Gilles Barbier’s hijacked dictionary on display at the Banana Hangar in Nantes

For Gilles Barbier, the question of the subject does not arise. He solved it in a very efficient way: he copied the 1966 edition of the Petit Larousse illustrated. He recopies it methodically and considerably enlarges the format. Each drawing, in ink and gouache, is a square 220 centimeters across. For this, he does not use any mechanical process likely to help him, but writes freehand. Images and dictionary plates are reproduced with as much precision as possible.

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Barbier, who was born in 1965, conceived this project in 1992 and, this one not being the only one which occupies it, it is still only at the letter p of the common names. A concern for accuracy leads him to add errata when he notices that he has made a mistake on a spelling. He shows Nantes 24 pages, the first going From A to Alpha, the last From Panel to Losing.

In the Banana Hangar, where he exhibits them for the first time in France, they are not arranged in ordinary alphabetical order, but draw zigzag lines. Sculptures including a monumental fake plastic bone named Between the joints (the language) are inserted, confirming the meaning of the play on words and the irony proper to Barbier. He also created, by borrowing stuffed animals from the Nantes Natural History Museum, the installation The Pink Pages. From these animals, from nutria to bison, in fact escape the Latin quotations that the title gave hope. The dictionary is therefore omnipresent.

Mythology and irony

To recopy a book, Barbier is not the first to have thought of it. In the 1930s, Jose Luis Borges thus invented the character of Pierre Ménard, who copied the Don Quixote by Cervantes. As for copying images, the history of art abounds in examples of such pastiches or thefts. But Barbier does everything to make the original recognizable, and even exposes the cover of his Petit Larousse illustrated from 1966. By provocation? This is what immediately comes to mind. An artist is supposed to have original ideas or even – even better – to be carried away by inspiration and surrender to them blindly. This mythology, very worn but regularly rejuvenated with blows of romanticism and Van Gogh, undergoes with Barbier a complete denial. Another mythology, which has animated so-called conceptual practices since the 1960s, requires readings, theories and systems, on the contrary. But a dictionary is not a treatise and copying it is not very powerfully theoretical. Barbier therefore laughs as much at the inspired artist as at the thinking artist. Generalized derision.

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