Ndayé Kouagou

Text by Madeleine Planeix-Crocker

The Guru, 2023 (still) Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Louis Vuitton Paris

“Taking it slow with Ndayé Kouagou”

Ndayé Kouagou is not one to rue. However, on July 11th last, when the world learned of Czech author Milan Kundera’s passing, Kouagou took a moment of pause. Appropriate was the gesture of slowing down in recognition of the novelist who mused upon the modern need for speed. Thinking to the motorcyclist—a figure who, according to Kundera, revels in out-of-body ecstasy—, it’s precisely in these moments, when bits of life catch up, that the virtues of slowness (memory, sensuality, laughter) find their way back into the body. So, Kouagou, an avid cyclist of any two-wheeler (motorized or not), hit the brakes after a loaded year and just sat down for a sec.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Kouagou decelerating in light of recent months. At the end of 2022, the artist was invited by curators Claudia Buizza and Ludovic Delalande for his first institutional solo exhibition held at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris). The invitation precipitated the production of a monumental film installation, as well as several new works on display in the Fondation’s “Open Space”, designated for contemporary art programming. Titled The Guru, the polished exhibit opened the following April, until the end of August. Pedal to the metal, Kouagou gathered his now well-acquainted team, including Axel Pelletanche (artistic director), Romain Cieutat (director), Ally Macrae (stylist), Oldie Mbany (make-up artist), and Flora Coupin (production assistant), who had collaborated shortly prior for the making of A coin is a coin (2022). Produced for Liste Art Fair Basel and currently on view in a group exhibit curated by myself at Mécènes du Sud (Montpellier), A coin is a coin will soon be presented at the Frac Île-de-France for Kouagou’s next solo show (Paris).

Good People Tv, 2021 (stills) Courtesy: the artist and Nir Altman, Munich

Good People Tv, 2021 (stills) Courtesy: the artist and Nir Altman, Munich

Kundera was not the first to comment on the politics of speed as a corollary to turbo-capitalism. An accelerated production process can also reflect an economy of means. This was the case for Kouagou and team’s first film series, Good People TV (2021). Imagined for the Curated Section of Frieze London in 2021, the three-part series parodies public service announcements (PSA), infomercials, and other televised interludes morphed into self-help mantras of sorts. Each episode is marked by a swift and succinct delivery, as announced by the series’ catchphrase: “Real good quick advice for you to become a good person.”

First displayed as a three-channel set-up placed in an upright triangle on a carpet branding the series’ promise (product?), the install serves both slick contemporary art and boxing ring vibes (same, same?). Enter at your own risk. While the sole protagonist’s output might trump intelligibility, it appears that speed serves as the proverbial hook. Indeed, visitors stay with the series for several looped viewings: “Anxious to have missed some substantial piece of information to finally become that ‘good person’ I’ve always hoped?”; “Because my curiosity is piqued by this spokesperson for self-improvement whose dubbed voice—performed by actress Salber Lee Williams—further troubles his gender-bending presence?” Dismantling binaries holds space for reveling in ambivalence. Whatever the reason, one exits the ring teetering—punch-drunk and amused, breathless and confused.

The twist? In the midst of his fast monologuing flow, Kouagou never once provides “real advice”, in the immediately applicable sense. One might still wonder: how does swallowing my own fluid (as recommended in Episode 2) actually make me “good”? Said-virtues are not to be found in the words themselves but in how they’re conveyed. Kouagou is selling you the medium that is the message that is the conversation he hopes to spark but not finish. That’s for you to do.

Paying attention not only to the words but to the logic that cements them is essential to accessing Kouagou’s work, lest it be superficially reduced to soundbites. Text—in content and form—is the artist’s basic material. He slips into English, his working language, as eagerly as he dons a new outfit. Such as a jester or a sophist—proto-masters of deflection—Kouagou gathers observations of societal symptoms (discomfort, disorientation, disillusion). While critical negativity may serve as the unannounced epistemology with which Kouagou reasons, his observations are metabolized into situations through open-ended questions—rhetoric redux.

Further, the artist unapologetically shares his opinions—“Comfortable people make me uncomfortable”—often tinged with irony and double-meaning. He’s that friend who says what everyone is thinking but not saying. In his films, these statements are emboldened by all-cap graphics designed sur-mesure by Pelletanche, a strategic text-image juxtaposition echoing Lorna Simpson and Barbara Kruger’s conceptualized counternarratives. When the stylistic effect is applied to excerpts of Kouagou’s texts superposed with built objects, the gesture is reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s declarative captions that confront and, hopefully, mobilize. The writing’s on the wall: things will get awkward.

WHAT, 2023 (p. 326) Courtesy: the artist and Sundy, London

All your life, 2023 Courtesy: the artist and Sundy, London

Portrait by Martin Raphaël Martiq
Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Louis Vuitton

Such a feeling is particularly salient during Kouagou’s live performances, which are often iterations of his filmed monologues. You might have caught him in a variety of settings, for instance, MOVE at the Centre Pompidou (Paris), WIELS (Brussels), Auto Italia South East (London), Centrale Fies Live Works (Dro), and the MAC VAL (Vitry-sur-Seine). Stripped of theatrics, his performances are adapted to the venue. Kouagou features as the omniscient narrator, but not the sole actor. Audience members morph into active participants, performatively responding to the artist’s prompts as manifested by large-scale spatial movements. Recently, in Four Dogs and a Plum (2022), Kouagou conjured a canine crew amongst volunteers, encircling him—the configuration I find best suited to his curated surround, in breaking with his films’ piece-to-camera approach.

In this echo chamber, where carefully skewed truisms bounce around and provoke, speed is also what seems to bind Kouagou to his generation. A quick-witted cohort of artists committed to language as a signifier and to logorrhea as a mood has forged a niche in contemporary performance. Nora Turato and Ivan Cheng are two such compulsive archeologists digging up, while simultaneously contributing to, strata of meta-data. Their preternaturally rapid, epic, and nimble declamations may differ from Kouagou’s pithy writing, yet humor inevitably derives from the comedy of manners conceived by all three. The references are fresh and mainstream, therefore not thoroughly alienating: we, or what Kouagou would call “the average” (as opposed to “the exceptional”), are all in on the joke and maybe, sometimes, the butt of it. Laughter—one of Kundera’s prophylactics to burning out—is an aural signature of Kouagou’s assemblies.

So, on that feverishly hot day, when Kouagou just braked, it was as if a portal had unlocked onto the third movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet, “Très lent” (‘very slow’), which fortuitously follows “Assez vif / très rythmé” (‘quite lively / quickly paced’)—Kouagou’s chosen WhatsApp byline. “Change is key, but the key to where?,” prompts the artist in A coin is a coin. In a fraction of a second, he was delivered an answer in the form of a gentle nudge.

NDAYÉ KOUAGOU (b. 1992, Montreuil, France) is an artist and performer based in Paris and represented by Nir Altman Munich. His practice always starts from texts of which he is the author. Voluntarily or involuntarily confused, he tries as best as he can to bring a reflection on these three topics: unease, power and vulnerability. He describes his work as “quite interesting, but not that interesting or maybe not interesting at all.”

MADELEINE PLANEIX-CROCKER (b. 1993, Los Angeles, CA) is associate curator at Lafayette Anticipations and professor at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, where she co-directs the Chair “Troubles, dissidences et esthétiques”. Madeleine is completing her PhD at the EHESS in performance and gender studies. She advocates with Women Safe (Yvelines) and loves to dance, when/wherever.