press release

09.12.2022 - 18.02.2023
Opening: 09.12.2022, 18:00

Achraf Touloub

Galeria Plan B is pleased to announce the fourth solo exhibition of Achraf Touloub with the gallery. This will be the last exhibition in the current gallery space. After more than 10 years in Potsdamer Straße, the gallery will relocate to a historical building at Strausberger Platz. More details about the inauguration of the new space in spring 2023 will follow.

Bodies as Vectors
The exhibition assembles seven new paintings in an allegory of perception, legible at both the scale of individual works and at that of the project. As they shift between viewpoints or orders of magnitude and telescope between distances to their subject and modes of their capture, the paintings stage the reciprocal instability of figures and grounds, hallucinations of decryption and vice-versa. If the abstraction of a generic visuality could be embodied, if a subjectivity that is truly no-one’s but is fully immersed in our current visual regime could be made palpable, then perhaps the paintings would serve as flashes from its biography, moments when what it sees coincide with how it is seen. The exhibition would then come to illustrate its trajectory through the world – its effort to safeguard its contours or narrate its internal consistency, and its simultaneous othering, the multitudinous transformations it absorbs into its own becoming. As a generic self is both situated in particular spatial circumstances and projected at the macroscopic scales that the exhibition explores, the works figure the intersection between specific data and an equally deliberate imprecision: the points at which my experience might connect with yours, morph into or twine with everyone’s or no-one’s, communicating via levers of negation, point of fracture and moments of obfuscation as much as through that which the paintings show. Such a generic, distributed self is then portrayed through its fissures, as a composition of cuts, lacunae and wounds always mended and reassembled in the shape of an in-dividual: as the negation of a constitutive division, as a provisional triumph over their centrifugal force.

The initial operation of the paintings is to delineate these figures of separation and re- composition, its dividuals emerging from unfixed grounds to the same extent that they are engulfed by them, in scenes where they must find their bearings amidst warped axes of orientation. The most overt example of this strategy is perhaps Dei Frari, a painting that takes a cue from the interplay of Renaissance and Baroque perspectival grids in the portrayal of biblical events at the eponymous Venetian basilica, guiding the gaze to episodes of epiphany and ascension, to the thresholds where both the sensible domain and painting itself theoretically end. The memory of those intersecting and divergent systems of visual capture, as much as prefigured loss, is then turned into a device for viewing a scene from contemporary life, for breaking open its mundanity and exploring its constitution. It is as if memory were twisting itself up around the loose grid that organizes immediate perceptual data, producing an anamorphosis of sorts where the image includes and reconciles two vanishing points. One is situated in the past and the other in the flickering present where what is seen is compared to what was seen, the former emulating the indelible character of the latter, forming perception across a boundary and, in the process, representing the subject as an amalgamation of moments: as the projection of an excavation, as a past that passes through a future.

To approach the painting Haroun, an important hint may be furnished by a work which is not included in this exhibition, but to which it has a strong formal connection. Like Haroun, Nocturne is crisscrossed by luminous imprints which enliven an otherwise obscure ambiance. The suggestion offered by the latter’s title might be a useful consideration in attending to the former. Perhaps the characters and events of both works are placed, together with their viewers, in a situation of perceptual deprivation, amidst barely intuited contours, softly delineated by moonlight. The encounters and spatial relations such pictures might depict are camouflaged by obscurity: taking the title as text, as interpretation, might recast the impediment that the title signals, that of diminished visibility, as the form of vision by other means. Treating then Haroun as a ‘nocturne’, the scene appears as if inspected by a thermal infrared camera, crisscrossed by bodies that conserve and distribute, as a non- human remainder of their passage, as an imprint at the border of illegibility and amorphousness, the heat that enlivens them, emanated by the very sun in whose absence we witness these scenes. Or is this the blurred image of a motion capture studio, its orthogonal symmetries – which would allow for the registration and reproduction of movements, of laboring bodies ceaselessly multiplied in post-production – now disorganized by speed or by a ghost that infiltrates the machinic order, like an eye spinning in its spatial socket? Or is this, finally, another case where the cognitive deficit produced by insufficient light, data and means of orientation, becomes an occasion for perception to perceive its own form and mutations: a vector for inscription in the world bent into a circle. Haroun might be the portrait of the titular character as much as that of a mind contemplating a nocturnal scene to find in its swirling constellation of bodies, places, stars and imprints a metaphor for its own workings: both the limit of its capacity to think of itself in actu and the surpassing of this allegorical threshold, its own ‘landscape portrait’.

In something like a moment of pareidolia, the mind appears to itself as a mobile analogy, as a drift across the multiple planes at which it finds its own correlates, its reflection in events which initially defy or escape its computational capacities. There is a long cultural history of pairing incalculable distances or confusing apparitions with the secret levers and cogs of the mind, of equating that which is unknowable in the world with that which escapes understanding in the mind itself. “These things, too large or infinitely polymorphous, are just like me, like my own unknowability or otherness,” the mind might say to its ventriloquized self. In events that surpass its representational grasp – such as the storms or constellations associated with the aesthetics and morality of the sublime, to which the current regime of larger-than-life data aggregation adds new figures and anxieties – the mind intuits its own operations, recasting their resistance to calculation as an indirect portrait of its recessive immensities. Looking upward or sideways, surrounded by vertical profundities or lateral abysses, the mind extracts from their amplitude and multiplicity a likeness of itself and its enigmatic process. In the convulsions of the world, it sees an out-dwelling interiority, a reflective mindscape, an obscure hetero-narcissism: the compression of what is irreducible, and thus similar, on the two sides of the perceptual threshold.

I return once more to Haroun, a painting that works like a hinge for this text, articulating the different planes at which Touloub’s paintings could be read, the proliferation of interpretive pathways that they stage. A renewed look at the luminous filaments that cut across the shadowy scene might also produce the sense of an electric circuit, of synapses flaring up, conduits for thought shared between selves and environments. The flashes of psychic momentum reconstitute a map uniting figure and ground in their co-dependence, in their imagining of one another, apprehended from this internal, secret place of a common energy source. Units of information are transmitted across neuronal pathways that spill out into the world, as they become perspectival axes and horizon lines, delineating the shape of our encounter with Haroun and his oblique portrait, with its spillage into place. This is the juncture to address the notion that gives the exhibition its title:ʿaṣabīya, sometimes transliterated by anthropologists and historians of religion as ʿassabīya, Arabic equivalent of esprit de corps, a phrase that English borrowed from French, meaning bods of solidarity, the commonalities, spiritual, affective or ideological, that inspire their devotion or enthusiasm of the members of a group. The translation is, as always, an imperfect equivalence, missing an important connotation in the Arabic word. Esprit de corps evokes the collective ‘body’ of the battalion led to military victory by each of its members, the body of the soldier multiplied by the needs of conquest. ʿAṣabīya, however, places this mechanism of social co-constitution, or composition, in the cerebral realm. The word derives from al-jihaz al-'asabi, meaning ‘nervous system,’ itself stemming from easab, or ‘nerve’. The etymology thus creates the metaphor of a collective processing unit that controls the members of the group, each of them a nervous termination via which the common intelligence gathers data and performs its operations, each a limb by which a psychic entity collects information and manifests in the world. The diagonal pathways that scar, with their minute deflagrations of light without an ostensible source, the surface of the paintings can then be read through this oscillation between the physical map and a brain scan of social gestures, desires and fears, between outward territory and inward élan. Touloub often discusses such interests in conversation with another notion describing a transcendent point of the collective, its messianic becoming- image: the egregore, an occult concept shared between different religions where collective thought has the capacity to engender a-corporeal entities, creating loops of spiritual feed- back and feed-ahead between realms. This notion, too, is subjected to the artist’s concern with contemporizing translations: if the egregore were to be updated to current predicaments in the constitution of the image and of the self, a converse process might be unveiled, with ‘machines of loving grace,’ corporate egregore engines of sorts, calculating the social from abstraction, varying and embodying the choices made by hazily defined humans in order to make them, wholly, citizens of late capitalism in informational overdrive.

In the last section of these introductory notes, I want to place side-by-side two paintings in Touloub’ show, but also two moments in his artistic biography. ʿAssabīya is the last exhibition in Plan B’s current premises, a fact which Touloub sees as a significant point of inflection, conversing across time with his first show with the gallery, Latent, which was presented in May 2014. On one level, the two projects are connected by a narrative arc between ‘first’ and ‘last’ moment, between the moment when an imaginary container is brimming with latency and the subsequent one when those energies come to fore, are concluded and consummated, albeit as another withdrawal, another detour through psychic domains. On another level, it is useful to recall that one of the recurrent tropes of that earlier project was a play on fire as that which melts, melds and separates, as a figure of connection and division composing another procession of dividuals in that exhibition. The burning screen was one form in which this extended trope manifested: an interface no longer linking disparate characters and scenes, but becoming – and being eventually fully consumed by – its own spectacle of incandescence. Never explicitly to the fore, the capacity to imagine and represent the contemporary world as an anthropological, technological and environmental object, as a mutable relation between people, their notional or physical, gestural or visual prostheses and the environments in which this recurring drama is staged, subtends Touloub’s practice, with the burning screen, in the case of the exhibition Latent, being one of the central motifs of a visuality whose destination is the anonymity of ash, a vanishing point of incineration. The current exhibition creates a narrative counterpoint – biographical as much as allegorical – for those flames that ate both the image and technical apparatus for its display in the older project. These are the screens that feature prominently in a new painting and, to its side, in the imaginary tandem I referred earlier, another screen becoming a face, crossing it out or marking it up.

The paintings L’écran éteint and Cross produce, I believe, something of a metonymic compression of the artist’s project, as they set into telescopic motion a crowd, gathered or huddled in front of two screens, of which one is emphatically off, and the abrupt zoom on a portrait seen through, or as, the crosshairs of a viewfinder. In some sense, this dynamic shift is the move from the single organism to the extension of organistic metaphors at the social scale, where collectivities are treated as single entities, as unitary and predictable minds or metabolisms, with the converse effect that both – the individual and social – dissolve into collections of data points, ready for algorithmic computation and re-conditioning. In front of one painting, we are placed amidst the mass of expectant figures: if these were an actual scene that the artist witnessed, it might be that the crowd saw itself mirrored in the blank surface of screen that is turned off. That screen is also spent, extinguished, unable to channel information or instruction, as apathetic as a black square on the wall of a museum, awaiting perhaps the passage of groups of visiting students. At the other end of the spectrum I imagine in this symbolic reduction of Touloub’s project, we find a large portrait that emerges from a camera and simultaneously disappears in it – into the crash zoom – by emulating its properties, by camouflaging its presence via a mimetism of the gaze directed to it. The physiognomy is the look upon it.

In the conversations that preceded and informed the writing of this text, Touloub offered a personal understanding of vertigo, from the more conventional sense of freefall through an abyss of lost coordinates to a more compressed sense of an oscillation in a seemingly infinite moment, a minor ‘short-circuit’ in the technical and political visual system, where the viewing device is trapped in a permanent effort of capturing its already captive object: producing infinite, lateral or static variations within the structure of trap, emptily resonating its stillness and creating the appearance of boundlessness within definitive bounds. Seer and seen are both fixed in a protracted process of calibration, both losing temporarily their quotient of ‘reality’ and existing only within the mechanics of the zoom, both looking for a way into and out of perfectly sharp focus, absolute resolution, the rendition of life as an image of 1:1 fidelity. Two paintings are, in my imagination, side by side, or face to face. A figure concealed in its own ecstatic visibility is beamed to a switched-off screen: technology working at its very best precisely when it does not work. In the split-second of malfunction, removed from the flux of otherwise smooth operations, the subject can detect the encroachment of mechanical vision and imagination upon its body and mind, the extent to which its capacity to call itself a subject is a matter of mediations and distortions, glitchy switches and infinite zooms.

Exhibition text by Mihnea Mircan
Achraf Touloub, born 1986 in Casablanca, Morocco, lives and works in Paris. Solo exhibitions and projects include: Les Arrivées, Centre d’art contemporain PASSERELLE, Brest (2021); Art Club #30 Achraf Touloub, Villa Medici, Rome (2019); European Night, Plan B, Berlin (2019); CONT’D, Plan B, Berlin (2016); standard condition, Galerie Albert Baronian, Brussels (2015); Latent, Plan B, Berlin (2014).

Group exhibitions include: Es-senze, Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, Venice (2022); Landscape in a Convex Mirror, Art Encounters Biennial, Timisoara (2021); Anticorps, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2020); Iulia Nistor and Achraf Touloub. Space (Continuation and End), Rezidenta BRD Scena9, Bucharest (2019); Baltic Triennial 13: Give Up the Ghost, Tallinn (2018); The World on Paper, Deutsche Bank Collection, Berlin (2018); Night was paper and we were ink, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah (2018); Auguries, Art space Geumcheon, Seoul (2017); Viva Arte Viva, 57th Venice Biennale (2017); 100 chefs-d’oeuvre de l’art moderne et contemporain arabe. La collection Barjeel, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris (2017); Mutations-Creations / Imprimer le monde, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2017); Dissolve into a red dwarf, Island, Brussels (2017); Art Club #12/ Folies d’hiver, Villa Medici, Rome (2016); Cher(e)s Ami(e)s. New presentation of works from the collection, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2016); Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi (2016); Club of Matinee Idolz, CO2, Turin (2015); Des hommes, des mondes, College des Bernardins, Paris (2014).