When I was in the Navy, I heard a story about a prankster who'd chalked a profane message on the lawn of the commanding officer's residence. Knowing the huge white letters would inspire the C.O. to immediately wash away the offensive language, the prankster had added a layer of grass seed to the message so that every spring the insult would return.
It's the kind of joke that Edouard Levé would have appreciated. In "Works," translated by Jan Steyn, Levé presents 533 ideas for works of art across a wide range of media. Some are plans for photographs, others include detailed notes for installations, while others lay the groundwork for films and books, including the first in Levé's series: "A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being."
This isn't the only work that Levé would go on to create. He wrote, "In the United States a voyage is undertaken to photograph towns with names that are homonyms of towns in other countries" and then took such a trip and photographed places like a bingo parlor in Delhi, a garage in Stockholm, a church in Berlin. He later published the photos in a volume titled "Amérique."
Artists have participated in realizing Levé's artworks whether they were aware of it or not. "The number of works in a museum is added to without the knowledge of its employees" was famously staged by English artist provocateur Banksy, who surreptitiously supplemented the collections of four New York art museums in 2005.
Not all of Levé's works are so easy to replicate. "Museum of Nobodies" calls for an entire structure filled with wax effigies: "Instead of the usual celebrities, a wax museum displays unknown characters." Another project requires the construction of "a house designed by a three-year-old."
"Works" is the third book of Levé's published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, but when it appeared in France in 2002 it was his debut. He followed that up with a series of autobiographical fragments called "Autoportrait." His final book of prose is a fictional treatment of a friend's suicide and its immediate aftermath. Shortly after he completed the manuscript, Levé took his own life.
Levé's books appeared in English in the inverse order in which they were originally published in France. The whimsical series of Duchampian artworks yields to an investigation of self, with the final work standing as both a capitulation and a refutation of those experiences. But to Levé's American readers, his heavy conclusion gives way to something lighter, ephemeral and abstract that prompts the question, "What if…?"
"Works" is the least autobiographical of Levé's books; nevertheless, a portrait of the artist emerges. Levé is interested in decoys, doubles and doppelgangers ("People bearing the same names as artists and writers are found in a telephone directory and photographed. Color prints are made of their faces and framed like ID photos").
He possesses a strong surrealist streak ("A matchstick scaffold is set alight"), a taste for the grotesque ("A taxidermist stuffs a gazelle inside the skin of the leopard that killed it"), an admiration of hoaxes ("An exhibit presents fake fake pictures — pictures that for some period were believed to be fake but have now been authenticated") and a willingness to take a joke to great lengths ("Black adhesive letters are stuck to the leaves of a plant kept in a place with sunlight for several weeks. The letters are then removed and the plant exhibited. A text appears, tattooed onto its leaves").
"Works" is a slim volume of big ideas. Levé's output is somewhat reminiscent of Jean Philippe Toussaint's slender oeuvre of literary situation comedies and existential love stories. Taken together, Levé's three books come in at around 400 pages, a counterpoint to the maximalism of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Both authors employ a flat effect in their prose style, but one could make the argument that there's more art in Levé's elisions than in Knausgaard's abundance of banalities.
Levé isn't calling for the creation of a new kind of art. Rather, encoded in this catalog of works and meta works is a call to revisit what it is we value in art. Is it to work in opposition to what we cherish? To double back on that which we find extraordinary? To call the extraordinariness of the thing in question into question?
"Works" is a book charged with wit and wonder, seeded with the prospect of future masterpieces. It's a pity that no more of them will sprout from Levé.
Ruland's first novel, "Forest of Fortune," will be released in August.
Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn
Dalkey Archive Press: 208 pp., $13.95 paper