An Immense Accumulation of Spectacles
In image-driven societies, acts of resistance are reduced to pictures on the wall.
Raymond Hains’ medium was the city; its accumulation was his work. The French artist was one of the founding members of the Nouveaux Réalisme movement, mingled with Yves Klein, and remains one of the most celebrated artists of décollage, the act of tearing away paper rather than pasting it on. In 1960, he created Coup de Pied (Kick), a life-size replica of a poster wall shredded beyond recognition. Hains was acutely aware of the commercial infiltration of public space, and by bringing a collective urban surface into the gallery, he displayed an understanding of the increasing power of spectacle that would not be fully articulated until Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle.
After the destruction of World War II, an already globalized world became increasingly interconnected through trade, news, advertisement, and entertainment. As images became accessible and recognized around the world, the boundaries of geography and time began to crumble. Guy Debord, a French theorist and filmmaker, described this process in 1967 as the creation of an entirely new reality, outside of the tangible world. “The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream…Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at” (12). According to Debord, this visual pseudo-world, due to its ever-increasing indistinguishability from lived experience, was slowly infiltrating tangible reality. “The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality, while lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it” (14). Through this invasion, lived experience, local customs and even radical protest are easily absorbed into the spectacle and repackaged as news, entertainment, and commodities.
Since the spectacle served as “a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system” (13), radical artists following Debord such as Daniel Buren and Asger Jorn did their best to create work which would both reveal and disrupt the the spectacle’s inner workings. However, seven years before Debord’s essay was even published, Raymond Hains was able to depict the spectacle without using a single word.
Although Coup de Pied is a work on canvas, it could easily be mistaken for a carved out chunk of an urban wall. Stretching 3.5 feet tall and wide, the work is a life-size palimpsest of brightly colored posters, handbills, and flyers, each of them haphazardly wheatpasted onto a completely obscured surface. The vivid blues, oranges, and yellows coloring the torn posters are obscured by wrinkles and accumulated grime. Aside from a few trace French words, and a faint outline of a swinging foot, none of the original messages can be discerned. The ravages of time, weather, and human damage appear to have taken their toll on the wall, its pulpy layers ripped, slashed, and peeled until all that remains is a chaotic vortex of color, image, and text. The Städel Museum describes Coup de Pied as “a picture no one painted…a found piece of reality, fixed to a canvas.” Brandon Taylor characterized Hains’ brand of abstraction as “a collective, even anonymous creation: the sense that the city fabric resulted from many voices, many markings, many traces.” (12) Even Raymond Hains himself stated “I’m not so much the creator, encounters are more my thing.” (Hetzler) Yet the social critique of Hains’ work lies not in the raw reality of its content, but in the choices Hains’ made when recreating that reality.
First, notice Hain’s attention to framing. As a former photographer, questions of framing were central to his work. In his words: “I seem to think right through photography… it allows me to make stills of my ideas.” (Hetzler). Coup de Pied, like all his other torn poster works, is carefully cropped only to include posters whose typography and images have been effectively expunged by overlapping and exposure. Hains’ décollage is notably abstract, devoid of the legible brand names and advertisements found in the work of other décollage artists like Mimmo Rotella and Wolf Vostell. The result of this abstraction is not a game of connecting the cultural dots, but instead, a breakdown in legibility, a reduction of language to stutters and hiccups, and the introduction of ambiguity into the direct nature of posters.
Second, consider why Hains chose posters as his material. Why not use paint, like the Abstract Expressionists, or newspapers like the Cubists? Ever since Toulouse-Lautrec began enticing passersby to enter the Moulin Rouge, posters have been an essential element of the Parisian landscape. They are an extremely direct form of communication, they demand attention, and they can advocate for an infinite range of human endeavors. The posters adorning Parisian billboards could have been selling products, calling for protest, or distributing propaganda. Yet no matter the differences between the individual messages they transmit, once they are posted, their fate remains the same. They are torn down, ripped up, beaten and aged. As they begin to deteriorate, their edges blur and their content overlaps, until they become indistinguishable. Their once vibrant messages gradually are absorbed into a chaotic vortex of color, image, and text, an immense accumulation of spectacles.
Like posters, radical protests tend to have direct messages. A decade after Coup de Pied was exhibited, the 1970 Osaka Expo was interrupted by such a protest. An anti-war protester named Satō Hideo climbed the Tower of the Sun, donned a Red Army helmet, and began loudly advocating the crushing of the Exposition. While he initially gathered a crowd and police attention, rather than forcibly removing the protestor and causing a stir, the police allowed Hideo to exhaust himself and come down on his own accord. After the Expo, his protest was “subsumed as one incident among many in the flood of reports and retrospectives” and his anti-show rhetoric “indeed became part of the show” (Lockyer 10). Like a poster calling for social change subsumed by ads for kitchenettes, the power of the spectacle enabled a radical act to be absorbed into a larger narrative, allowing state power to emerge unscathed.
Raymond Hains could not have predicted this event, but he must have been aware of the social order that would allow it. If Hains did not grasp the all-consuming power of the spectacle, he would not have chosen to create poster walls, nor would he have selected only their most abstracted fragments. He understood that the image dominated society in which he lived had the disturbing and immense capability to co-opt even the most radical acts into a narrative which “serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system” (13), before those words were even written. Coup de Pied is a portrait of social movements, radical art, and sleazy advertising collapsed into a single narrative, these messages abstracted beyond their original intents and presented as objects of contemplation. Just as the spectacle is ultimately hollow, a “domain of delusion and false consciousness” (12), the final fate of posting walls is the same. All that remains of once conflicting messages is a series of stuttered syllables, fragmented images, and useless language. The posting wall, along with the spectacle, is a funeral of meaning.