John Armstrong and Paul Collins: Jim


Jim →: Directional Indicator/panneau indicateur (2002)
Selenium-toned gelatin sliver print
11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)

“Jim →” is a sign, one among many graffiti scratched into the walls and gravestones of Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, pointing the way to Jim Morrison’s tomb. Say it: “Jim, that way, par là.” The photograph of this sign represents an outlaw monument to the popular imaginary. The accompanying photograph of a 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record mutely expresses the music that keeps the memory of Morrison alive. Jim , the bookwork, photographic exhibition, and text, points in many other directions as well.1

The seedbed of the work is a thirty-year creative collaboration between two artists, John Armstrong and Paul Collins. Over the course of a year, the pair worked on common themes for this project − Armstrong in his native Toronto, and Collins in Paris, where he has lived for the past twenty years. They developed a list of forty-nine words that would become the subjects of photographs; then, working in parallel, the artists produced two points of view of the same theme.

The list itself is a work, an inventory of “over-determined signs that construct traditional notions of an artist’s identity and practice,”2 an index-in-waiting inflected by the two host cultures and enriched by mutual knowledge. As a bilingual document, the list holds true to the epistolary form:

Jim →; mustard pot/ pot de moutarde; keys/clefs; cemetery/cimetière; car/voiture; hand/main; chair/chaise; hammer/marteau; Sorel Etrog; newscast/les infos; flower/fleur; cloth/tissu; draped cloth/tissu drapé; boss/patron; fish/poisson; art dealer/galeriste; floor/sol; tree/arbre; garbage can/poubelle; bicycle/vélo; Georges Seurat; clock/horloge; record/enregistrement; editorial cartoon/dessin politique; radiator/radiateur; colleague/collègue; hat/chapeau; painted sky/ciel peint; musical instrument/instrument de musique; Jean-Paul Riopelle; toilet/w.c.; telephone/téléphone; air vent/bouche d’aération; character/caractère; word/mot; phrase; curator/commissaire d’expositions; florist/fleuriste; directional indicator/panneau indicateur; number/numéro; travel advertisement/publicité de voyage; arts administrator/administrateur d’art; water/eau; Lucy Hogg; poet/poète; sujet libre; critic/critique; view of France/vue de la France; view of Canada/vue du Canada.

Each artist improvises on these themes and, because neither the artist nor the place is identified, the spectator is drawn into the role of decoder, deciding on the basis of spatial, temporal, and cultural signs whether the image was taken in Canada or France, Paris or Toronto. Fragments of text, found either in the book or the electronic files, heighten the ambiguity. 

Here is how the game begins (and ends):

4. cemetery/cimetière

De nombreux grands artistes, écrivains et descendants de grands noms de la culture des XIXe et XXe siècles sont enterrés au Père-Lachaise. Dans ce cimetière, les statues sont cependant les plus mielleuses et larmoyantes que la tradition des Beaux-Arts ait pu produire. Beaucoup d’artistes contemporains photographient cette sculpture mortuaire pour l’utiliser dans leurs oeuvres et finissent ainsi par promouvoir cette sentimentalité banale.

We were far from home, way up in the northern and eastern reaches of the city. Some family obligation. I had never been that far out of the centre. It seemed impossible to drive for so long and not reach countryside. My mother was in a bad mood. We had been driving in silence, watching the burbs roll unendingly by like some anti-aesthetic road movie.
     “Where the hell are we?” she suddenly demanded. “I hope I never set foot in this godforsaken country ever again.”
     “Well actually, Mom,” said my brother Evan, who always assumes the role of navigator on family trips, “just over there is the cemetery where you will someday be buried.”
     This lightened the mood, though we continued in silence.

Armstrong and Collins cast Jim → in the friendliest terms. The pretext is simple; the framework is clear. The deictic duo points at signs chosen to reflect their social and affective lives. These signs are doubly mirrored in the pool of generally accepted ideas about Canadian and French culture. Listing these idées reçues, I find myself drifting between three realms of consciousness, Roland Barthes’s “three imaginations of the sign”: vertiginous depths of symbolic associations, the bound imagining of comparable forms, and the functional imagination that “foresees [the sign] in its extension.” Therein lie the risks and pleasure of this unfinished cadavre exquis – unfinished, that is, until the spectator enters the spaces between the pictures.


1                  The bookwork is John Armstrong and Paul Collins, Jim (Toronto and Sudbury: Coach House Books and Art Gallery of Sudbury, 2002). The exhibition includes prints and an optional PowerPaint presentation that gives the viewer access to all the texts.

2                  John Armstrong, correspondence with the author, March 8, 2005, curatorial files, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2005.

3                  Roland Barthes, “The Imagination of the Sign,” (1962) in A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 211−17

Excerpt from Martha Langford, Image & Imagination: Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2005, (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).

John Armstrong
Paul Collins