News Column

Pecking order: why Thomas Mailaender is bringing real chickens into a gallery

May 30, 2014

Sean O'Hagan, theguardian.com



I first came across French art prankster Thomas Mailaender's work at the Arles Photography Festival in 2011, when, as part of a group show called From Here On, he presented Chicken Museum.

It comprised a makeshift wooden building where funny or grotesque photographs were displayed, while real live chickens wandered around, pecking at the seed-strewn ground, and occasionally pausing to peruse an image. It was part funny and part disturbing perhaps a comment on the absurdity or collective idiocy of the traditional art gallery experience?

You can see for yourself when Chicken Show comes to London this week as part of a chicken-themed group exhibition at Roman Road, which, the gallery says, "raises awareness of the unconscious way we consume not only food, but also images and cultural goods."

Mailaender uses humour as provocation, making work that reveals the absurdity of the everyday and pokes fun at the pretensions of the art-photography world. He delights in hoaxes, pranks, elaborate and sometimes wilfully amateurish charades. On his website, the "About" section begins: "A recently deceased famous French critic once compared Thomas Mailaender's work to that of Bernd and Hilla Becher under the influence of Pastis, a local aniseed liquor popular in the south of France."

He says that he spends the first hour of each working day reading for inspiration. "I mostly go for do-it-yourself books like the great How To Become A Professional Stuntman In One Week that I just finished. I am also a big reader of stuff like the Guinness books, erotic magazines, hunting or fishing manuals. After this kind of brain food I usually feel like I could be the king of the world and that's the good moment for me to really start working."

Mailaender's most humorous series often feature himself. Last year, he self-published Gone Fishing, which "tells the modern epic of a young man feeling his responsibility as a father by going on holidays with his buddies." (Download it here).

It mixes staged photos of himself (largely smiling proudly while holding various freshly caught fish) with apologetic, self-pitying letters to his fictitious wife "Dear Marion, I don't think this is going to change anything and it is not going to help you forgive me easily, but, guess what? I caught today a beautiful carp! I love you my dear. I can't stop thinking of you and the baby." In the final photograph, he poses dolefully with a kissing dolphin. As a comment on male commitment phobia, Gone Fishing is pretty acute. It's also hilariously, self-mockingly funny.

For an earlier project, Sponsoring, he Photoshopped himself into a series of promotional images of people being presented with giant cheques. For Extreme Tourism, he collaborated with Steve Young, a volcano photographer, to make fake photographs of himself in various daft poses surfing, frying eggs, baking a giant pizza all on active volcanoes. The world, in all its absurd excesses, is his playground; the internet, where that world is often reflected in extremis and without context, is his raw material. In his hoaxes, he lays bare the attention-seeking idiocy that is paraded there often through images that are transparently fake and purposefully amateurish in their manipulation.

Here and there, his work has a strange sadness, too. His photographs of Algerian cars, their roofs piled high with their owner's belongings or newly acquired possessions, look like readymades, but hint at other themes transience, homelessness, survival. They have been acquired by the Migration Museum in Paris.

In a recent exhibition at Roman Road, The Night Climbers of Cambridge, he installed 75 vintage prints from the 1930s, which showed a group of students who, under cover of darkness, scaled the buttresses of colleges throughout the university town. The source of the prints was the book The Night Climbers of Cambridge, published in 1937, with photographs by the mysterious Whipplesnaith. It was republished in 2007.

Although it was not an elaborate hoax, as Mailaender followers might have expected, the exhibition was a homage to a bunch of like-minded souls that pursued their anarchic hobby for the hell of it. Mailaender shrouded the gallery space in darkness and made climbing holds around and above the pictures so more adventurous visitors could scale the gallery walls. Every Thomas Mailaender exhibition is an event that testifies to his playful and provocative imagination. Long may he make mischief in an art world where humour is the least-valued currency.

Chicken Show is at Roman Road until 5 July. Contact: 074 2900 1379.


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Source: Guardian Web


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