Skip to content

The Spectacle of the Unspectacular (review)

by on September 25, 2009

The Spectacle of the Unspectacular


from the wall behind her, Marie Cool takes two sheets of A4 paper

she moves back to the centre of the room and stands with her hands prayer-like with the paper in between her hands

after a few moments, she opens her hands – a piece of paper is stuck to each

This essay is not illustrated as Marie Cool Fabio Balducci refuse to release any images, or allow the galleries in which they show, or their visitors, to make or use any visual images from the exhibition. This is highly unusual: although of course performance art is absolutely about the live moment, most performance art is actually experienced by most people through documentation of rather than actual witnessing of the work.

In Performance Art, the space/place in which it occurs is subordinated to the passage of time during which it occurs. As Tim Etchells (in Perform) says, ”Performance is … connected to temporality – to it’s own disappearance in the moment and to the unique unfolding of stretches of time.”

In Untitled 2006-2009 at the South London Gallery (15 May – 28 June 2009), Marie Cool, both with and without Fabio Balducci, performs a series of “exercises” or “actions”, collectively described as “sequences”, using language borrowed from that of film[1], using a range of everyday objects: paper, thread, cotton wool balls and a lighter. The objects are all white, bar the lighter, or “flame” as it is described, as is the SLG gallery space. These actions form their ongoing practice, a selection of which is shown at each exhibition.

The work is at once in the art historical traditions of the formal aesthetics of conceptual art, and minimalism. Cool’s attitude and persona in her performances also refer to the controlled discipline of dance.

As is often the case with performance art, there are no outputs which could be bought bar the occasional film.  The gallery space and the objects are white, clean, uncluttered.

In the galleries in which Marie Cool Fabio Balducci have exhibited work, we enter a white room, and a space which is imbued with the art-historical canon, (for example Ikon gallery, Birmingham; PS1, New York and the forthcoming exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris) where the social conventions of the space are dominant over it’s visitors, despite often the best efforts of these galleries to be more “inclusive”. These are all fine art institutions, where there are clear social conventions surrounding the space: both our behaviour in it and our expectations of it. For example, we don’t need notices saying “silence: (artist at work)”. We read the space as we enter it: telling us we should speak only in hushed, reverential tones.

Taking these everyday objects, set out around the boundaries of the main gallery space, Cool performs a series of interventions on them.

“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (Sol Le Witt)

The rules which govern the actions refer to the methodology of conceptual art, and the aesthetic of the work borrows from minimalism. The lack of documentation echoes the experience of a dance performance.

Cool performs as a machine: both in her demeanour and in the unending repetition of the actions. Pierre bal Blanc, in the accompanying programme notes compares her actions to those of “a worker on an assembly line”, as much as to those of a dancer. One can compare her almost trance-like state and repetitious actions to those of assembly line workers, but where Cool’s actions are freely chosen and acted out, those of an assembly line worker are anything but that. And while her six hour day, for 6 days for each of the 6 weeks of the SLG exhibition are undoubtedly a marathon, it seems somewhat barbaric to suggest a comparison with a 40 plus hour week for 40 plus years of a real factory worker.

In Untitled, 2006, 4 sheets of A4 paper

4 sheets of white paper

she painstakingly attempts to push them together

in time (sometimes quite a lot of time, sometimes immediately)

the middle two meet exactly, along the whole length of their sides,

she pushes them at the point of meeting

they raise upwards to form a peak.

We observe her struggle, or complete absence of such, to “succeed”.

And we breathe a silent or audible sigh – either of awe at her mastery over her materials, or a sigh of relief that this seemingly meaningless action has finished, and hope that the next one will be more interesting…

A roll of paper is moved from table to floor and replaced by 2 x A3 sheets, in preparation for the action Untitled 2007 2 sheets of A3 paper .

sheets side by side

she puts her hands under each, palms up

pushes the outside edges up until they meet and form a cylinder sometimes she looks at the paper and sometimes at the floor beyond it

now she lifts them again, this time from the inside edges

making a winged shape.

Once each action has been performed and the predetermined outcome achieved, Cool stands up from her chair, pauses, and then takes the chair to the site of the next action.

The austerity of the objects and the space in which they are located matches that of Cool herself: dressed simply, in blue jeans, blue jumper. Trainers. Ginger hair in long plait reaching to her waist. Concentration on her face.

She looks either    down to her lap

                             at what she’s doing

                             at the floor beyond

eyes never straight ahead, upwards, or at us.

It seems that Marie Cool Fabio Balducci want to both exclude the viewer, as Cool appears wilfully unaware of our presence, and also rely on the reverence of the audience in the hallows of the gallery space, for the power of the sequence. Indeed, Cool performs these actions regardless of whether or not there is any audience present. We are on-lookers rather than “witnesses” to the work – a common theme in performative work, since the work continues in the absence of any audience (we believe).

Despite this separation from their audience, Marie Cool Fabio Balducci say that their aim is “to touch people” (Navigate website).

What was more interesting to me was to watch how the very small audience did or didn’t follow her around the gallery space. How near or far they were prepared to locate themselves in relation to her and her materials/actions. And one needs to be very near to see some of the more slight, almost invisible actions, such as Untitled 2004, thread, flame

she picks up a thin piece of thread

she runs it through her mouth

she lights it

holds the burning end just above the floor

as the thread burns she lowers her hand

the flame remains at the same point in space.

Each exhibition is something of a marathon in self-control and concentration for Cool: at the SLG she works from 12-6, for six days each week, for a period of six weeks. Is the work about the endurance of the artist, or about the actual interventions performed? Or both? Are we watching her or her interventions on the various objects, or both? I suggest it’s also something of a marathon for the audience too, to be still, quiet and focussed for the 40 or so minutes the complete sequence of 14 actions took to perform, during my visits. Or perhaps that’s it, and what’s really going on is that she is giving us the space and opportunity to let our minds wander, no longer distracted by our normal environment. My mind certainly did, but I failed to experience any phenomenological response: I just had one eye on her, one on the audience (much more interesting) and my mind – rather than on any poetic insight, or personal-identification as envisaged by Bachelard – on the mundane: what I would do after I left the gallery, have for lunch; do the next day and so on.

she takes a piece of string placed on the table in front of her

she moves her hands as a mirror image

making and remaking a series of both curved and angular shapes on the 


a member of staff comes in, walks across the space, ducks under the strings and leaves at the other end of the room

she lifts the string so that just the centre point touches the table

Bachelard (in The Poetics of Space) maintains that “…every good book should be re-read as soon as it is finished. After the sketchiness of the first reading comes the creative work of reading….The second, then the third reading … give us, little by little, the solution”, and I must admit, I did appreciate the works slightly more on my second visit. But he suggests that multiple readings will take us to a phenomenological reading of the work, and I couldn’t make any personal, participatory or philosophical connections or “attachments”, even on a second, very close reading of this work.

Perhaps it’s more useful for me personally, if I look at her actions as “detournments” as envisaged and described by the Situationists, and of the “everyday”, themes of both the Situationists and Michel de Certeau? Will their works speak to me more if I view them within this art historical context?

The paper and other objects certainly undergo detournment: “a negation of the value of the previous organization of expression”[2] . They completely lose their original sense of meaning or purpose, and are re-presented, for us to view them in another context, and with other meanings. One could also say that the exhibition represents a “research laboratory” as the Situationists saw their art practice. It’s certainly not a negation of the “spectacle” (Debord). The work may be spectacularly understated, but it is a spectacle: the audience are mere onlookers of a banal performance.

another person enters and noisily fishes about in his bag for something.

the worker comes in and out again.

I wasn’t sure if the closely typed, single paragraph on an A4 sheet of accompanying notes was supposed to be taken at face value, or ironically.

In these notes, Bal Blanc considers Sierra a “contemporary” of Marie Cool Fabio Balducci, and there are certainly formal similarities between their practices. They both work in the institutional environment of the fine art gallery space. Their work exists in “time” over “space”. Their work shares a theme of human endurance. Their work relates to the mundane, underrated and the almost invisible.

Beyond these formal aspects I struggled to link the work of Sierra to that of Marie Cool Fabio Balducci. Sierra presents us with the harshest realities of labour, and of labour at it’s most alienated, where we are witnesses of something uncomfortable that also involves us as accomplices. The only discomfort I experienced watching Cool was caused by slight boredom.

Cool’s dance with and around the objects seemed to share little with this. Yes, mundane, but freely chosen and for an utterly different purpose. Also, “exclusive”, rather than “mass”. Both can be painful (at least for me) to watch, but again for quite opposite reasons. Sierra is deliberately invisible in his work: Cool as “artist” is the focus of theirs. Sierra’s work is highly political, and operates in direct reference to the wider world, making the normal hidden, highly visible. Marie Cool Fabio Balducci’s takes us outside of all “normal” experiences of life.

Perhaps another similarity is that I am not sure that either the Situationists or de Certeau would have approved of the fine art environment in which either of them display their work. Debord asserts that art should aim for no “separation from everyday life” and, in the case of Marie Cool Fabio Balducci it is hard to conceive of any art more separated.

As Janet Wolff says, in The social production of art “It is a question of which technique of cultural intervention will, somehow, affect audiences, and it is also a question of who those audiences are”. And the work of Marie Cool Fabio Balducci relies heavily on both a specialist art audience and environment.

But surely, using everyday materials suggests that the work should have widespread, or “common” appeal? The objects are utterly familiar: the actions completely unfamiliar.

The lack of documentation also seems to seek to separate the art audience. Either you were there, in which case you were a witness of sorts, or you weren’t there, in which case your only chance of knowing the work is by reading descriptions of it. And since the work seems to aim to transcend language (written, spoken or thought words), I could only interpret this approach at another way to exclude. Most performance art seeks to do the opposite.

As I said earlier, Marie Cool Fabio Balducci say that their aim is “to touch people”. And they singularly failed to touch me, despite my concerted effort to access and understand their work.


Bachelard, G, translated by Jolas, M (1994), The Poetics of Space Beacon Press

Barthes, R (1968) The death of the Author in Participation (ed. Bishop, C) Whitechapel London MIT Press

de Certeau, M, translated by Randall, S (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life University of California Press

Debord, G, translated by Knabb, K (no imprint) Society of the Spectacle Rebel Press

Debord et al, translated by Knabb, K (2006), Situationist International Anthology Bureau of Public Secrets

Foster, H (1996) The Return of the Real MIT Press

Hoffman, J and Jonas, J (2005) Perform Thames and Hudson

Le Witt, S (June 1967) Paragraphs on Conceptual Art Artforum

Wolff, J (1997) The social production of art Palgrave Macmillan [accessed 6 June 2009]

[1] Navigate website

[2] From Situationist International anthology: unattributed.

One Comment
  1. Elizabeth permalink

    I thought this was particularly fascinating, and loved your thorough use of reference and citation as well as the comparison between Sierra and Balducci.

    Very interesting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: