Martin Champagne
No. 103-104 – spring-summer 2013

Réal Patry : Private Properties

Réal Party, Propriétés privées
Chantier Art 3
Ateliers Jean Brillant, Montréal
Spring 2012


In art, one sometimes has the impression that the contemporary artist takes cover behind scholarly discourse. This is why artists are reproached for working in a vacuum. However, this is not the case with Réal Patry. Always transparent with the viewer, Patry does not hesitate to provide interpretive keys, whether he works solo or in collaboration, because his approach mobilizes critical commentary.1 To this end he has built a singular visual metalanguage, using a vocabulary derived from operative elements shared by all his works. Propriétés privées, which was presented last spring during the Chantier Art 3  event at Ateliers Jean Brillant, was no exception.

This work is the sequel to a project titled Territoire, which was held a year earlier and focused on the subject of borders on a worldwide scale. The present series is Patry’s account, having undertaken a real inquiry into the representation of the world through maps. Like many tools designed to interpret reality, the map can deform truth and betray the diktat to faithfully render the real to such an extent that it becomes an ideal projection of the planet or territory. Or far worse: it imposes its discourse on the reader. Patry practices what one of art history’s many labels calls “topocritique,” but he has diverted it towards something else: a topocritique of the art world.

In his new project, Patry concentrates on places and the belonging associated with them. He collected cartographic photos of the province of Québec onto which he then fixed a cut out transparent photograph of a house window. The cartographic photo is thereby transformed into a home, a place or private property. Inside this small window one can see another moving image, as though it were a surveillance camera sliding back and forth over these truly modern artefacts that serve to secure places and define their limits: fences, barriers, chains, security devices, surveillance cameras and posters that variously  declare: no trespassing, keep out or private property. All this is mounted at mid-height in the exhibition space, where it traces a single trajectory, which resembles a horizon line, a sort of 75 ft. long celluloid filmstrip. Here one finds the same devices and generic iconic vocabulary that Patry makes use of in all his works: opposition between the high tech device and the low tech vernacular mechanism of the artisan; the presence of holes and windows, allowing one to gaze into the object; use of the map as a support with its topographic reliefs—sometimes displayed in 3 D—that draw a markedout territory; and finally, references to big universal themes: war, joy, love, hunger, security, in short, humanity. These are in fact his inquiry tools. But there is above all, an inevitable Patry feature that we will now consider in greater depth: words.

The use of words necessarily refers to discourse. Thanks to numerous studies in semiology as well as in anthropology (for instance the superb book by François Affergan, Exotisme et alterité) 2  we know that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the visual order, to which the art object belongs, and that of writing, to which discourse belongs. In observing our surrounding world, the gaze operates a sort of editing which, as René Payant said,3 selects some things to the detriment of others. Vision, which appears to be a timeless and fluid sense, is actually only a succession of momentary breaks in a continuous flow of instantaneous moments. Which moments do we choose to retain and why? The visual order is the principle of the hole and the window in Patry’s installations.

What is seen is transposed hence into that which is thought and spoken by specialists. It is he or she who incorporates, who manipulates the chosen elements for the purposes of his or her discourse. All facts are thus already interpreted, set into motion, and deformed by vision before they are even made public. It is the scholarly discourse that favours certain qualities of the world over others. Of course, the specialist’s primary activity, that of the gaze, is fluctuating, arbitrary and imprecise, and it is upon this that it founds its secondary activity— that of the discourse, which falsely takes on an air of truth, fact, and postulate. Discourse thus appears as a judicatory (it judges the object), axiological (it assigns it a value), deictic (it only sees some qualities) and deontic activity (its qualities are presented as that which should be seen and said).

In the field of art, the specialist is the critic, the art historian and the theorist. This does not make the discourse of art history any more objective, because it at once legitimizes and favours the author: it determines who is able to see what the others are unable to see. Between these two positions in the field of art (the specialist and the reader of the work), there is another: the artist. The one whose place as an enunciator of discourse has been stolen by the historian and critic.4 Yet, he or she is probably the best specialist, because he or she is both the viewer and producer of the work. This is where the presence of words in Patry’s work comes into play, in the middle of these antagonistic positions between the gaze and discourse, which emerge as a veritable battlefield. Semiology, particularly Ferdinand de Saussure, has taught us the great difference between image and words. In the image the signifier shares elements with the signified, something that is called iconicity: the image resembles the object to which it refers. In the case of the word, the signifier and the signified are linked by convention and in an unnatural manner, because the linguistic sign is not iconic. It can unfold in an infinite manner into multiple nuances and meanings.

This same mechanical antagonism (visual/discourse) is at work in cartography where it underpins the conceptual borders we attribute to the planet, nature, our cities, fields and oceans; these political borders of countries, electoral districts, the limits of urban areas, these barriers, watchtowers, fences and walls that divide our world. As Nicolas Bourriaud has stated, the representation of human space is no longer evident, the images of the world are not enough to describe reality. The contemporary artist carries out a meticulous deconstruction of all these representations of the territory: “topocritical art is an art of montage: the montage of information in survey graphics, montage of pictorial forms, montage by way of subtitling or image explanation, montage of genre and disciplines.” 5

What Patry more specifically points to with this work is the words one uses to designate private property, the inaccessible, the privileged and the reserved. It is the barrier that plays the role of discourse, of our conventions, our laws and prohibitions; finally, it is the words “no trespassing,” that are but the multivocal signs of our discourse about territory, borders and identities. The words are the wealthy owners of the scholarly discourse, who use it to speak to us of art, as the artist of the world. And it is this antagonistic reality that Réal Patry wants to remind us of.

Translated by Bernard Schütze


Martin Champagne holds an MA in art history from UQÀM. He worked as the director of the artist-run centre Galerie Verticale (1999-2009) and at Praxis Art Actuel (2011-2012). He is an art critic who has written several exhibition catalogues. He also is an adjunct professor in the art history and museology department at UQÀM. His sociological approach focuses on the notion of mediation, i.e. the work of art is perceived as a place of exchange, transmission and transformation between viewers, the artist and the object. He is also interested in the typology of contemporary art’s multiple labels.


  1. Pierre Robert, “Réal Patry, Guy Lapointe : Monuments”, Espace sculpture, no 86, 2008-2009, p.28-29.
  2. François Affergan, Exotisme et altérité. Essai sur les fondements d’une critique de l’anthropologie, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1987.
  3. René Payant, “Remarques intempestives en guise d’introduction”, Vedute – Pièces détachées sur l’art 1976-1897, Laval, Trois, 1992, p.19-20.
  4. Yves Michaud, L’artiste et les commissaires : quatre essais non pas sur l’art contemporain mais sur ceux qui s’en occupent, Nîmes, Éd. Jacqueline Chambon, 1989.
  5. Sophie Blandinières, “L’art contemporain à l’oeuvre… cartographique, deux expositions pour regarder la carte autrement”, Coup d’œil, 2004, p.70-71. (My translation.)