Love in the Ice Age


Left: View of Christian Boltanski's installation for Monumenta. Right: Artists Annette Messager and Christian Boltanski. (Photos: Didier Plowy)

THE ANNUAL MONUMENTA EXHIBITION at Paris’s Grand Palais is the opportunity, on today’s international scene, for singular artistic exercises of unfettered, state-funded grandiosity within walls. Given the proportions of the venue (Cathedral of Industry, etc.), getting up to scale is the a priori challenge here. For Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra, the first two Monumentalists, this particular defi was catnip. Never mind that whole sections of French highway had to be closed off for the perilous transport of unprecedented lengths of uncut steel (Serra), or that Bill Katz, an architect-designer of near-mythic sensitivity to artists, was enlisted to build discrete buildings-within-the building in order to subdue the daunting space (Kiefer). At their openings, you could almost hear purring in the vaulted nave, and their dealer-sponsored opening parties—a full-tilt, celebrity-studded bacchanalia in a huge, ramshackle club under a bridge and along a quay of the Seine for Kiefer; a big corporate-style dinner at a dull and fancy restaurant for Serra—were victory, or takeover, celebrations.

Christian Boltanski, the current Monumentalist, is a different sort of cat. He is first of all un chat—indeed the next occupant, as was recently announced, of the French pavilion at the fifty-fourth Venice Biennale, in 2011—and the opening of his epic installation, “Personnes,” was therefore catnip for French bureau-cats and museum officials, who were out in force on a frigorifique January night, to be counted and, most adamantly, to eat—but more about food in a moment.

First, the weather: To complain about the current, frigid season in Paris would be not only bad form but redundant. It is always cold in the Grand Palais, which anyone who has attended FIAC (the annual art fair held there in October), or who has experienced the previous Monumenta exhibitions (both in spring), will confirm. That Boltanski, who surely knows this, insisted on deep winter for this show, tells you something right off the bat. His familiar gestaltkunstwerk—a Holocaust-evoking message of life, death, memory, dispossession, identity, and the subliminal whiff of humankind—reveals itself here as a series of big, steamy exhalations, in his potent and limited visual syntax of unidentified photo-portraits, uninhabited clothing, unlabeled rusting biscuit tins, and low-tech lights.

Left: Artist Giuseppe Penone, Marian Goodman Gallery's Agnès Fierobe, and collector Sylvie Winckler. Right: A view of the dinner for Christian Boltanski's opening for Monumenta. (Photos: Didier Plowy)

A wall of the biscuit tins, impeccably stacked, is the first installation element the visitor comes on when entering, and it functions as a curtain does within a proscenium. In the theater of personnes, which translates as both “persons” and “nobodies,” the clothing has the upper hand. The work comprises sixty-nine neatly rectangular “plots” of strewn garments, measuring three by five meters each and arrayed three-deep, framed by rigged lighting posts. The effect is eerily hydroponic, as if the clothes were meant to grow people. And perhaps to inspire hope for this unlikely outcome, there is the ubiquitous, reverberant thump-thump, thump-thump of sixty-nine individual recorded human heartbeats, part of the artist’s ongoing global project, Archives du Coeur, which as of July will have a home in Japan, on the interior-sea island of Teshima, in a development managed by the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. (You can visit a sound booth at the Grand Palais—also at MAC/VAL, the contemporary art museum in Vitry, just outside Paris, where “Après,” the Halloween-ish coda to “Personnes,” is on view through March 28—and add your own cardio thump to the archive; blank CDs may be purchased on-site for take-home copies.)

Beyond the “germinating” allotments, a big but not quite big enough pyramidal clothing heap looms within an apse, near some of the building’s spectacular structural flourishes, holding its overall shape despite the continuous munching and tossing motions of a towering, brontosaurus-like digger crane.

Mood-busting though it was, the crane proved a trustworthy harbinger of dinner, or more precisely the dinners of parallel worlds in the Palais de la Découverte, around the corner. The cocktail dinatoire honoring “Personnes,” in that building’s rotunda lobby, was the (alas) rather typical French more or less official affair: At once hectic and desultory; no toasts, no sense of occasion, no real conviviality; just pretty good food (risotto and ragout for the wintry night) and pretty good drink, along with the sight of the bureauchats elbowing heedlessly and hunkering down with their cronies and their plates. We chatted for a while with a fellow outsider, Anthony McCall, the New York–based British graphic designer and conceptual light artist, who was in town for a group show at the Martine Aboucaya gallery. He was headed for London and meetings about his project in Liverpool, scheduled for the 2012 Summer Olympics. McCall introduced us to Jean-Hubert Martin, the original as well as independent curator (1989’s “Magiciens de la terre” and last year’s “Une Image peut en cacher une autre” at the Grand Palais)—and French-pavilion commissioner for the next Venice Biennale.

Left: A dinosaur. (Photo: Lisa Liebmann) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and artist James Coleman. (Photo: Didier Plowy)

But mostly it was us and the dinosaurs—literally. The current attraction at the Palais de la Découverte, concerning the diets of some of the better-known dinos, and involving a goodly number of fetching automatons, as well as an international committee of paleontologists, had been kept open during the Boltanski event. One could even walk around these Cretaceous zones champagne glass in hand. The Bistrot de la Jurassique was the entertaining conceit of the display, and only somewhat figuratively speaking, we sat down at a red-checkered table for two, to relax for a moment and experience our own winter-weary thump-thump.