Trash and Vaudeville

Nicolas Trembley at the opening of “Dionysiac” in Paris


Left: Performers with Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy's “shit plugs.” Right: Street artist Bernie as “Punki.”

As people queued up for the opening of “Dionysiac” at the Pompidou Center last Tuesday night, a group of women calling themselves Les Artpies (a pun on “harpies”—it sounds better in French)—distributed flyers that stated, “Glory to virile art! Finally, the Pompidou Center has opened up to masculine art!!!” Clearly inspired by the Guerrilla Girls (though not wearing masks—I recognized a few of the artists and journalists amongst them), the Artpies were expressing the view that the Pompidou has hit a new high with “Dionysiac.” While 93% of the works in the collection are by male artists, the flyer pointed out, this show is 100% pure male. The protesters labeled curator Christine Macel and the artists “Snow White and her fourteen macho men.” The artists seemed OK with that.

Anyway, such an imbalance is perhaps not surprising in a show that owes its theme and title to Nietzsche—specifically, to his book The Birth of Tragedy, which dwells at length on Dionysus, god of ecstasy, madness and general chaos. The galleries smelled like shit, literally, and yak butter, thanks to Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy. The pair contributed several “shit plugs,” made from the waste left behind by Documenta XI viewers, preserved in blue cans with phallic lids. At six o’clock sharp, a crew of cranky-looking young people dressed up in white monkey suits entered and began dancing and squealing in a primal, determinedly Dionysian ritual that involved lighting candles stuck in the tops of the plugs. The show was officially open!

Previous Beaubourg exhibitions that, like this one, aimed to blur notions of art, life, entertainment, and performance—“Hors limite,” “Au-delà du spectacle”—were comfortably installed in the fifth floor galleries. As I navigated the crowd of visitors and dancing monkeys, I had to wonder why “Dionysiac” wasn’t given the same treatment; its voluminous pieces (most of which were commissioned for the show) seem cramped on the museum’s ground floor. With McCarthy and Rhoades, Maurizio Cattelan, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gelatin, and John Bock among the notable names on the roster, excessiveness and weirdness were to be expected, but, as usual, art-world pleasantries trumped subversion. It felt like just another opening, albeit one with costumes. Bernie, a street artist hired by Cattelan, gave a performance involving a scary-looking puppet that was a highlight of the evening—as long as you weren’t under age ten. Most of the few children in attendance took one look at Bernie and his puppet and ran, screaming and crying, in the opposite direction. Their parents must have missed the warning: “Some works may be inappropriate for sensitive audiences.”

Elsewhere, Hirschhorn—his every move now tracked by TV cameras thanks to his controversial show “Swiss Swiss Democracy” at the Centre Culturel Suisse—presented Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake, 2000, which is full of books that deal with utopia or the death of myths. “Yes, you’re walking on the artist’s piece,” was one familiar refrain. “Get off!” For his performance piece Cocktail, Kendell Geers offered free champagne to everyone, served in Baccarat crystal flutes cast in the shape of a penis (was it his?). The glasses were a hit, with art-worlders trying to tuck them discreetly into bags and pockets. “It looks like a urinary catheter!” “Yes, but it’s crystal!”

Not everyone was able to wait in the forty-five-minute line at the entrance of the shipping container that held Christoph Büchel’s fantastic Minus, an installation comprised of flash-frozen trash left over from a concert held on site the week before. It was already time to move on to Café Beaubourg for the usual round of drinking and smoking with Massimiliano Gioni, Emmanuel Perrotin, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Eric Troncy, Stéphanie Moisdon, Daniel Buchholz, Massimo di Carlo, Beatrix Ruf, and Migros Museum director Heike Munder. The whole Hauser & Wirth team, happy to represent fully one-third of the artists in the show, arrived before everyone left for Maxim’s, the unavoidable and tiresome post-opening spot. But the party wound up feeling more like one of the Palais de Tokyo’s over-the-top bashes than the usual ho-hum Beaubourg affair. With free drinks, penises everywhere, trendsetters and good music (one of Macel’s specialties), it was hard to find any reason to complain.

Left: John Bock. Middle: Thomas Hirschorn. Right: Christophe Brunnquell drinks from a glass designed by Kendell Geers.