Born on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean, artist Gilles Barbier is most well-known for his series of aging super heroes. In “L’Hospice,” a grey-haired Wonder Woman with sagging breasts and square hips cares for Captain America, who attached to an IV, lies bloated and incapacitated on a gurney. In another corner, a wrinkled Cat Woman sleeps in front of the TV, while next to her, a deflated and anemic hulk sits comfortably in a wheelchair. Like all of Barbier’s works, most of which feature his own self-portrait, “L’Hospice” uses the absurd to reflect on the darker and more difficult themes of aging and the collapse of dreams and ideals.
Barbier’s artistic and personal interests lie most deeply in ideas extending from copies, clones, and replicas. By creating realistic self-portraits, Barbier corrects or offers alternatives to his lived reality, something which is constantly copied and altered in mind and memory.
A 25-year retrospective of Barbier’s work is now on display at La Friche la Belle de Mai in the artist’s current home of Marseille, France. Titled “Écho Système,” the exhibition includes drawings and installations in addition to his figures, which together demonstrate that the complex nature of any system means the whole story ‒ the truth that lies in the cracks between reality and fantasy ‒ may never be known. Seeing Barbier in the guise of a king, a ghoul, and a drunken businessman, one begins to wonder just who Barbier is. Can a person occupy each of these identities? Though Barbier questions the authenticity of copies, Barbier’s replicas feel utterly honest. Walking through the galleries, one can witness Barbier’s facial features change over a 25-year period. This unique view of a person’s adult lifespan causes one to reflect upon his own change of identity as he’s aged.