Violaine Boutet de Monvel

Art writer & translator | Lecturer & PhD candidate

Benjamin Sabatier – Inventory

Monograph published by Anamosa (Paris), 2022, 152 p.

“We are gods and might as well get used to it”

If an inventory refers to the process of making “a detailed, itemised list of all things in ones possession, especially […] goods and materials in stock,”[1] what does taking one of an artist’s ongoing practice entail? When it comes to writing about Benjamin Sabatier’s career at its twenty-year mark, does it mean making an art-critical survey of his entire body of works as one would paint a single still life for a forest yet grown through many seasons? It took more than one photograph for Jonathan LLense to capture a sense of Sabatier’s art under construction at the latter’s studio for this book, just as it will take more than one entry for me to report on his whole aesthetics. No matter what, this can’t be about enumerating all his works ever realised following their chronology in the manner of a catalogue raisonné, let alone which one are still up for sale as a gallery or shop owner would. This is rather about reviewing what key notions and techniques from Sabatier’s earlier works continue to inform his practice to this day, and how they’ve evolved through time. So, in this light, what stances have transpired all the artist’s periods so far, not to mention the future ones, and which forms has he declined them into? After all, an oeuvre is a cyclical journey, whose developments are made of trials and errors from one experiment to the next. Along the way, certain ideas and materials come back and forth, literary sometimes as Sabatier occasionally uses remnants from his previous series of works to make new ones, but here I am already digressing.

In order to survey Sabatier’s distinctive aesthetics of assemblage at the crossroads of art and bricolage since the turn of the 2000s, I must first and foremost pinpoint one special kind of inventory whose legacy he’s been claiming this whole time: namely, Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. First released during the Autumn of 1968 in the United States, this magazine is the reference publication of the do-it-yourself (DIY) counter-culture inventorying essays and tools for the reader to “conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”[2] Sabatier has thus resolutely engaged his practice within the continuation of such participatory and self-sufficient ethics that stemmed from 1960s hippie and anti-consumerist utopias, and which he also refers in terms of “self-construction.” (For the anecdote, The Whole Earth Catalog is what inspired Google’s search engine in the digital era as well.) In response to Brand’s visionary introduction of thefirst issue – “We are gods and might as well get used to it”[3] –, Sabatier suggests in his turn the becoming-artist of each and every one by openly encouraging the viewer’s emancipation, further striving to erase the distinctions between art production and consumption in the possible fusion of the creative andaesthetic experiences. To do so, he’s come up with different strategies since the beginning of his career, such as borrowing his materials from the immediate – affordable or residual – environment, conceiving transparent and easily reproducible structures, delegating the assemblage of some of his works commercialised as kits and, last but not least, putting his art under the test of labour in the midst of current socioeconomic issues.

Art of labour

Speaking of labour, Sabatier’s first public performance 35 heures de travail, which he realised for the inauguration of the Palais de Tokyo in 2002, firmly sealed the direction of his aesthetics toward an exploration of the relationship between art making and manual work. Whereas the 35-hour work week law had just been extended to small firms in France, the then 25-year-old artist sat on a chair and relentlessly sharpened pencils for five consecutive 7-hour working days paid at minimum wage. Changing workroom each session across the vast cultural institution’s exhibition spaces, bookstore and restaurant, he systematically left in place for the visitors to find the traces of his labour from the previous days. Thus, the manifestation of the artist exerting himself at work, far from being limited to his performance alone, was further embodied by the accumulations on the floor of wood trimmings, impaired pencil sharpeners, and bandages he used to protect his bruised fingers. The projections of graphite on his chair, which became thicker and thicker throughout the week, also recorded the print of his striving body, repeating every day the fastidious, exhausting yet pointless exercise. In other words, through this action equalling a manifesto, he raised for the first time in a very pragmatic way the question of the artist’s labour: how can one evaluate the time and effort spent in the realisation of an artwork when the dedicated market only esteems its aesthetic value that doesn’t reflect them, and while its retail one ultimately escapes any practical use?

Almost twenty years and a PhD in research-creation on the very subject later,[4] Sabatier re-enacted this performance under the title DUELS at the Galerie Thomas Bernard – Cortex Athletico between two national lockdowns in 2020. Standing in front of a limited public due to Covid-19 restrictions, he proceeded to repeating the same gesture for half an hour seconded this time by the actor Xavier Brossard, who lent him his powerful voice to eruditely discuss the possibility of artistic labour being a model for non-alienated work. While Sabatier somewhat fast-forwarded the entire Industrial Revolution by bringing out, halfway through, a roaring electric drill to finish sharpening pencils straight out of his pockets (by inserting them into the chuck instead of the bit), Brossard unexpectedly started humming Johnny Cash’s 1976 song One Piece at a Time about an assembly-line worker at a Cadillac factory stealing, bit by bit, all the pieces of his dream car to build it at home for his own enjoyment.

Performance aside, especially because Sabatier’s medium of predilection happens to be assemblage, the overall idea of hijacking a manufacturing system for one’s own growth is decisively what he’s endeavoured to inspire through his work from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, just a year prior his original performance, he started out his career with the creation in 2001 of his company IBK (International Benjamin’s Kit) imagined as a production structure and, above all, an artwork. While the brand name’s initialism was an obvious pun to Yves Klein’s famous trademark blue IKB (International Klein Blue), Sabatier further meant through this founding act to question art’s ability to reflect and operate within different types of economies from conception to distribution, and consumption. The company, whose materialisation ironically took the form of a dedicated, IKEA-looking logo such as the one stencilled on the empty cardboard assemblages of the eponymous series IBK’s BOX (2006-), also gave birth to a few wall pieces commercialised as kits to put, this time, the collectors at work and turn them, if they will, into their own artists.


Thus, not without humour, Sabatier initiated as soon as 2002 Kit IBK, a series of flat-pack pseudo-paintings sold in limited editions, each accompanied with a multilingual user’s manual, illustrated plans, sometimes even a demonstration DVD, and all the materials and tools needed for their fabrication. Among them, Pointillisme néo-dada, JOVB 7651 (2002) for example consisted in hammering in thousands of colourful drawing pins to shape a geometrical abstraction. While this type of works led to Sabatier’s first gallery show Peinture en Kit at Noirmont Prospect in 2003, they also motivated less conformist displays such as Stand IBK, a stall he ran at the historic Parisian department store Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (BHV) in 2006. Following the same fabrication mode years later, Hard Work – DIY 914 (2012) literally instructed its acquirers to inscribe their hard graft onto the wall, namely the kit’s title in Looney Tunes happy-lookingfonts, yet in hollow and with much cheaper nails. It goes without saying that some collectors naturally preferred to keep their hands and kits intact. After all, assembling them would run the risk of making them loose some of their hypothetical value, the use one at least. What an uncanny feat for a piece of art, indeed. To hammer or not to hammer, that is the question.

Luckily, pins and nails aren’t the only ways Sabatier has implemented to foster artistic emancipation through manual work. Carrying, pouring, folding, compressing, piling, and wrapping are as many tiresome yet divertible gestures achieving the artist’s enterprise. Further exploring the possible democratisation of art production, distribution and consumption, he proceeded by means of more subtle diversions than IBK boxes and kits, as ultimate a solution they offered, notably waste recycling. Among other early works tackling these issues, his series Pavés (2004-) for example immortalised a plethora of rubbish such as soda cans, candy wrappers and mail-order catalogues, to name just a few worthless fossils of mass consumption gleaned off the street, by embedding them onto the surface of little plaster tiles. In doing so, he not only revived these discards, whose primary function was to lure the consumer into buying products, he also turned them into brand new merchandises, what is more, of art! Once their aesthetic apotheosis reached, Sabatier completed their recycling with their symbolic re-integration into the circuit of mass distribution by exhibiting them on pallets in S.A.V., his second solo show at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in 2005. These loading platforms thus allowed not only their display and storage, but also their expedition and hypothetical return to the supermarket with the help of hoists and trolleys.

Sabatier has kept investigating the very ergonomics of art through further series pertaining to its handling, such as the imposing rocks of Prises (2008-), all around which he fixed climbing grips, or much later the rectangular concrete blocks of Valise (2014-), each with its own single aluminium top handle recalling that of suitcases. Besides marking the resolutely sculptural dimension that his work took by the end of the 2000s, both suggest the possibility of a manual transportation, which is in fact impossible given their tremendous mass. No matter what, the systematic use in his early experiments of consumption leftovers and other modest products was meant from the start as an open invitation for the viewers to reclaim their own trash and resources, further paving the way toward the realisation of Brand’s vision within the sphere of contemporary art: “We are gods and might as well get good at it.”[5] His search for always more appropriable means to reconcile art and life has played a great deal in that overall scheme, which slowly but surely led him to move on to the world of construction.


If all Sabatier’s assemblages are unique compositions, they nevertheless present fabrication modes that are so very transparent that the evidence of their reproducibility imposes itself. I first met the artist in 2009 on the occasion of his show Manifeste at the Point Éphémère, in which he projected anonymous messages found in public bathrooms onto a jumble of blank signs. During the opening, he jokingly told me that the people confronted to his works may as well groan they could have made the same, because they would be absolutely right! The fact that he proceeds in series – which are solely determined by shared processes, materials and tools on the whole accessible to all – highlight the potentially inexhaustible nature of his propositions (hence the hyphen I’ve used after dating some), that is, if the viewers were indeed to muck in and set to work too. Yet, easily legible doesn’t mean easily done. Understood Sabatier’s former projects seemingly verged on conceptualism and pop art as intertwined as these tendencies can be in his work, as he entered what I like to refer to as his baroque period, he began making rather tragic sculptural assemblages of supplies gathered from building sites and hardware stores. Among them, his series Pots (2008-), which consists of statuesque used paint tins piled on top of each other and drippling with thick colours all the way down to the floor, immediately set the tone of this new era, further consecrated by two subsequent solo shows at Jérôme de Noirmont: namely, Chantier (2009) and Hard Work (2012).

What follows is cast in the same mould and certainly gains in fury. For want of publicly exposing the ache of his body at work, the sculptures Sabatier began producing by the shovelful at the turn of the 2010s all bore the haunting, if not robust trace of it instead. Most of them did so by dint of gruesome strains, which the artist forced onto various construction materials and tools at his studio. The resulting spectacular imbalance that all these new works manifested thus gave the only palpable measure of the task he pressured himself to do. These include for example Sacs (2009-), a series of solid wooden planks precariously wedged by one of their ends into the narrow depression of concrete mix bags, which were cast folded before hardening on immaculate pedestals. In Rack (2009-), thin metal frameworks lightly fixed against the wall seemed in their turn to feverishly support the heavy weight of such cemented sacks. A terrific climax was then reached with Barrel (2010-) and Étai (2012-), metal drums and trickling paint tins fiercely crushed by props against the floor or the ceiling, whereas the unstable arrangements of bricks joined together by stinging clamps of Briques (2012-) already blatantly conjured up torment.

All the while maintaining a playful spirit that recalls the likes of Robert Filliou, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, or Roman Signer even, Sabatier has thus inflected quite an intense sense of labour onto his sculptural works up until the mid-2010s, perhaps a little disappointed, as it were, by his collectors not making his kits or his viewers not plagiarising him. However, beyond blood, sweat and tears, his commitment to building supplies throughout this time further echoes Joseph Beuys’s concept of social sculpture or art’s potential to transform society, that is, what the artist himself refers to as “self-construction.” (For that matter, he more directly alluded to Beuys’ ecological programme through Cover (2010-), a series of wall felt assemblages otherwise used to cover goods in transit.) Because such materials and tools are the symbols by excellence of manual work and alienating gestures, they’ve grown to become the touchstones of Sabatier’s current practice, and their creative appropriation the ultimate remedy against exploitation, toward self-realisation.

Pictorial manoeuvres

That being said, Sabatier’s solo show Storage at the Galerie Jousse Entreprise in 2014 retrospectively marked yet another decisive transition in his vocabulary, ever since essentially reduced to concrete and wood. Focusing on what constitute the most basic masonry and carpentry materials has allowed him to experiment openly minimalist assemblages and further summon the crux of constructivist utopias, especially the likes of Brutalist architecture, all the while referencing Supports/Surfaces, presumably the last French modernist avant-garde at the turn of the 1970s that has had a major influence on his entire production. The engaged aesthetics of both movements notably played with the ornamental quality of exposed chassis, be it the texture of the boards applied as casts against the façade of Brutalist buildings or Daniel Dezeuze’s painted frames without canvas, among other leading artists of the latter group. Along with the aforementioned series Valise, Sabatier’s pivotal show presented Formwork (2014-), a second ensemble of concrete rectangular modules whose single aluminium handle evoked this time impracticable drawers as arranged as they were in the very wooden containers used to form them and stacked on top of each other. All cemented blocks thus kept a trace of the timber grain on their rough surfaces.

            Three subsequent solo shows at Bertrand Grimont – namely, One Piece at a Time (2016), Access to Tools (2018) and Variations concrètes (2020), whereas a retrospective of his works from 2002 to 2012 titled Work in progress (2018) was concurrently held at the same gallery – further confirmed the introspective twist of his aesthetics toward a drastic refining of its materiology. Throughout this period, imposing floor assemblages continued to cohabit with smaller wall sculptures that would eventually gain ascendency. Alternately employed as supporting structures or flat pictorial-like surfaces, beams, framing sticks and concrete panels progressively left behind the fervour of his earlier baroque period and its discordant accumulations to retain only the essence of concretism as theorised by De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg in his 1930 manifesto: “Construction […] must be simple and visually controllable.”[6] Among such works for the most part untitled, as if to insist on their sheer formalism, Sans titre (seau I) (2018) disclosed the concrete internal cast of a spilt bucket pouring itself out all over the floor, whereasClaude Viallat’s signature sponge leitmotif miraculously emerged from Sans titre (variations 01) (2019), a modest wall piece playing with the contrast between different textures of concrete.

            Speaking of Supports/Surfaces, given Viallat is another key figure of that late avant-garde, the importance it had on Sabatier’s self-construction as an artist can in and of itself explain the renewed interest he has recently taken in pictorial manoeuvres at the crossroads with Informel, as he says so himself. With his vocabulary now reduced to raw materials as they are primary colours, his palette then made of wood and concrete has freshly welcomed chromatism under the form of cheap pastel copy paper reams, all remnants of an older series titled Palette (Trophée Clairefontaine) (2004-). Their light pink, yellow and green hues happen to be the standard ones used by administration for all sorts of filing, which suffice alone to relate to his other works pertaining to labour. Anyway, on the occasion of his first solo show at Eleven Steens, Fault Line in 2019, its founder Serge Carrasco ordered him an original series of collages, also untitled but numbered, which turned out looking like large dripping abstract landscapes from afar. They actually consist of shredded pieces of such industrially coloured sheets the artist glued together with wallpaper adhesive onto canvases and further covered with Indian ink using a soaking sponge, whose vertical runoffs somewhat recall smears left by bad printers. Once both preliminary steps over and done with, these compositions were each thoroughly rinsed before their grimed pasty substance could finally dry into what it has. Sabatier realised them conjointly with another ensemble titled Restes (2018-), for which wastes from the previous one were poured into concrete so that to form new icons.

“That’s all Folks!”

Last but not least, as I must inevitably conclude this 20-year survey of Sabatier’s works, more twists and turns are still awaited through this sudden pictorial-like volte-face, and others to come. For his last solo show at Thomas Bernard – Cortex Athletico, Home Work in 2021, he conceived an eponymous series of colourful arabesque concrete sculptures cast in improvised cardboard moulds, which he built at home with what he had on hand during the second national lockdown and ensuing interminable curfew. The bright, eye-popping paints he daubed them with signal the unexpected yet flamboyant introduction of actual pigments into his art, up until then limited to the gooey runoffs of used tins, and further clashing with the chromatic austerity of his previous minimalist inquiry. As of now, Sabatier is currently working on Fault Line (2021-), another series of wall assemblages, with concrete panels seemingly fractured by slick lines of carmine red pigments like smoky lava cracking the earth’s crust or, as he puts it, simply joints running over the edges of tiles.

That being said, beyond this newfound taste for blazing colours, if anything must be highlighted from Sabatier’s overall aesthetics so that to suspend, for the time being, its inventory is that he’s been unwaveringly experimenting forms out of readily available consumer goods, construction materials and tools from the very beginning, playing with their possible assemblages over and over again until he feels a given series is practically exhausted, yet systematically recycling or expanding it into the next one. In doing so, he’s been further openly celebrating spirited amateurism as a solution against work alienation, toward emancipation, leaving it up to each and every one of us to self-realise in our turn through the creative act, that is, by making art ourselves self-sufficiently and playfully.

[1] (last access on 16th February 2022).

[2] Stewart Brand, “Purpose,” in The Whole Earth Catalog (access to tools), Autumn 1968, p. 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Benjamin Sabatier, “Art under the test of labour. Between representation and process: economics, politics, utopia” (dir. Richard Conte), PhD, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2016.

[5] Stewart Brand, “Purpose,” in The Whole Earth Catalog (access to tools), Spring 1969, p. 0.

[6] Theo van Doesburg, “Base de la peinture concrète,” in Art concret, n° 1, 1930, p. 1.