Here, There, Everywhere

Lillian Davies on Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Jeu de Paume


Left: Marian Goodman and Jeu de Paume director Marta Gili. Right: Eija-Liisa Ahtila and art historian Régis Durand. (All photos: Lillian Davies)

Arriving at Jeu de Paume just after 11 AM on Monday for the opening of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s first retrospective in France, I immediately found the artist, dressed in slim, dark jeans and a pin-striped blazer, holding court in the luminous triple-height entryway. Ahtila gave me a polite hello but quickly urged me down the gray stone ramp toward her newest work, Where Is Where, allegedly finished just two days before. “It takes fifty-two minutes, so go on.” An attentive crowd was gathered inside the six-screen installation, absorbing the poetic drama of mortality and colonial politics. The starting point of the film is a case study presented in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth of two Algerian boys who killed their European schoolmate acting, some claimed, from internalized anguish caused by the Algerian War. However, Ahtila was quick to point out that she wants this reference to be considered a metaphor rather than a provocation. “Provocation is like throwing a stone,” she explained. “I don’t want to point my finger at anyone. You could put whatever in the place of the Algerian boys: Iraq, Afghanistan . . . I’m not blaming the French, I’m implying everyone.” Where Is Where is also replete with standards of the Christian lexicon—the Lord’s Prayer, a Finnish hymn, and allusions to the afterlife—about which the artist clarified: “I am not a churchgoer, but religion is a central part of world politics. You can’t ignore it.”

A small cocktail lunch followed the morning view. I caught curator Suzanne Pagé sneaking out the door, back to her new offices at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, where she has recently taken up the post of artistic director of the LVMH Foundation (heading up the megabrand’s alarming Gehry museum project) after having been the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for nearly twenty years. Marian Goodman, who flew in that morning from New York, arrived just in time for the 2 PM screening. Pausing for a moment to greet Jeu de Paume director Marta Gili, Goodman seemed anxious to see the final version of Ahtila’s new installation.

Left: Ellipse Foundation curator Alexandre Melo and Marian Goodman senior director Agnès Fierobe. Right: LVMH Foundation artistic director Suzanne Pagé.

At 6 PM, a much bigger crowd gathered for the invite-only evening reception. Quite a few of the foppish characters in the throng were collectors, working in finance, fashion, and the always-nebulous “consulting” business. Thankfully, in the melee, I managed to find Régis Durand, author of one of the catalogue texts and an initiator of the exhibition. He explained that the starting point for Where Is Where has a personal resonance for him—he remembers friends going off to fight in the Algerian War in the late 1950s and early ’60s (at the time, the French government was calling the situation a “police action”). Durand found the work’s “anchorage in a particular situation” its most compelling aspect.

Throughout the day, I had heard conflicting explanations about who was responsible for programming Ahtila’s exhibition at Jeu de Paume—Durand while he was still director or Marta Gili after she took over. Gili, working the crowd in a bright red jacket, clarified: “When I arrived in 2006, the exhibition program of 2007 was already planned and discussions had already started with Ahtila.” Gili had included Ahtila, as well as Richard Avedon, in her proposed program and was surprised to find exhibitions with both artists already in the works when she arrived. In fact, Gili showed Ahtila’s Consolation Service at Sala Montcada in Barcelona in 2001. About the newest work, Gili exclaimed, “It’s the strongest piece she’s ever done!” Rushing toward Gili as we talked, Guillaume Piens and Valérie Fougeirol, coordinators of Paris Photo, sang her praises: “She’s a breath of fresh air for Paris! Marta, bravo!”

At about 8 PM, the senior director of Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, Agnès Fierobe, slipped me a tiny piece of paper with the address of a local restaurant, Pinxo, for a dinner following. About an hour later, at a cozy table, Alexandre Melo and Pedro Lapa, curators at the Ellipse Foundation in Portugal (host, in March, of the next presentation of Where Is Where), and John Zepetelli, curator at DHC Art in Montreal—hoping to snag the North American debut of the work—cozied up to Goodman, Fierobe, and a director of the gallery’s New York outpost, Rose Lord. As we enjoyed an eclectic (and aesthetically challenging) series of bite-size dishes (poached eggs in tomato jelly?), champagne, and red wine, conversation returned to the new element in Ahtila’s work: politics. But we were no longer speaking in metaphors. Goodman declared Mitt Romney “crap, no really, crap” and Giuliani “crazy.” And of course she loved Gloria Steinem’s recent editorial in the New York Times. So as we feted Ahtila’s new work (not to mention Gili’s efforts at Jeu de Paume), Steinem’s words remained relevant: We’re supporting her because she’s a great artist “and because she’s a woman.” It’s about time politics made its way back into art.

Left: DHC Art curator John Zepetelli and Marian Goodman director Rose Lord. Right: Paris Photo fair manager Valérie Fougeirol, Marta Gili, and Paris Photo media coordinator Guillaume Piens.