ALEXANDRE SINGH, The Alkahest, Chapter 1, 2009, Documentation of a performance in which the artist recites the first of three interwoven narratives from memory.

Associative Lineage

Alexandre Singh

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Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Alexandre Singh relies on a wide-ranging practice that is crowded with words, images and shapeshifting ideas that challenge accepted historical systems of understanding and their entrenched hierarchies.

Singh, who was born in 1980 in Bordeaux, France, is often described as a storyteller. 
He organizes words and images in a number of loose, associative structures, ranging from the self-conscious banter among a host of quotidian objects to complex and sprawling flow charts. Littered with and composed of a mélange of references that traverse multiple disciplines and periods, Singh’s works present culture as a contentious arena of continually shifting ideas. ArtAsiaPacific speaks to Singh about the method behind his self-determining systems.

Tell us about the relation between the different strands of your practice—collage, performance and installation—and how you organize information within them, both individually and as whole.
Each work that I create has a very strong internal logic. For example, Assembly Instructions (2008– ) is a system of thoughts displayed on a wall. The individual collages are linked together with dots on the walls, and within the collages themselves we see recurring motifs and gradually a larger thought process seems to emerge. The same is true of a very different work, The Marque of the Third Stripe (2007– ), which is a kind of Faustian tale about Adidas founder Adi Dassler. It manifests itself in very diverse forms—a video, a book, installations, etcetera—and like my other work, it fuses contemporary icons with a series of literary topoi and mythological motifs.

Collage is a good analogy for all the different ways in which I make my work. If I’m marrying together strands of very different things, it’s not in a synthetic way. Bringing together A with B doesn’t necessarily create C. It could instead be just AB. And AB is not the same as just A, and it is not the same as just B. I think that’s emblematic of the way a collage operates.

Where do you derive the visual materials for your collages in works such as the Assembly Instructions?
From a variety of sources. I collect old encyclopedias—like the Time-Life series, whose photographs I’ve always found particularly striking. Perhaps it was a result of the limited printed technology available at the time, but those images were more graphic, simple and readable, which serves my purposes very well. If I’m looking for a particular image that I already have in mind, I will often look for it on Flickr, Wikipedia or in a magazine. However, photocopying these diversely sourced materials flattens out these distinctions in the resulting image. They become synthesized.

Do you improvise when you weave these stories? Your “Alkahest” (2009– ) performances remind me of Dastangoi, the ancient Islamic tradition of storytelling. The practice required an exceptional command over rhetoric, delivery, mimicry and mostly spontaneous composition.
The notion of improvisation within such storytelling [Dastangoi] definitely parallels what I do when I perform. Each performance of the same work is slightly different. There is no original, definitive version. I’m interested in making pieces that are mutable, that have a core but no fixed external form. Improvisation has a lot to do with it: allowing things to remain fluid, and to resist calcifying into some fixed, dead form. One can introduce members of one’s audience into the story as characters, very much like a juggler, who, if an extra ball is thrown at him, is able to bring it seamlessly into his loop. It is not as difficult to do, but it nicely draws attention to how a story is constructed in a kind of metatheatrical way.


(Above and detail)

ALEXANDRE SINGH, Assembly Instructions (Tangential Logick), 2008, set of 79 Ikea-framed Xerox collages and dotted pencil lines. Installation view at Harris Lieberman Gallery, New York, 2009. Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Works such as The School of Objects Criticized (2010) and The Marque of the Third Stripe have a strong narrative. What is your relationship to the physical form these narratives eventually assume?
Something I don’t often mention with these narrative projects is that the physical form of the installation is something that is also bubbling away in the back of my mind while I’m writing the text. In The Marque, for example, motifs such as the black-and-white squares—which communicate to the runners [the manifestation of the dark evil force that is corrupting the citizens of the town]—mirror very clearly the black-and-white, fluctuating patterns that the viewer sees while they’re watching the video tell the story. The same is true of the other iconographic elements—the shoes, grids, plaster—that are mythologized in the story and are also physically present in the installations. The physical installation is not an illustration of the narrative universe, and the universe is not simply a pale imitation of the installation—the two have a complementary quality. I adopted this approach with The School as well.

In the narratives and installations you seem partial to doses of humor.
The qualities I really search for in all art, film and literature, are wit and imagination. There’s something undeniably creative and imaginative in the comic. From Aristophanes to Monty Python, some of the richest visual material that our culture has created comes from this quest for laughter. If I may be so bold, I’d say that comedy has always been associated with a far richer visual universe than tragedy. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “One should treat lightly serious things and one should treat light things seriously.”

Silverlens SAM RossiRossi Massimo de Carlo