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Translated by Anna Knight

Michel Journiac, "Rituel de transmutation" & Contaminations au présent

by Ilan Michel

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The Transpalette exhibition is the second largest retrospective by Michel Journiac since his death in 1995. The current interest in this artist is due both to the Christophe Gaillard gallery, which has represented the estate since 2017, leading a campaign for the documentation and restoration of the oeuvre; and is also due to the nostalgia of an era marked by strong political engagement.1  Not in chronological order, the exhibition observes 25 years of practice and invites the overall body of work to be reconsidered against the benchmark of his final iterations. The visit opens on the 12 phases of the Rituel de transmutation du corps souffrant au corps transfiguré [Transmutation Ritual from the Suffering Body to the Transfigured Body], performed by Michel Journiac from 1993 to 19952 and constituting the core of the exhibition project. The first phase contains a selection of emblematic works from the 1970s, while the second brings together original documents dug out of his Parisian studio, which shed light on little-known facets of the artist’s work: poetry collections, original photomontages, teaching aids, a seminar project “Artists confronting AIDS” developed as part of his teaching activities3... Several books from his library are presented in a display case. Photocopies of covers and annotated pages are stuck to the wall, juxtaposed like clues probing the artist’s intellectual sources. This ascending visit is accentuated by the posters of the Référendum Journiac (1970), arranged in a frieze in the courtyard of the disused premises, punctuating the space up to the summit of the former factory where the original electoral context is “reactivated”.

Echoing the current situation – very different since the artist is no longer an unknown – his œuvre highlights the function of rituals in the sense of belonging to a group. The emergence of AIDS led him to focus on the exclusion of the homosexual community. Susan Sontag’s essay Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and Its Metaphors,4 present in the exhibition, analyses the projections of a disease perceived as the punishment for a deviant sexuality and a sullied identity. It was the case of the contaminated blood revealed in 1992 that made him decide to accomplish this Rituel de transmutation, as a tribute to absent friends, re-establishing sacrality in the face of liberalism’s reality disconnect.

Journiac reacted to the dispersion of infected fluids through the multiplication of uses of his own blood. The Billets de sang [Blood Money] (1993) were addressed to his friends by mail, before being reproduced in the form of banknote printing plates (1995) covering the entrance wall of the ground floor. As a materialization of dirty money, the accent here was on the mechanical reproduction of soiled notes. During Messe pour un Corps [Mass for a Body] (Galerie Templon, 1969; Galerie Stadler, 1975), the artist was already communing with the public in the form of religious hosts made of blood sausage made from his own blood, in a parodic community rite. His actions sought to affect everyone directly, with no intermediary. The values of cooperation and fraternity, inherited from May ‘68, opposed the individualism that consumerism and disinformation has immersed us in.

The fifth phase of the Rituel de Transmutation occupies the other side of the cymatium at the entrance to the exhibition, as though the scarlet trace of 100 franc banknotes were now striking the body. During Marquage, action de corps exclu [Branding: Action on the Excluded Body] (Centre Pompidou, 1983), the artist branded his arm with a triangle. The photographic record (documentation of the action) presents a close-up of the scar with the blistered skin, evoking the pink triangle of Nazi concentration camps. His face is offscreen, highlighting the generic dimension of a body that everyone can identify with. This act of consensual slavery reminds us that “the law constantly writes itself on bodies.”5 In 1993, he reiterated the branding in public at the gallery of the Collège Marcel Duchamp in Châteauroux. The photographic staging of Action de marquage au present [Action of Branding in the Present] features a bust in profile, like that of a criminal. The black and white accentuates the derealisation of the wound-turned-symbol. A Polaroid is lined up with the two other shots. Branded with a hot iron, it operates like an image not made by human hand. This characteristic of the medium interested Journiac at that time, who posited an equivalency between body and medium.6  The image developed instantaneously manifests the stigmata. The question of the icon thus recurs in the work of this former seminarist. Confronting death, the Rituel de transmutation series causes the representation to evolve towards an alchemical process. Spattering blood over large gold leaf printed panels, convoking Byzantine iconography, the artist stages an abstract presence whose plasticity stems from random forms that seek to crystallize into signs. Nine lead ingots and human ashes, produced with the dust of friends who had passed away, were presented here on a table under a Plexiglas dome. Strangely lost within the vast ground floor level, the reliquaries stem from the notions of seriality and the standardised object, and are marked by a triangle, the seal of exclusion. Dominating the space, a triptych comprising three gilded panels substitutes a scarlet aura for Christ, beneath which, the faint outline of a face can be made out.7 Two silhouettes withdrawn into themselves, photographs transferred onto canvas, occupy the lateral panels, in a trinity placed in positions of equal prominence. Here, his work finds its power when the artist-as-officiant is gradually effaced and the identification becomes unclear, so that the encounter occurs within the imprint established by the Other.



  1. Two concomitant exhibitions, Contre-cultures 1969-1989, l'esprit français (La maison rouge, Paris) and Michel Journiac, l’Action Photographique (Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris) are significant in this respect.
  2. Only the Carte du sang, 1994, (Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg) was unable to be presented.
  3. Michel Journiac taught at the UFR d’arts plastiques at the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, from 1972 to 1995. He founded the association Actes de Recherche sur l’Image du Corps (A.R.I.C.) there, along with the critic F. Pluchard in 1983.
  4. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 1989). Vincent Labaume, co-curator of the exhibition, inherited part of the artist’s book collection.
  5. Michel De Certeau, trans. by Steven Rendall, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 140.
  6. Speech by the artist on 19 April 1994. Michel Journiac, étape 3, interrogatoire du jeu d’échec de l’art et de la mort, étape 5, action de marquage au présent : août 1993, étape 9, géographie des errances, du vivre, du mourir et de la transmutation [phase 3, questioning the chess game of art and death, phase 5, action of marking on the present: August 1993, phase 9, geography of errancy, living, dying, and transmutation] (Nantes: Ecole régionale des beaux-arts de Nantes, Interlope, 1995), n.p.
  7. Icône d’alliance [Alliance Icon], 1991-1993, twelfth and final phase of the Rituel de transmutation [Transmutation Ritual].


 Michel Journiac • 1935-1995

Curators : Damien Sausset and Vincent Labaume

March 31st to May 27th, 2017  

Transpalette, Bourges


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