Claudia Spinelli

Reports from the Battle Zone

Fabrice Gygi

Helmets and riot shields of thick Plexiglas are hanging on the shelves ready for instant use; police barriers are crowded side by side. The hoses are hooked up. But where is the enemy? From which direction will the attack come? Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s museum installations do not diminish any of the aggression inherent in preparations for the worst-case scenario. In the quiet and civilized White Cube, the ready violence of the paramilitary setting acquires a disturbing fortuity. The Swiss artist has turned the museum into a battle zone and us into co-players in an abstruse game that no longer distinguishes between protection and menace.
Since the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, the horror scenarios so well rehearsed in films have suddenly become gruesome reality; terror and violence, real factors that have seized hold of our every thought. The hideous events have made us painfully aware of how thin the ice is underfoot, how deceptive the security of which we once felt so assured. Violence was always supposed to be elsewhere and now, shocked, we begin wondering whether dissension has not long been smoldering in our midst. There are, of course, different kinds of violence, different kinds of imbalance and oppression; and in order to determine which values, which achievements we actually have to defend, we must acquire a sensitivity towards those mechanisms that define how we live together in our own democratic society.
Fabrice Gygi is an artist who has acquired a keen awareness of the workings of authoritarian power, the ways in which freedom and control, security and threat interact. Fabrice Gygi is an anarchist who spent years on the streets in rebellion and revolt before transferring his struggle to the arena of art, where he continues to pursue his aims with subtle precision. His interventions communicate a deep-seated mistrust of any form of finality and the message they convey emerges through their exchange with the physical and mental context in which they are placed.
Grandstands, utilitarian constructions of metal, plywood, and tarpaulins, tents, foam rubber padding and inflated, oversized airbags, signage colors, and flashing lights – the single elements made out of industrially produced materials possess a functionality, familiar from trekking stores or bomb shelters. The clear, minimalist design bespeaks order and discreet authority.
The parts all look typically Swiss. But the "Swissness" of Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s works is invested with an exemplary impact that goes far beyond their on-site significance in a local context. The term Switzerland is associated with a society that considers itself enlightened and just. In this respect Switzerland might be seen as being a synonym for an enlightened state, as a synonym for a civilized society based on democratic consensus, which comes to terms with inherent violence behind the scenes where regulatory control is exerted by subtexts instead of concrete, physical punishment.
Given the change of paradigm that has taken command of our perception since September 11, Gygi&Mac226;s treatment of structured order and discrete authority has acquired a drastically topical import. His works impact our consciousness as images of the despotism of consensus, as a metaphor for a gentle yet forceful regime which is at its most effective when successfully excluding the possibility of conflict and suppressing dissent. Under the new circumstances, the latent violence implicit in all of Gygi&Mac226;s works is heightened, demonstrating with devastating certainty that violence and threat are most likely to emerge with maximum force where they are least expected.
The artist&Mac226;s settings are reminiscent of paramilitary training camps and highly technological nomadic villages. Black bags of sand piled up as barricades and army tents speak of segregation and self-assertion while grandstands and shelters equipped with loudspeakers recall the infrastructure of mass events such as raves, open-air festivals, or local festivities. Their functional appearance in the deserted White Cube becomes a mental stumbling block and makes us feel uneasy rather than producing a partying mood. The grandstands are too obviously set apart, the areas hierarchically separated from each other. Who would want to be conspicuous in such a situation? Who would want to be caught washing their hands in the shiny chrome sink? Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s sculptural parts, so innocent and discreet at first sight, are actually the infrastructures of authority and control. Precisely because they are devoid of concrete political content, precisely because they appear understated and detached, they transmit the image of a self-perpetuating order of Kafkaesque reverberations.
Fabrice Gygi started out in the field of performance and continues to deploy the human body as a defining factor in the sculptures and installations devised for an institutional context. The tents that he began placing in museum spaces in 1993 communicate the idea of a nomadic identity. They can undoubtedly be associated with the person of the artist himself, whose personal experiences have led to a heightened awareness and the development of a highly sophisticated strategy in dealing with the mechanisms of power and authority. Gygi&Mac226;s experiences as a squatter are long past but the attitude has survived of consciously seeking the path of the outsider and strategically deploying helplessness in a manner that momentarily transforms it into an instrument of power. Unembellished, practical, with openings that can be closed up, the tents evoke associations with guerilla fighting, with fast, mobile units and swift military actions. The temporary dwellings not only speak of the need for protection but also of the usurpation of space and the almost guileful resistance to any commitment. A latent menace resides in these tents.
The ambivalent, ambiguous attitude, the way in which anonymity undermines the distinction between oppression and subversion, protection and aggression, also comes to the fore in a photograph of 1993 showing the artist wearing an Afghani chador. "The chador is a mask and provokes a sense of helplessness. The most disturbing aspect is its absolute anonymity. Interestingly, in addition to subservience, the motive of the chador implies a certain subversiveness: this traditional garment is also used in Afghanistan to transport weapons. Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s sharply contoured sketches refer to a society that has – like himself – lost its innocence. They reflect a situation in which the distinction between victim and perpetrator has become blurred, in which the gulf that separates friend and foe can no longer be identified. Fabrice Gygi addresses extremely current issues that have long been smoldering beneath the surface.
The fundamental dualism of showing and concealing, of extradition and protection can be traced like a red thread through Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s oeuvre. The ambivalence of his works generates an irresolvable tension. Its effects are ubiquitous, in public and in private. The clean straps that keep cropping up remind one of skiing gear, and the orange mats of collective punishment as cultivated in fitness centers or sports clubs. These items are even more disturbing when seen spread out around a high platform to the acoustic accompaniment of Arabian music. In his installation MINN EÏNAYA (1998), Gygi juxtaposed the familiar and the alien, replacing the proto-industrial archaism of traditional Islamic culture with the industrial perfection of the West. The situation evokes countless associations and center-stages ordinarily diffuse, undefined anxieties. In translation, the title of this hybrid and disturbingly incomprehensible situation reads "I could tear my eyes out for you." Equally disturbing is the emptiness of Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s renditions of the structural apparatus of a democratic state, as in the gray military tent titled TRIBUNAL (1999) or the mobile BUREAU DE VOTE (2001). With ballot box, booth and panels for propaganda posters, it comprises all the vitals required for a polling place. But the infrastructure of democratic justice devoid of content, of any political discourse, does not make much sense. It becomes a symbol of vacant, self-perpetuating bureaucracy whose sole function consists of propitiating a worried body politic. A media-oriented image results, which does not actually work in reality–stage sets, hastily erected and as speedily removed again. The suspicion that the real conflict is elsewhere and taking place with brute force is inevitable. Court room and polling place become evident as the unmarked inventory of a society that is all too willingly deceived. Not even the "airbags&Mac247; – Gygi produced a whole series of them – are of any use under these circumstances. Much-vaunted synonyms of safety, they actually indicate that an accident has already occurred since they are only activated in a collision. The "airbags" act as a paradigm for a society blinded by a false sense of security and eager to fall prey to suggestion in the desire to satisfy its need for consensus.
Fabrice Gygi&Mac226;s picture of our civilization is without illusion but it is not pessimistic. It locates the battlefield in our midst and makes palpable the subtle relations between order and control, between authority and oppression. Studying the work of Fabrice Gygi offers an opportunity to shake off self-deception and false illusions. It gives us the chance to free ourselves of the paralyzing sense of helplessness that threatens to prevail in this time of violence and terror.

Claudia Spinelli (Translation: Catherine Schelbert)

written: in october 2001, published in Parkett 63