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The observation made by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy in L'Esthétisation du monde. Vivre à l'âge du capitalisme artiste (2013) can serve as a prelude to the discovery of Thomas Devaux's work: "we consume more and more beauty, yet our lives are not more beautiful. Long put at the service of politics or religion, we find this beauty, born since the industrial revolution, at the service of the economy. Capitalism would have thus generated a form of creation aiming at designing the least of the goods, leaving in the background its use value, thus creating a kind of beauty that only promises its consumption through its consumption. Which artistic practices are today susceptible to expressing a criticism of this "artist capitalism"? An unfortunate expression, perhaps, because one should not be confused: the aestheticization of consumerism is a cultural fact, not a fact of art. It is there that the work of Thomas Devaux raises the contradiction. Art can, on the aesthetic ground, forge a criticism able to break the curse of a beauty passed to the side of evil. Or, to put it another way: how can we exorcise this beauty from the evil that corrodes it?

The Shoppers-Rayons-Dichroics trilogy, presented under the borrowed title "Cet obscur objet du désir" (Luis Buñuel, 1977), has something operatic about it. The forms and arrangements, the materials used, seem to construct the story of an immense blindness that would be the allegory of our unreasonable passion for consumption. Thus, functioning like a surveillance camera, Shoppers is a work of distant photography, capturing the consumer's gesture of exchange as he pays for his purchases or wanders around under the weight of his shopping bags. With almost zombified attitudes, the shopper is visually treated as a figure bled dry, anonymous and yet singular. The Rayons, or rays, for their part, are the result of blowing up consumer products until they lose all recognizable form and their format, their colour and the blur generated, in a play of analogies, produce a sort of large abstract painting. Blinding again: sacrificing the sharpness serves as a way of capturing the attention. Paradoxically, faced with an abstract work inviting contemplation, the spectator no longer sees, in the true sense of the word, the merchandise that subjugates him. Finally, Dichroics unfurls, through the choice of the eponymous glass which allows a double luminous operation (the light crosses the glass but also reflects on it), the image of the product that is enlarged and almost invisible to the extent that it reflects the spectator: the latter is not only fascinated, but also caught in the image of the surrounding things and of himself, subjected to the variations of lights that constantly renew the colored gleam of the glass. Blinded in front of this mirror that the artist has taken care to gild with gold leaf on its frame, the spectator is caught in front of this modern Golden Calf, with, often, as the only reflex, to take a selfie in front of what the artist calls the "totems". Because ultimately this is what it is all about, in this symbolical exchange of sacred beauty and profane beauty: the image.

Thomas Devaux insists on emphasizing the photographic dimension of this trilogy, and of his research in general. But what is so "photographic" about it? It is an entirely contemporary struggle, perhaps the most important one: to identify the image as the ultimate commodity, and to entrust photography with the paradoxical mission of conjuring it. This is precisely what is at stake in an aesthetic of blindness. Let's go over things again: the Shoppers are figures that look like "negatives", even though they are indeed "positives", the work of the light and the black background that decontextualize them, the diffusion of the contours that form a halo, everything contributes to suspending the effect of photographic reality by photographic means. Ghosts therefore, those that we do not see and that haunt us, the visible manifestation of an absence: an analogon, a paradigm of photography according to Roland Barthes.

As for the Rayons: an ultrafocusing process resulting in the loss of legibility of reality and its metabolization into an optical ether. The optics, precisely, is present in its reign, making the drawing and the sense of the things escape, likely to edify the glance. But for which destination? Since the Council of Nicaea II (787), which had to put an end to the quarrel of the icons, we know that the doctrines wished that the honour be returned to the images, that they be present in the places of worship, but on the condition that they are understood as a passage, through the eyes, to elevate the spectator towards the sacred subject. In front of the Rayons, contemplation is only a fantasy, any passage would entail a sacrilege, transforming the blinded spectator into a devotee of the fetish of the merchandise.

The blindness finds its accomplished figure with the Dichroics, since henceforth the light, trapped in the image and constrained to the reflection, narcissizes the spectator who is unable to see, and yet condemned to recognize himself. The photographic is there in its native function of "making the portrait" but remitted to the mythology of the mirror. Everywhere the photographic (that is to say the imaginary and the operations proper to photography) undermines the image until it is transformed into an optical splash. The association of Shoppers and Dichroics in the Dichroic Shopper series accomplishes in a final act the staging of our own passions: blinded, here we are facing the blind in an invisible image.

In "Cet obscur objet du désir", the latter is no longer the sex whose omnipresence is disguised by the bourgeoisie filmed by Luis Buñuel, but the libidinal exchange effected through the consumption of the image. The ultimate commodity, which Thomas Devaux dismantles with its proper weapons, is held up to the faces of the blind cursed people that we are. Imprisoned after publishing his Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (1742), Diderot had understood that by relying on science and philosophy, to imagine what the blind from birth would see once operated on, would counter the values of morality and religion. To see, finally, is always to deconsecrate, because the operation of discernment is an act of consciousness in which nothing is given and universal. To blind, on the other hand, is to side with belief. To think of blindness as a curse is to make it the metaphor of our consuming passions. It is also, in the work of Thomas Devaux, considering that within a consumer society, a form of religiosity is at play that could lead the system to its downfall.

In blindness, Thomas Devaux proposes, no more and no less, than the loss of sight as a faculty of discernment, and the defeat of the image as redemption. Does the plastic luxurience that he proposes risk leading the art lover astray? But it is precisely because art is contaminated by the "capitalism artist" that it is necessary to confront it with the lavishness, the luxury and any other exponential form of the desire of possession, until we conceive of a proposal which would be an "anti ready-made". Duchamp's lesson regarding the world of art capable, as a system of belief, of transforming the trivial into a work of art then finds its counterpart: the belief can also be reversed and make the work of art into a kitsch object. It is thus on this tense thread of inversion of values that the work of Thomas Devaux progresses. It adopts a theology of the baroque, overwhelming the spectator with reflections, confronting the blind with invisible images.

In the codicil entitled Compulsions, Thomas Devaux presents screenshots of the scenes of hysteria during the famous "black fridays". Masses of bodies compress themselves to reach the sold goods. These anatomies chained to each other form another "parable of the blind": one person's fall will inevitably lead to all the others', in hell. This is its true form, the impossible and guilty desire of orgiastic consumption. An indispensable element in what should be called an aesthetic theology of capitalism, Compulsions is a wake-up call for the art lover: the swollen bodies, like the fetishes of artist capital, are the contemporary figures of arrogance.

Michel Poivert, photography historian, curator and founder of the International College of Photography

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