BEYOND CULTURE The Work of Yoan Mudry

Before writing his 1972 book Violence and the Sacred, the scholar René Girard began investigating anthropological texts from the 20th century. In the years prior, Girard had already amassed a body of work exploring the thesis that human societies are fundamentally imitative. For Girard, humans mimic one another, and even desire is a product of mimesis. Going further, he developed his theory of « mimetic crisis », documenting instances in which people imitate another’s hysteria or outrage instead of reacting to the traumatic event itself.

It is easy, of course, to draw a line between Girard’s thesis of « mimetic crisis » and the social media outrages of our own age. Yet Girard’s influence extends further, too. Teaching for years at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, the French scholar coined such notions as « mimetic rivalry » and the « scapegoat mechanism » – his name for the tendency of societies to vent their collective frustrations on one object that is sacrificed or expelled, thereby restoring order. At Stanford, one of Girard’s most influential students was the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, who took up Girard’s work and currently backs a foundation, Imitatio, devoted to Girardian studies. It is not unreasonable to draw a direct line, then, between Girard’s studies of the imitative nature of human conflict and the contemporary « disruptive » technological innovations of Silicon Valley.

An interest in the visual codes, communicative processes and societal implications of imitation marks the work of artist Yoan Mudry. His projects, characterized by such figures as the « mimic » (A Mimic Battle, 2016; or, Mimicry, 2016) borrow from the history and theory of artistic imitation, though they take the form of multiple, sometimes overlapping media – including painting, performance, video and sculpture. Yet, in an interview, he has spoken of an « interest in communication techniques (storytelling, marketing, etc.). »(1) Perhaps, following Girard, we can say that Mudry’s work takes up not only imitation and mimesis, but their roles that imitation, creativity and communication have in societies marked by « mimetic crisis » and « mimetic rivalry ». His is an artistic position marked by deliberate mimicry and camouflage, which are deployed in order to explore the socio-political implications behind contemporary image circulation. On more than one instance, Mudry has borrowed a slogan from the artist group Superflex, If Value, then Copy: an imperative to copy, that is itself an act of copying (from another artistic group).

Mudry’s works are united by an attention to the rituals and categories of artistic production, which they engage with in order to scrutinize. In Mudry’s projects, most of the familiar touchstones of contemporary artistic production – the exhibition opening, the exhibition, the catalogue, the retrospective – are all challenged. For example, the project Prospective/Retrospective (2017) displays Mudry’s potential to disrupt not so much aesthetic categories as the inherited categories for contemporary artistic production, circulation and display. Perspective/Retrospective (2017) was a performance in two acts that began with the presentation of LOOPS (itself a show that recursively repeated itself) at the Palais de l’Athénée, Genève. The project inverts the usual order of operations of artistic production, in which a project is documented after the fact via a catalogue. Instead, Mudry did the opposite by using the catalogue as a basis for the production.

In its first instance, two performers manipulated a catalogue by cutting it in half. One part of the catalogue was glued onto the wall, as a tapestry. In its later instantiation, for the exhibition HTWW at Le Commun, Genève, this project took a different form: a performer bound the unused part of the cut catalogue. Ultimately, a new cover was added along with a new text. Finally, the « new » catalogue served to document a show that was already made up of documentation. In Mudry’s mise en abyme, document became show became document. Here again, camouflage and dissimulation became limit functions of a practice interrogating artistic originality, the brand as the artistic signature of property, as well as the processes of legitimation, communication and value-creation: the retrospective, the catalogue, the installation. Mudry’s work is at once mimetic and recursive: mimicry and looping are inherent to his process.

In 2016, Mudry produced a video work entitled « A Mimic Battle » (with Roxane Bovet) that edges closely into the terrain of Girard and Thiel. The piece is speculative but is set in a real place: an auditorium at Stanford University. The video – which consists of a loop, mainly of empty auditorium views – is narratively driven by an unseen speaker, whose language draws from the rhetoric of emphatic individualism espoused by TEDTalks and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, much of which arose in the context of Palo Alto. Much of what we see consists of alternating camera views of an empty podium. In its nearly 20 minutes, the video adopts a loop structure incorporating three narrative lines, which deal with the nature of mimesis and camouflage. Bearing in mind this violent account of human scapegoating mechanisms, A Mimic Battle looks to the antagonistic or oppositional aspects of imitation and mimesis – borrowing from such phenomena as Harry Potter’s invisibility cape to the real-life animal known as the mimic octopus. « Join the mimic battle! » , urges the speaker. Then « Get on Your Feet » (1989) by Gloria Estefan begins to play: « The world they have built for us is a free and open world; a world without frontiers ».

In the video, the artists seem to comment skeptically to this « world without frontiers » , by demonstrating that this world lacking boundaries would quickly devolve into pure animalism and war. They do not expound upon this directly but let the speaker become his own self-parody. Hence, the « mimic octopus » is not merely a networked, passive observer, but an active predator: someone who partakes in the « mimic battle » , as the narrator chants. At some point, the narrator presents a vision in which we can realize the fictional horizon of a condition of beauty, wealth and – and realize them. The means for this realization will be a return to animalism and nature, for « nature gives us examples » . We seem to return quickly to a Hobbesian state of war.

The story that is told is a classic, aspirational narrative of autonomy and wealth creation: « because one thing my father told me, is that should we leave it to someone else to write … my father was a humble man, a worker, who despite his lack of an academic background, was of great intelligence when it came to facts and life » ; « myself, as I already told you, did not finish my studies » ; « what would man be without his dreams? » ; « It is our aspirations who make us who we are ». These are the clichéd stock phrases of aspirational and motivational language in US startup and technological innovation contexts – appeals to emotional language that that set to scrutiny and skepticism by the video. If Girardian theories made it directly to Silicon Valley via Peter Thiel, then A Mimic Battle explores the base implications of this mimetic parable, which is still being written.

In 2016, Mudry published a series of black-and-white drawings in a publication called Mimicry, published by Piano Nobile, an art space in Genève, Switzerland. The drawings in Mimicry contain sharp, jarring graphics, employing iconography that borders on the logo-like or the cartoonish, that visually resemble the iconography in comics or graphic novels, graffiti, stickers or even industrial design. An image of an exploding Bialetti stovetop espresso machine coexist with imagery that borders on erotic excess – for instance, a drawing in which an image of a woman removing her underwear, is juxtaposed with an image of a volcano. Frequently, in the series, these images are combined with a series of slogans that seem, on the face of it, sarcastically, and staunchly anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian. One slogan – accompanying a brain behind a plate of spaghetti – reads: « Be warned! The nature of your oppression is the aesthetic of our anger ».

The immediate concerns of Mudry’s series encompass societal oppression, aesthetics and rage, and are here depicted in a lowbrow graphic vernacular. Does Mudry intend this series as an openly anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment form of sloganeering? Or does he intend this work as a satire or homage to the large body of anti-establishment image making that extend from street art, skateboard art, to graphic design and graphic novels? In another drawing, we see an appropriation of Hokusai’s well-known erotic woodblock The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) in which an octopus is seen giving cunnilingus to a female body; the image is superimposed with lines from the Britney Spears lyric: « Oops I did it again ». The intention, here, is humorous: erotic compulsion and false apologies (‘oops’). Yet, unlike the forms of graphic vernacular arts from which Mudry draws (street art, graphic novels, etc.), the artist has chosen to make and circulate these images in the context of contemporary art production. This secondary factor is key to Mudry’s strategy of mimicry. As a group, the images in Mimicry give an overall impression of icons depicting skepticism toward the creative industries’ appropriation by capitalist concerns; the imperative to perform, to create, and to brand: in one image, two hands above a microphone giving the audience (or viewer) a « bras d’honneur ». Take your performance and shove it. This extends to the visual imagery in the exhibition Functional Stupidity, at Union Pacific, London (2018), in which pictures made up of appropriated imagery point to the ostensible manipulative value of the image: « Are you being sexually aroused by this picture? » is the phrase on an image that resembles a cocktail advertisement.

Mudry’s skepticism surrounding the production of imagery extends to the branding of oneself as « artist ». As many artists before him have shown, from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons to Superflex, contemporary art itself lends itself to an affirmation of capitalist superstructures perhaps more easily than it can critique them. After all, what – if any – kind of image and artistic production today would not fall into of branding, Big Data, and the networked circulation of advertisement strategies? If the anti-capitalist artist’s position is to resist this imperative towards the brand, then the artistic positions inherited from the 20th century will require considerable revision. To take seriously the practice of mimicry, artists can no longer consider themselves a producer of images, works or brand identities, but rather an image-making apparatus. The artist’s ability to produce (in a prosumer universe in which we are all « producers » and « consumers » at once) is less at stake, and less critically viable, than his or her ability to mimic. Hence, Mudry’s practice, in which loops, mimicry and imitation are operant artistic strategy, locates critique not on the level of image production or circulation, but by appropriating and mimicking artistic strategies – in 21st-century lingo, his art is about « larping » (live action role playing) the role of image-producer. This is appropriation after appropriation.

Mudry’s artistic practice, I think, relates with carefulness and skepticism towards the emphatic idea of the creative artist – casting doubt on the notion that he or she will become a mere global negotiator, apologist, envoy or missionary for « contemporary art ».

One of the notions that Mudry works to dispel is the notion of an artistic signature. Marcel Duchamp’s readymade was able to turn the taxonomical question « is this art? » into a key conceptual question for the 20th century art. Yet it is rather Francis Picabia’s subversion of artistic signature through the act of painting, through the appropriation of style, that Mudry resembles most, particularly in his paintings appropriating popular imagery, such as Everything is Planned (2017) or the pictures in Functional Stupidity . Like Picabia, Mudry performs a deliberate subterfuge, in effect camouflaging himself through the artistic history of a medium in order to produce a practice – no less conceptual – that is grounded in the performance of an empty center on which art is produced. Like the empty podium that nonetheless speaks, the artist is turned into a production-machine. For, as the narrator says in A Mimic Battle: « We have already gone beyond culture… we must choose what tomorrow will bring ».

Paolo Larios, “Beyond Culture. The Work of Yoan Mudry”, in Cahiers d’artistes, Pro Helvetia, 2019