Story of stories - Hoël Duret
by Loïc Le Gall
in CURA #35, October 2020

A designer reinventing the shape of the egg, a journalist hanging about on a cruise liner, a retired mermaid telling her life story, or undersea cables mingling with jellyfish are all stories worked on by Hoël Duret. The early stages of these works are not in the form of sketches or photographs but rather notes and pieces of writing, often in great detail, like the conceptual artists of the 1960s. The story evolves gradually like pulp fiction, from a wide variety of origins and combinations that sometimes surprise. Indeed, the artist describes himself as a 'sponge', storing up references and not hesitating to resort to humour in his practice that at first sight seems very serious. The play on references is one of the great issues in the history of contemporary art. The study of figurative representation, that is, iconography, and a catalogue of subjects implicitly judged acceptable have for a long time encouraged certain forms and directed the signifiers in works. These hierarchies have now given way to a welcome horizontality, leading the spectator to a constant sensory and intellectual investigation. And with good reason, as the catalogue of stories available has boomed, whereas the formal codes have simply been annihilated. That is why the contemporary spectator finds they are denied references, drowning in a profusion of possibilities. How can they understand and analyze the work without the contexts and paradigms from which it is constituted? Hoël Duret gets around this thorny problem by weaving his own stories, inspired by reality, yes, but nevertheless constructed by following a clear and totally new narrative. Invention and (implicit) pedagogy construct the corpus of the artist who amuses himself by sprinkling clues throughout series, or rather groups of works gravitating around a common story. With Hoël Duret, research time becomes reading time, either physical or digital, with the artist foraging for various different elements to feed into a story that is vast yet readable and intelligible. His great model, David Foster Wallace, pushed back the limits of what was known as literary postmodernism by inventing a new kind of comedy. Just as the writer was capable of writing just as well about tennis player Roger Federer, filmmaker David Lynch and politician John McCain, Hoël Duret adopts the same chameleon-like approach, juggling with specific themes and subjects that might appear unrelated to anyone who does not go beyond the surface.

The early works of Hoël Duret reveal a fascination with the do-it-yourself aesthetic. This attitude - the idea of being able to do everything yourself together with a taste for amateurism in the noble sense of the word - still holds true today. It is far from pure chance that the first works collated by the artist are two videos from 2011 and 2012 focussing on the codes of DIY tutorials and how to dismantle a jigsaw step by step, which had become the symbol of a new twentieth-century hobby. By tackling this world of making do, Hoël Duret was exploring a political story, the comprehension and appropriation of one's environment by building things. This hobby is that of capitalism par excellence: building more and more objects that are ephemeral and disposable, being produced for better or worse by weekend 'workmen'. By very logically venturing into the do-it-yourself field, Hoël Duret would have to look at the history of design and remind us that all aesthetics support political projects. After reading the autobiography of the designer Raymond Loewy entitled Never Leave Well Enough Alone, translated into French with the title 'La Laideur se vend mal' (Ugliness is a hard sell) – a statement in itself –, Hoël Duret produced La Vie Héroïque de B.S. - un opéra en 3 actes (=he Heroic Life of B.S. - an opera in three acts) (2013-2015) which illustrated this whole area of research. In this video, the protagonist BS, loosely based on Brooks Stevens, an American designer famous for creating the idea of planned obsolescence - “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary” he declared in 1954 - set about rethinking the shape of the egg, a shape that was however already perfect. The absurd idea of establishing a model for the mass production of billions of units, which is, of course, already the case, with a 'natural' shape. The world of B.S. is pop, flashy, very '60s, American and stereotypical. The film is conceived like an opera, divided into acts, thereby increasing the grandiloquence of the subject which takes on an air of tragedy. The choice of composition for the stories is equally revealing, with the artist using very specific genres such as opera, television series or spin-offs. The heroic life of B.S. is an essential landmark in constructing the practice of Hoël Duret. This video is a bank of stories mixing the aesthetics of science popularized for broadcast, the sets of Hollywood studios, and popular series such as Mad Men while taking a critical view of what seems to pass for fascination; BS happens to be used in English to mean 'bullshit'.

Although the film of BS made reference to the peak of our consumer system, the artist was not seeking to see the past as a glorious era, and avoided any feeling of attachment to it. The body of works later developed by the artist are resolutely turned towards the contemporary world. In the video UC-98 Decompression (2016), the life story of a retired mermaid in a theme park has been set alongside an evocation in dance of a technological undersea world. Apart from a taste for strange and eccentric characters, the overall artistic project, of which the video is only a part, reveals a poetic fiction described by the artist as follows: “UC-98 is the name of a submarine fibre optic cable carrying our digital data. In one of the curls of the cable, a shoal of jellyfish have made their home, their presence damaging the sheathing and creating a leak of light data into the depths of the ocean. The beam of light released passes continuously through the soft, gelatinous and translucent bodies of the cnidarians, feeding them the information it is carrying.” We understand, the works of Hoël Duret act as a network where different mediums intersect and influence each other. Like a collage, the artist links aqueous elements with formal and conceptual abstraction, influenced by the theory of liquid societies of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who explained that society has become liquid because the links between humans, driven by their acts of consumption, have become impossible. Somewhere between a metaphor of this world and formal games, these paintings arising from that fluid fiction are soft, recalling the famous fourth dimension of comics. The lamp sculptures made of plastic bags and electric garlands continue the artist's investigations into do-it- yourself and in some way evoke some of the assemblages of Richard Tuttle. Although in the Vie Héroïque de B.S. some objects still had an indefinite status, between props and a work, the UC-98 project lays the basis for a ground-breaking global corpus.

The artist's most recent project, LOW, currently the subject of an exhibition at Villa Merkel at Esslingen in Germany, continues this dichotomy between committed art, acerbically observing its time, and formal seduction. The film at the heart of this new opus, Drop Out (2020), was classified as 'climate fiction' - a literary sub-genre dealing with the theme of climate change - and explores the possibility of catastrophe without sensationalism. Whereas in the past over-consumption was an underlying theme in Hoël Duret's work, his new story ventures boldly forth as a militant tale somewhere between class warfare and ecological commitment. The film was made in New Zealand and shows grandiose landscapes, infested by architectural shapes evoking the bunkers of wealthy survivalists planning their survival and our disappearance. Using, as he often does, absurd and grotesque resources, Hoël Duret inserts Instagram filters like new masks over reality, transforming students and himself into animals that are half-cute and half-terrifying. As in Animal Farm, A Fairy Story by George Orwell, the film turns into dystopia and the speech by the main character in the fable, Old Major the pig, denouncing human predation, resounds with irony as it did in 1945: “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing”.

Hoël Duret

By Ingrid Luquet-Gad
In Monographic catalog, Saint Ange residency program, 2020

With Hoël Duret, one looks at the world, a world, this world that he paints, through the prism of an embedded narrator. Having long since abandoned guiding the trajectory of his vessel, he is now content to just drift along. The picaresque impetus, the epic drive is indeed here. But lacking direction, the explorer's conquest ends up at the tail end of the snake, and when his journey comes to an end, rather than proud incursions into unknown lands one finds the concentric circles of the Ouroboros. It is a simple fact: the time of the great sagas of yesteryear has come and gone. It is not that the Earth has been completely mapped, measured, surveyed and flattened out, rather that the highly sophisticated measuring instruments possessed by everyone no longer make any sense. Little by little, their results end up seeming as absurdly poetic as a series of hieroglyphics, as if they line up an infinite number of flawed answers to an obsolete question. Surreptitiously, Google Maps has ended up morphing into a high-tech Rosetta Stone. And one fine day, it was necessary to acknowledge that even the ambition to organize and flatten out reality had become outdated. What has changed, in the meantime, is our awareness of the inevitable. It has been some time now since the Cartesian dream of becoming the master and owner of nature has dissolved, and yet our way of inhabiting the world has not really changed. And so the explorer of yesteryear becomes a wayward traveller. Though he has not yet abandoned the trek, he has ended up accepting that he would no choose his route, becoming something like the human equivalent of the famous tumbleweed of Western movies.

Hoël Duret writes picaresque tales of our waning decade, that of a slow and confused exit from the Anthropocene. Here, the magnificent loosers are no longer simply outsiders who have decided through their rejection of established systems to remove themselves from the game. They foreshadow the fate that awaits us all, diminished and bewildered humans, numbed by the age old habit of conquering and enslaving, and now propelled into a world newly wild. Now, the alternative is the following: ally ourselves with the rest of the living world or slowly peter out before disappearing completely. In a world rendered totally disorganized, this “chaotic rhythm or chaosmos” evoked by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (Mille Plateaux, 1980), the artist's narrators are in turn designer (La Vie Héroïque de B.S., 2013-2015), fiber-optic cable with the gift of self awareness (UC-98, 2016–2018), journalist reporter (Too Dumb to Fail, 2018), skittish adventurer (Life is old there, 2019) or quite simply, like in the most recent project, artist (low, ongoing). Around the structure of a tale told over a number of chapters, Hoël Duret uses small strokes to paint an ecosystem made up of multiple characters and their choral points of view. The endeavor is total, almost Wagnerian. We follow in the footsteps of these narrators. We allow ourselves to be carried under the sea to be surrounded by plastic jellyfish and retired mermaids (UC-98), aboard a hellish cruise ship (Too Dumb to Fail) or to flaccidly wash up onto a beach (Life is old there). We even find ourselves propelled into a speculative future just as a major ecological crisis has taken place, staining the daytime yellow and provoking a massive flow of rich climate refugees from Silicon Valley to New Zealand (Drop out).

In 2015, The Atlantic published the article “Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?identifying the rise of a new genre of science fiction, cli-fi, which attempts to imagine worlds subject to various ecological and climatic mutations. During the first decade of the 20th century, it was indeed this attempt to create worlds, to “world make”, that would establish itself as a central tenet which runs through both visual and musical artistic creation. United in an effort to increase awareness of change, the two tones tend somewhat to blend together. With visual artists, the horizon of the Gesamtkunstwerk asserts itself through immersive simulations that liberally free themselves from the coordinates of the white cube to open out onto a universe which functions in total autonomy—this includes the videos of Cécile B. Evans, Jordan Wolfson, Ian Cheng, Ed Atkins and even Jacolby Satterwhite. With musicians, the visual aspect is increasingly integrated as an indivisible part of a whole. In an article which appeared in October 2019 in the columns of Pitchfork, critic Simon Reynolds diagnosed the emergence of a movement that he named “conceptronica”, detailing a similar exploration by musicians such as Chino Amobi, Lee Gamble, Amnesia Scanner, Holly Herndon and the Berlin label PAN. Faced with the collapse of theoretical references which had previously organized and guided the multitudes, building alternative and plural, speculative and possible worlds, using simulation and fiction to learn to navigate the troubled waters of the uncertain—and to find a certain instinctive fascination.

With Hoël Duret, this aspiration is reflected in the vast palette of mediums which, just like the points of view, could in no way be reduced to just one. low, the artist's most recent project, continues the project NFT pH<7. Though the video Drop out (ongoing), provides a framework for the narrative, it is surrounded by paintings, engravings on PMMA, phosphorescent sculptures and blown glass aquariums that make up an immersive environment. Like the starting point of a fiction, deployed by the video and specified by the artworks in the space, the exhibition NFT pH<7 logique (2019) organized at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris at the beginning of 2019. An above ground and connected artificial ecosystem, the installation links Twitter to artificially grown plants that are as luxurious as they are heteroclite. Depending on the weather data published on the network, an algorithm activates certain parameters in real time—sound, light, fog and a hydraulic system. Drop out, which opens just as the artist-narrator has finished his exhibition and is now flying to New Zealand, the country where the actual artist shot the video in the context of a four-month residency at the University of Massey in Wellington. Here the artist and his double find themselves wrestling with an irrepressible climatic anxiety. Technology is clearly no longer able to keep its promises of emancipation. In order to develop his algorithms, the artist himself was forced to use models developed by AWS, a branch of Amazon. The facts are inevitable. Large transnational groups are progressively replacing democratic regulatory frameworks, with the absolute dominance of profit accelerating the devastating actions of humanity on its environment.

However, nothing yet authorizes a definitive pessimism. A prediction of the worst to come can still be swept away with the wave of a hand. The bad omens are there for all to see, and signs abound. But it is still possible to attribute these portends to an individual or collective delirium, or to an end of the century morbid pessimism. When the narrator of Drop Out lands, a major ecological crisis has broken out and a thick yellow fog has swallowed up the sky over Wellington. The richest individuals on the planet have already begun to erect private villa bunkers. Those remaining, like the group of unemployed people who join the narrator, wander aimlessly and slowly sink into a dreamlike state. We don't yet know if this is a hallucination (products? Boredom?) or if reality itself has come unstuck from what has been considered until now the established paradigm. From the time that the prologue decides to highlight the process of making the film, the fiction has moved insidiously closer to reality. Climate fiction no longer predicts possible futures, it settles into the hollow of the space-time that we are currently living in. Though there are a number of worlds, they now seem layered and intertwined, leafing through a kaleidoscope of the perpetual present. The impossibility of identifying a perspective or a single vanishing point raises the ghost of an absolute relativism. Was Copernicus also mad, fever-ridden, drugged?

With regard to his fellow artists engaged in the creation of worlds. Hoël Duret adds a dimension inherently his own: the voyage and the journey, and failing their actual execution, the fantastic idea of elsewhere. “The apocalypse is not something which is coming. The apocalypse has arrived in major portions of the planet and it's only because we live within a bubble of incredible privilege and social insulation that we still have the luxury of anticipating the apocalypse” wrote Terence McKenna, a major figure of American counter culture of the 1990s. Referred to by a number of authors at the intersection between ecology and new technologies, his observation can be meticulously applied to the artist's tales. Social inequality in the face of climate crisis is explicit in Drop Out, but more generally, all of the narrators end up in their own way realizing that they live in a bubble. The conditioning is sometimes socio-economic, but in most cases, it is mainly mental, inheriting the patterns of thought which stubbornly structure our perception of the world. And so the trajectory takes the form of an initiatory tale whose structure is close to that of myths and folktales. When we follow in the narrator's footsteps, we are in turn summoned to follow the same path and to say goodbye to our usual comfortable life. We must then initiate our own transition, and by doing this, shed the anthropocentric perspective of the major Cartesian and Copernican systems of thought.

In the multiple ecosystems of the artist, inanimate elements frequently take on the status of characters. There is the underwater fiber optic cable or the plumbing pipe, and now, in Drop Out, the modernist style villa bunker which is transformed into a menacing monster or irradiating monolith. These conscious and sentient entities steal the spotlight from the narrator, forced to consider himself as a simple living organism amongst a multitude of others. The survival of all depends on this. That the Earth is habitable is not in effect a geophysical property but rather a process of recursive loops involving all life, demanding that networks of cooperation for long-term survival be drawn up, despite the transformations. This interdependence is not a reaction to the crisis, it has always been the condition for survival of every biotope. The idea was advocated by climatologist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulies in 1970, who worked together to try and establish what other scientists that came before them had already evoked. Under the name “ Gaïa hypothesis”, they argued that the Earth is a dynamic physiological system, where all living things are part of a self-regulating super-organism on a planetary scale — Gaïa. At a time still covered by suspicions of vitalism (the Earth has a “consciousness”), Bruno Latour would adopt the idea as a thought experiment for the purposes of addressing our contemporaries. One notes then the importance of fictional imagination, the assuredly primitive belief in a Goddess Earth, Mother Earth, character Earth, which has shown itself to be the best way of generating empathy and through it, change.

The multi-specific fictional spaces are as many different areas for affective learning of these new symbolic and critical reflexes. Like in an immersive video game, the spectator passes through a number of successive levels. They are first intrigued, disorientated and perplexed. They see the narrator, symbol of the ancient world, dissolve into lethargy or madness, unable to adapt. While this is happening, the spectator begins progressively to play the game. It must be said that the plot woven by Hoël Duret is captivating, and his environments are regulated by the precepts of Deep Ecology and of Object Orientated Ontology which are ultimately rather welcoming. Little by little, the process of conquest activated in the face of unknown spaces is transformed into spontaneous complicity. Every space is a space written and produced, wrote Henri Lefebvre in 1974 in La production de l'espace, a space traversed by the logic of power and domination. In constant movement and reconfiguration, Hoël Duret's ecosystems avoid this entirely. We learn then to inhabit them as tenants rather than owners, and to weave horizontal relationships of exchange with tumbleweed artists, character-pipes, villa-bunker-monoliths. Because resisting, and struggling alone, would be to suffocate under the yellow fog that has descended to envelop all living things with no exceptions. As Irit Rogoff puts forward in Terra Informa (2000): “In the same way both feminism and post-colonial theory have insisted on the need for a multi-subjectivity, so does the critical process of geographical spatialization insist on the multi-inhabitation of spaces through bodies, spatial relations and psychic dynamics”. Her observation should now be extended to non-humans, and the universes of Hoël Duret are to some extent the simulators of this.

Hoël Duret - Fondation Louis Vuitton

After the exhibition Too Dumb to Fail, which was inspired by the narrative and visual world of the 1980s and was based on the imagery of a drifting liner, Hoël Duret continues, with the installation NFT pH<7 logique, the investigation of the state of the world and the history of formal inventions. Structured around the notions of landscape and greenhouse, the installation takes the opposite of their traditional forms, focusing on inventing a "critical" winter garden, which would reflect the state of the world in the 21st century. If the function of the greenhouses was to allow the visitor to discover the local vegetation of a distant land, the Duret greenhouse is composed of an accumulation of plants of different origins, cultivated above ground in polystyrene bins, superimposed or suspended in the metal structure of the work. This, which mounts to a height of ten meters and evokes the deconstructed frame of a greenhouse, echoes certain architectural elements of the Foundation. This immersive installation is entirely driven by algorithms. Lighting, atmospheric, hydraulic and sound conditions vary at each moment because of the constant analysis of hashtags of climate datas published on Twitter around the world. Running through the work, a skein of cables, NFT pH<7 logique, which "dries, oozes, sizzles and breathes", forms an anti-landscape and offers a critical reading of the 21st century – glocalisation, instantaneous communications, all-powerful social networks ...

By Pascale Krief  in Artpress #466, May 2019


by Hoël Duret, october 2013

As a synthesis of the Do It Yourself ideology and the utopia of the family unit of the American Way of Life, handcrafting is central to the work of Hoel Duret. What interested him in the process of amateur practice was not so much the specific aesthetics of the haphazard assemblage but to find, to display and to demonstrate that economic constraints can engender productivist intelligence. In order to support his work with a theoretical corpus, he has gathered his research about alternative methods of manufacturing in a self-published opus the title of which – I Can Do Anything Badly – sounds like an introductory slogan epitomizing his entire production.

In Hoël Duret's work, everything derives from the back and forth between industrialized ways and hand-made ways of production, intentionally causing a would-be industrial gesture to become poetry. The young French artist has learned the lessons of the generations that preceded him. Indeed, his views on creation were built during the second half of the 2000's, an era profoundly affected by a reinterpretation of modern and modernist precepts, sometimes to the point of fetishism. But despite manipulating the same codes as his elders, Hoel Duret has no fascination for modernism. On the contrary, it is by undertaking its critical review that he intends to grasp it, to examine it, to shake it up, even at the risk of undermining it. In a way we could see in his work a place to test the obduracy of these forms.

Born on 15 June 1988 in Nantes, Hoël Duret graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Nantes in 2011. He was awarded the Prix de la Jeune Création at the Mulhouse Biennale in 2012, the Prix des Arts Visuels de la Ville de Nantes, the Yishu 8 Prize in Beijing in 2014, and a residency at the Pavillon Neuflize OBC, laboratoire de création du Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015-16.
His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at: Mulhouse Biennale (France, 2012); FRAC des Pays de la Loire (Carquefou, France, 2013); Castillo/Corrales (event, Paris, France, 2014); Mosquito Coast Factory (Campbon, France, 2014); YIA Art Fair (Paris, France, 2014); Zoo Galerie (Nantes, France, 2014); Park Life Gallery (event, San Francisco, USA, 2015); Musée des Beaux-arts in Mulhouse (France, 2015); LOOP Art Fair (Barcelona, Spain, 2015); Yishu 8 (Beijing, China, 2015); Centre d'Art l'Oeil de Poisson (Québec, Canada, 2015); Palais de Tokyo (event, Paris, France, 2016); TORRI (Paris, France, 2016; and Crédakino, Le Crédac (Ivry-sur-Seine, France, 2016).
His work has also been presented in group exhibitions at the Owen Gallery (Marfa, Texas, USA, 2011); Belleville Biennale (Paris, France, 2012); Martos Gallery (Los Angeles, USA, 2014); Palazzo Strozzi (Florence, Italy, 2015); Fondation Salomon (Annecy, France, 2015); Seoul Art Museum (Seoul, South Korea, 2016); Titanik (Turku, Finland, 2016); and Palais Garnier, Opéra de Paris (event, Paris, France, 2016).