From the ‘90s on, Fleury has been concerned with machismo and the construction of femininity, with fetishism and consumerism, and how all of the above are governed by libidinous desire. Pick-up girl ties, cigars and beef jerky wouldn’t be out of place in her installations, in other words; they’d slot neatly into the singular visual language she has crafted over three decades – one inhabited by Versace shopping bags, high heels and gasoline. The exhibition runs across all floors, transforming the building into a tongue-in-cheek hide and seek — shoeboxes in the stairwells, oil drums near the lift. In one room, a blown-up front cover of Playgirl is emblazoned with ‘America’s sexiest truckers’, and elsewhere a glass vitrine displays a bottle of Chanel No. 5 – chromed bronze and oversized. And everywhere, high heels: inescapably potent symbols of class, consumerism, style, sex, subjugation and ‘girl power’ all at once.
Cyborgs in Hot Heels
On the way to Sylvie Fleury’s exhibition at Sprüth Magers, I walk past the Victoria Beckham flagship store, a discarded packet of beef jerky, and a man wearing a tweed jacket and a pin-up girl tie, which winks at me. Three men sit outside a restaurant smoking cigars, and other men in crisply ironed shirts look at my tits as we cross paths. In Mayfair none of this is really remarkable, but entering the gallery, it all feels relevant.
"Versace shopping bags, high heels and gasoline"
Indeed, the first room of the exhibition feels like Fleury is taking a dig at the goings-on outside the gallery’s door. Fuchsia pink curtains hang in two corners, evoking high-end changing rooms, and luxury-brand shopping bags sit in clusters. Prada, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander – all still containing items Fleury purchased. Two large mirror panels fill the back wall; on the right is a life-size photograph of Fleury herself, dressed head-to-toe in Alaïa, leaning down to clutch more shopping bags. Is she an artist in the process of installing, or a fashionista arranging her purchases? Of course, she is both: creator and consumer. Or, to put it another way, ‘serious’ and ‘superficial’; performing and really doing at the same time.
"What is art and what is merch? In Fleury’s mirror world, they are one and the same."
Now titled No Man’s Time, the piece sees Fleury revisiting her first ‘shopping bag’ installation, made for a group exhibition in Lausanne in 1990 (its title, C’est la vie!, was taken from a Christian Lacroix bag). Yet, rather than a throwback, the work seems contemporary, even made expressly for this space. Fleury’s mirrors already collapse the boundary between life and art by implicating the viewer, but here, facing the gallery’s vast windows looking out onto Dover Street, the effect is amplified. Between the mirror panels and the panes of glass, I feel both contained and on show, like a doll in a box, questioning whether this is truly a gallery, or another Mayfair luxury store. What is art and what is merch? In Fleury’s mirror world, they are one and the same.
A similar trick occurs again upstairs, in an installation made up of a white armchair, surrounded by pale high heels. Tabis and stacked platforms adorned with silver stars are scattered across a white carpet, like paint thrown across a canvas. Or, of course, like designer store detritus. Fleury seems to be making a point similar to that made by Tracey Emin’s notorious bed sculpture – both probe what kinds of ‘mess’ gets valorised as the stuff of creativity, and what gets written off as trivial, ‘girly stuff’. Tracey did it with bodily secretions, Sylvie does it with shoes; both artists have a taste for neons – the medium of shop fronts and adverts, nightlife and urban desires.
"like something you might find at a ‘high-class’ sex party"
Yet, while the prevailing sense is that Fleury is turning tricks (another phrase that encapsulates how pleasure and its performance are intimately tied to and transformed into capital), this doesn’t mean she isn’t also being deadly serious. On more than one occasion, her work explicitly subverts the male modernist canon. Near the oversized Chanel bottle, for example, is a Mondrian piss take – all white, with artificial tufts of fur bursting from the squares. It has a deliciously sleazy tackiness to it, like the neons, or like something you might find at a ‘high-class’ sex party. In another room, smashed cosmetic compacts lie on the ground, face powder spilling over mirrored surfaces like illicit substances. The mirrored surface is another subversion: a knock off of Carl Andre’s floor sculptures, made from thin metal plates positioned in neat formations on gallery floors. Andre — infamous strong man of minimalism and maybe-murderer of Ana Mendieta — was revered as a genius for taking art off the wall and placing it flat on the ground. Here, Fleury takes the genius off his pedestal, transforming Andre’s industrial tiles, symbolising logic and order, into a make-up station. This isn’t a one off either. In a piece explicitly titled Walking on Carl Andre (1997) she had models strut across Andre-ish floor plates in stilettos. Transformed into a catwalk, Andre’s work is taunted, dominated, stomped all over. But here, there’s a hard-edged poignancy too. After all, the face powder lies broken on the cold, hard mirrored surface – ‘girly stuff’ smashed up and destroyed. For anyone familiar with the Andre and Mendieta story, the work is subtly chilling.
In the 1990s, Fleury tried to join a car club. She was rejected; no girls allowed. So, she started her own, for an exclusively female membership, called She-Devils on Wheels. This became the starting point for a new body of works – the most emblematic of which is installed in Sprüth Magers’ second room. Bright orange walls, blocky 70s lettering and a vast neon sign reading ‘HOT HEELS’ confront you; 'She-Devils on Wheels Headquarters' is a sensory attack. It is also, apparently, a garage, a fan club, and yet another shop front with merch-art-ise (but in the place of Fleury’s shopping bags and shoe boxes are She-Devils badges, caps, stickers and tees). ‘When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,’ reads a notepad perched on a loaded in-tray. On the other side of the room, a black plastic bottle of ‘Dura Lube’. In Fleury’s work art, fashion and oil constantly collide. Engines, oil drums, and hubcaps are all utilised as sculptures, arranged next to a flashy silver racing suit with the bottom coyly lifted to display an inner lining lush with flames, like those airbrushed onto custom trucks and cars. More than anything then, Fleury’s work is slick with petro-capitalism, and spins on the erotics of consumption – how capital is greased with fine art, fast cars, engine oil and designer shoes.
"Fleury’s work is slick with petro-capitalism, and spins on the erotics of consumption – how capital is greased with fine art, fast cars, engine oil and designer shoes"
If this wasn’t apparent from the decidedly erotic looping video of three ‘she-devils’ in custom racing suits and gold high heels, spraying Moët & Chandon into their own and each other’s mouths, it is brought home again by television monitors playing 1980s workout videos by Cher and Jane Fonda, and again in the high-ceilinged basement, where three towering, phallic space rockets stand, covered in white fur. At first these ‘fetishistic objects’ make me think of an episode of Sex and the City, where Samantha’s date professes that his recreational use of Viagra ‘sends [him] on a rocket trip, right through your solar system,’ and then they make me think of the billionaire boys trying to get to space and trying to live forever. The macho-tech-bros yearning to make themselves immortal cyborgs, while clinging onto borders and boundaries; cyborgs who have not read their own Manifesto.
In Donna Haraway’s 1985 A Cyborg Manifesto, she suggests that, in Western ideologies, the relationship between organism and machine has been ‘a border war’. Rejecting these ‘racist, male-dominant’ traditions, she argues instead ‘for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries,’ championing the cyborg as ‘a creature in a postgender world.’ Fleury, with her she-devils on wheels in high heels – her petrolhead fashionistas – seems to be in the boundary-confusion cyborg business too. Downstairs her neons read ‘pleasures pleasures pleasures’, and upstairs, Fleury brings the final-frontier space man down to earth. A gold rocket deflates against a black wall, like a party balloon left in a hot room; a flaccid phallic symbol. One word is splashed across the wall in bold white text: ‘egoiste’ – a Chanel men’s perfume, and a damning indictment.
Like Haraway’s cyborg, Fleury is ‘both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories’. Like Haraway’s cyborg, her work ‘is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.’ Walking back out into Mayfair’s streets, the last line of the Manifesto echoes in my mind, to the beat of one of Fleury’s workout videos. I too ‘would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’. And perhaps I’d like to be a she-devil most of all.
By Eloise Hendy