Thomas Mailaender Retrospective at Maison Européenne de la Photographie by Tristan Hickey

Contemporary French artist Thomas Mailaender is renowned for his experimental works, which often employ satire to question societal norms and the absurdities of modernity. His work is various in form, including photography, sculpture, and installation, oftening making use of everyday materials and found images. Characteristically, he repurposes mundane objects and banal imagery which juxtapose their ultimate visually striking, conceptually rich assemblage.

Mailaender’s exhibitions frequently blur the lines between high art and popular culture, encouraging viewers to reconsider the boundaries and definitions of art. His blend of archival material, internet-sourced imagery, and innovative presentation techniques challenges the conventional boundaries of photography. Through his innovative use of materials and his distinctive use of satire, Mailaender has cemented his role in the contemporary art world as one of its most significant players.

Mailaender’s current exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, entitled “Les Belles Images,” runs through September 29, 2024, marking his first major retrospective in Paris

The exhibition occupies both floors of the MEP, featuring a wide array of works that highlight his unique use of photographic materials and techniques. Central to the exhibition is the “Fun Archaeology” collection, comprising over 11,000 documents and images gathered from various sources, predominately the internet and flea markets, which highlight the impact of digital image sharing.

Several other series are featured in the exhibition including “Fail Anthology,” “Extreme Retouch,” and “Chemical Room,” where photographs are directly exposed onto the museum walls. Other highlights include “Les Belles Images,” a series of press agency photographs framed in ceramic, “Extreme Tourism,” “Gone Fishing,” and “Illustrated People.” The exhibition also presents “The Life and Adventures of a Silver Woman on Planet Earth,” a documentary film on the life of Rosemary Jacobs, an activist impacted by silver nitrate.

Mailaender’s work is significantly influenced by Americana and American internet culture. His engagement with these themes is especially noticeable in this retrospective. The various series of his exhibition showcase a collection of repurposed and found photographs and objects that embody a distinctly American aesthetic, often highlighting the quirks and idiosyncrasies of everyday life in the United States. This is especially apparent in his series “Extreme Tourism,” in which he documents odd and humorous fictionalised travel experiences reflecting American leisure culture and its eccentricities.

Mailaender’s work also reflects a broader critique of American consumerism and media saturation. By recontextualizing mass-produced and widely circulated images, he exposes the absurdity and superficiality often inherent in American media. His series “Illustrated People,” for instance, uses UV light to imprint internet-sourced images onto the skin of his subjects, creating a temporary tattoo effect that plays with notions of permanence and the fleeting nature of internet fame. He humorously terms this technique “Sunburn Art.”

Mailaender has been featured in numerous prestigious institutions worldwide, and his retrospective at the MEP is a significant event in the Parisian art scene. His astute mélange of humor, originality, and critical perspective makes this exhibition a standout.

Tristan Hickey

Before arriving in Paris, where he is now based, the German-American New York City native studied Literature and Philosophy in Montréal, after which he moved to Berlin to begin working in the arts as a curator, producer, and writer.