotiated by people, on their way home or to work, who perhaps might pause for a moment, to circle the object, wondering what on earth this strange, assembled structure is doing in their town. These various encounters between the public and the object are then captured on film, in a series of front-lit colour photographs. In some shots the subjects pose proudly next to the object, a little embarrassed, perhaps, while in others they walk on by, captured only as a blur. After the photographs have been taken, the objects are returned to the artist’s studio and the photographs printed and then gifted in multiples to the residents of the place.
Everything For You could be considered an example of what Umberto Eco termed an ‘open work’. For Eco, the meaning of the work is not intrinsic but open to completion, interpretation, and possibly misinterpretation, by its audience — in De Cock’s case, the residents to whom the artist wishes to gift ‘everything’.4 As such, the gesture of gifting a series of photographs contains within it the germ of a bigger, political statement. For it is De Cock’s aim that, through the free and open distribution of artworks as gifts, the art market and questions of value and exchange — those regimes to which the artwork and artist are typically and indelibly tied — might be temporarily held at bay.
The materials De Cock used to make the sculptures included plaster, wood, pottery, glitter, paste jewellery, chains, and locks. The finished works stand awkward yet upright, a little wonky and somewhat ramshackle in appearance. Due to their upright stature and placement on sculptural plinths the works offer a sly nod to the kinds of civic statuary they both emulate and mock. The accumulated materials are gummed, pressed, nailed, glued and held together in teetering towers. Each is unevenly coated with a thick, messy pour of plaster. The works articulate the various seismic changes the sculptural object has undergone since the twentieth century, in which previously familiar notions of monumentality, craft, form and material were dismantled, challenged, rejected, inverted and replaced by radically new ways of making, thinking, installing, and seeing three-dimensional works of art.
While De Cock returns to the sculptural base — one of the first things to be dispensed with at the hands of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century — he reduces its status to that of mere support. In some instances the bases appear rough and ready, all sawn-off plywood, rough edges and surfaces spattered with drips and licks of pastel coloured plaster. Others are balanced instead on determinedly non-high art pedestals that would look more at home supporting a houseplant than high art. Craft, too, is here placed under pressure; although the handcrafted pottery that is jumbled and piled on top of some objects demonstrates De Cock’s artisanal skills, these objects are a far cry from the kinds of refined abstraction Modernist sculpture once promised; they recall instead the junk art objects and crafted assemblages of Nouveau Réalisme artists such as Arman, or American artist H.C. Westermann’s eccentric blending of craft skills, figuration and abstraction. Across these otherwise obdurate sculptural forms hovers a palpable air of material precariousness, a formal reminder of the conceptually precarious nature of the gift itself. The encounter with the individual works once they have been placed in the street forces an engagement with the specificities of each work, for they are located not in groups but alone. Removed from the context of the artist’s studio and plonked directly into the public sphere, onto the sidewalk or street, the strangeness of the objects comes to the fore.5 The large yellow sacks of couscous that have been lumped at the makeshift wooden base of some works, the too-bright fake foliage and shiny paste costume jewellery adorning others are formally striking as an assembled structure, but oddly familiar, too, in their use of everyday and recognisable items. Each of the works incorporates un-ceremonial accumulations of everyday items, including foodstuffs such as small piles of turmeric and nuts, and handcrafted teacups. The sculptures are mounted in such a way that they appear to float above the ground, heightening their sense of instability. They are cast instead as mobile, fragile monuments, their ability to be moved at a moment’s notice setting them in stark contrast to the supposed immutability of the public monumental form.6
These works resemble less a still life than a kind of stilled life, frozen in time only momentarily; for example the stack of pots plastered to the top of one of the sculptures that recall the cautious nature morte paintings of Giorgio Morandi appear to teeter on the brink of animation and collapse. At moments the inanimate and animate momentarily blur and collide: the way in which the upright assemblages face or confront the spectator as though semi-abstract personnages produces an encounter marked by a frisson of discomfort, as though one were not quite alone but faced with a thing with which they must interact. If, as Mauss and Hyde argue, the promise of the gift contains within it an expectation of reciprocity, in De Cock’s case that reciprocity is configured as conspicuously open-ended, for the recipient is neither known in advance, nor their role as participant within the exchange made clear. Rather, De Cock produces a charged, uncertain relationship between object and subject in which the emphasis is less about the process than the problem of gift-giving.
The placement of the sculptures in public space, ready to be found and interacted with by the residents of the given place, recalls the surrealist André Breton’s description of the ‘encounter’, when describing the unsettling, surprising eruption of the unexpected within daily life. In such instances the subject, unsure precisely what the object is that they have stumbled upon, is nonetheless arrested by it. Breton’s account is akin to Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that the readymade object is encountered by subjects in an unexpectedly charged encounter, which he described as a ‘rendezvous’. Duchamp compared the ‘rendezvous’ to a ‘snapshot moment’,7 and, in so doing provided an unexpectedly productive means to approach De Cock’s Everything For You project, in which photography itself supplants the chance encounter with the object.8 For the surrealist writer Georges Bataille, there is an excessive value attached to those potlatch systems of gift exchange which he described as ‘strange yet familiar’.9 And, while De Cock rightly insists on the political underpinning of the project, from his titling of the distribution of the free gifts as sculpturecommunism, to the utopian, poetic language of his manifesto which draws on the history of the avant-garde manifesto both in content and form, there may be too an undercurrent of excessive — erotic, even — appeal contained in the gifting of ‘everything’ to another individual. De Cock declares the gift is given freely, ‘with love’, thereby circumventing the exchange value of an object for other kinds of non-enumerative attachments and desires; attachments and desires, moreover, that we are more accustomed to experiencing in debased form as commodity fetish.10
The precariousness of De Cock’s ‘gifts’ works at a conceptual as well as a formal level. But the ambivalence of his gesture is, I want to suggest, deliberate. These gifts do not operate in a simple one-way direction. They are ambivalent, eccentric objects, unstable in terms of what they might mean as much as in terms of how they are constructed. The artist intends the works to be gifts that ask nothing from their target or recipient. The recipient is free to walk on by and ignore the proffered item, to refuse to accept it, just as they are welcome to stand a while in its company, to have a momentary encounter or ‘rendezvous’ with the sculpture in an embodiment of that ‘snapshot effect’ described by Duchamp and materialised by De Cock. Whether the gift is accepted or rejected, a relationship is nonetheless established between the gift and its viewers, who find themselves lured into a relationship with the gifted item. What they do with that gift — how they choose to interact or participate, or not, is up to them.
For De Cock, Everything For You is ‘a work in defence of everything that has no immediate purpose on the market’.11 This working strategy might be termed a kind of ‘thinking with’ or ‘through’ the model of the gift, a kind of thought-experiment in which possible alternative futures and models of exchange and flow are imagined. Everything For You poses the question ‘What if…?’ through the material object of the photographic gift (‘Denkmal’ is the artist’s term for his earlier architectural structures, which means ‘think mould’ in Flemish and comes close to describing this kind of material-conceptual strategy). De Cock describes his photographic gifts as an act of ‘preservation’, suggesting a stilling of the ‘encounter’ or ‘rendezvous’ between the object and the world, set apart from its usual circuits of exchange to allow a momentary staying of the endless forward drive of capital. The ambivalent nature of the open-ended aspect of the gesture, in which the recipient’s response cannot be known in advance, opens up the possibility of rupture and breakdown — and so of new possibilities and alternative circuits of exchange and relation, for kinship and the relationships established (and desired) between subjects are as important to gift economies as value. Just as the gift may be refused, it may too be welcomed and so establish a kinship not only between recipient and gift but between the gift-giver and receiver too.
The charge of Everything For You lies in its local, specific and small-scale strategy. While the project takes the artist all over the world, it is always rooted in the specificities of each geographic location he chooses and gets to know, for example in Everything For You, Mexico City, De Cock incorporated local paper flower garlands which he draped around the sculptures and pressed into the still-wet plaster which subsequently hardened and set them in place. De Cock sees these projects as a series of ‘small and local corrections’ to the global economy, declaring himself, in a characteristic lurch of scale from the minute to the grandiose and back again, a ‘small radical visionary’.12 The gift economy established by De Cock in Everything For You articulates and at the same time sets out to subtly subvert the ‘strange yet familiar’ forces of global capital. De Cock’s gifts are a challenge, rather than a salve or solution to the inequities, delocalisations and alienations intrinsic to the status quo of how commodities circulate in the world. The photographs of the works in situ, given freely to the town, to be owned privately, displayed publicly, reproduced and otherwise multiplied is a far from grandiose gesture; but then I would argue that is in part De Cock’s plan.
While the accompanying manifesto is a polemical statement, the invitation and process of gifting the photographs is not. It is in the slightest gesture, sometimes, that powerful statements are best made. De Cock gifts to the residents of these places small pockets of resistance and agency, a mode of empowerment that is all the more striking because it aims at neither posterity nor longevity but at a passing moment or encounter in which ‘everything’ is open and given, freely. Like Man Ray’s ‘Gift’, De Cock’s ‘gifts’ are steeped in ambivalence. They, too, are strange, spiky things, whose purpose is indeterminate — obdurate, for sure — but uncertain. Man Ray’s ‘Gift’ was stolen, but it could just as easily have been simply ignored. That is the challenge, or gauntlet thrown down by every gift. What will you do with it? How will you use it? Will you refuse it or ignore it? Will you reciprocate in kind? The photographic aspect of the gift is the part that remains, as a trace or marker of that free exchange and earlier encounter between the subject and object in the street. It is in that moment — that ‘rendezvous’ that the project, and the titular promise of ‘everything’ is both enacted and materialised.
1 Man Ray, Self Portrait, New York, Andre Deutsch, 1963, p. 115.
2 Man Ray suspected the gallery owner and poet, Philippe Soupault, of having stolen it. Man Ray, Self Portrait, p. 115.
3 See Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York, Norton, 1967, and Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, New York, Vintage Books, 1983.
4 See Umberto Eco, chapter one ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’, in The Open Work, trans. Anna Canogni, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1989.
5 For a discussion of De Cock’s studio practices see Jon Wood, ‘Where is the studio of Jan De Cock’, in Denkmal II, ISBN 9080842427, Brussel, Atelier Jan De Cock, 2005.
6 On De Cock’s larger monumental sculptures see Wouter Davidts, ‘Travail de [vi]site: Jan De Cock and the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts’, in Denkmal II, ISBN 9080842427, Brussel, Atelier Jan De Cock, 2005.
7 Marcel Duchamp, ‘Specifications for Readymades’, note from The Green Box, 1934.
8 See Andre Breton, Mad Love , Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1987. The photograph of a twirling dancer, frozen mid-routine by Man Ray was chosen to illustrate this moment of ‘convulsive beauty’ by Breton.
9 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy [La Part maudite] , New York, Zone Books, 1988, p. 69.
10 Jan de Cock, Everything For You: Manifest for Sculpturecommunism, 2014.
11 Jan de Cock, Everything For You: Manifest for Sculpturecommunism, 2014.
12 Jan de Cock, Everything For You: Manifest for Sculpturecommunism, 2014.