Feminine tyres: Sylvie Fleury

Manuella Denogent

Introduced rapidly at an institutional level and on the international event circuit, the work of Sylvie Fleury (b. 1961) is an emblematic, but at the same time specific expression of the art scene of the 1990s.
The artist created her first works with the elements in her vocabulary being drawn from the field of fashion, cosmetics, luxury goods and the feminine universe in general. Her debut, entitled Shopping Bag (1990), immediately synthesised what was to be her artistic praxis: in a corner of Lausanne’s Rivolta gallery, she set on the floor around a dozen bags bearing famous names, allowing their contents to be seen, as if were the result of a recent shopping spree. Placed not unambiguously in relation to the commercial sphere, of which she manipulates the elitist products, and with a stereotyped image of womanhood, in itself an object of desire and a luxury good, her approach brought Fleury an almost immediate and somewhat turbulent reception, diffused by criticism that saw in her work an assimilation of art and fashion, a creative position inclined to the facile and one not lacking a degree of pleasure in the commercial system.
In effect, the plastic creations of Sylvie Fleury, excessively literal and free of irony with respects to the world on which they feed, are hardly adaptable to an Appropriationist reading that presumes a loose, but aware and therefore detached attitude to the products of mass consumption, as is the case with the goods mimicking aesthetic of Haim Steinbach.
In a certain insufficiently ambiguous sense, the works of Sylvie Fleury nonetheless share with Appropriationism an attempted synthesis of Pop and Minimalist aesthetics, in support of an approach that explores the fertile permeability between the adjacent domains of art, fashion, design and popular culture.
However, while the work of Sylvie Fleury establishes points of conjunction and exchanges between one universe and the next, it is not simply a one-way transposition of elements of the feminine and fashion worlds to that of art. For example, proceeding with a rediscovery of the great figures of modernism, the artist underlines the complex network of influences between art and the everyday milieu, in particular the assimilation by the collective consciousness of the idioms of the avant-garde movements — as ever in a form of recycling — absorbed into the stylistic repertory of advertising, fashion or design, the idioms of art now drained of its messianic or critical function.
 This is the case with her reinterpretation of the compositions of Piet Mondrian, works that Fleury personalises by treating the planes of colour with synthetic film, referencing the famous Mondrian dress by Yves Saint-Laurent; this is in fact a material borrowed from the prêt-à-porter world and reconverted in a declension of colours and forms to produce a citation of the monochrome. In the same context, the Strecht series, colour photographs of truncated female torsos dressed in the latest Prada prints, playfully evokes the optical painting of a Vasarely. Then there is the arrangement of Slim Fast or Coca Cola cans respectively on the floor or in an all-over mural composition, a transposition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, up-dated in the light of the canons of beauty imposed upon women by the media.
However, considering the work of Sylvie Fleury solely from the point of view of the appropriation of images or objects, be they taken from parallel domains or the field of art, is a reductive interpretation according to the criticism of the 1990s1 that applies a new analytical grid more coherent with the literariness of the artist’s plastic creations.
While it is true that in these works one can recognise a derivation from Duchamp’s ready-made, the “contextualisation” introduced by Sylvie Fleury is applied not so much to the objects or images as such, imported into the museum territory, but rather focuses on the contemporary socio-cultural practices associated with them, including the act of consumption, which is also the one that is most widely shared. From this point of view, her investigations are both a reflection of the various conditionings generated by our society, and in this sense they aid our awareness, and an echo of her concrete commitment in the form of parallel cultures — the world of the night, of music and in particular rock’s girl-groups, or that of the car-friends-clubs that led her, for example, to create She-Devils on Wheels (1997), her vehicle customising agency, kind of consultancy service offered to visitors to her exhibition — all of them effectively strategies of resistance to the formatting of the individual by the socio-economic system.
In this context, the formulation of codes linked to sexual identity is a constant in the work of Sylvie Fleury. Her works counterpoint the image of the woman as object of desire, as ever pronounced from a male point of view, with a vision of a woman who defines herself and acts, with an attitude of emancipation, in relation to her own desires. Neither victim nor object, Fleury’s woman establishes herself in a relationship wholly free of complexes with regards to both consumption — that supplies the necessary tricks for the game of appearances and seduction –— and to domains hitherto indissoluble from the male universe such as that of cars or that of the conquest of space as revisited through the erotic repertory, as in the case of the First Spaceship on Venus series in which the missiles represent various formal symbols of the male sexual attribute.
The ceramic piece presented by Sylvie Fleury, Fountain, a gold-coloured truck tyre converted into a fountain, is emblematic of the cross-references that index her work.
The artist evokes the strongly male universe of road transport, a social group that finds in the customizing of vehicles the means of expression of a culture drenched in glamour and kitsch, referenced by the gold colour. From the point of view of technique, the work belongs to the broader late 1990s collection of bronze casts of engines from the great American marques or of the Kelly bag, a legendary handbag with few peers, or extremely fashionable Gucci shoes. These objects, cast in bronze, chrome-plated and set on plinths acquire through these processes that status of sculpture while at the same time accentuating their fetishization.
The ceramic work is also a play of citations as it refers both to the tutelary figure of Marcel Duchamp and his most famous ready-mades, Bicycle Wheel and Fountain.
In the same spirit, the first presentation of Shopping Bags also referred explicitly to Marcel Duchamp — in the title C’est la vie taken from the name of a Christian Lacroix perfume — who was photographed by Man Ray dressed as a woman under the pseudonym Rose Sélavy.
When Sylvie Fleury occupies the gallery or museum space with products extrapolated directly from the system of consumption, her approach is no less critical. Her works do not question the art system or its institutions and nor do they develop any feminist discourse, in contrast with the work of Sherrie Levine.
Fleury’s work shows us the cultural stereotypes and collective myths of contemporary society, on the basis of a plastic vocabulary departing from her personal lifestyles and myths. The source of an emancipatory energy, her art thus plays freely on the collective cultural canons so as to better develop an imagery that is properly her own, dominating the gulf that today exists between the conventions of the game of appearances and the affirmation of individuality. “She is aware that it is out of the relationship between packaging and desire that comes the most dissonant and disturbing commentary on our present condition.”2

1 Sylvie Fleury, texts by Yves Aupetitallot, Christian Bernard, Markus Brüderlin, Liam Gillick, Michelle Nicol, Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2001.
Lionel Bovier, Across/Art/Suisse, 1975-2000, Skira, Seuil, 2001.
2 Liam Gillick, “Appuie sur l’accélérateur”, Sylvie Fleury, op. cit., pg.41.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.