Critics’ Picks

View of “Michel Houellebecq,” 2016.

View of “Michel Houellebecq,” 2016.


Michel Houellebecq

Palais de Tokyo
13, Avenue du Président Wilson
June 23–September 11, 2016

French writer Michel Houellebecq is notorious for his novels of ideological sci-fi, set in the apocalyptic near present with faithless, feckless protagonists drawn from Europe’s self-consciously dying-white-male demographic. Given an exhibition here to curate as he pleases, the author has staged an elaborate nexus of chapter-like chambers, furnishing them with personal artifacts and artworks (by himself and others, such as Robert Combas and Renaud Marchand) that engage some of his favorite topics—sex, death, tourism, capitalism, and art. “Il est temps de faire vos jeux” (Time to place your bets), the show taunts at its entrance, before forking into two sequences of rooms that eventually reconnect. The resulting exhibition is part man cave, part mausoleum—a doomsday funhouse cozy with cryogenic warmth.

Vaguely oceanic sounds and slowly throbbing lighting carry us through some corridors where Houellebecq’s photographs of anonymous terrain glow and dim to the steady soporific rhythm of a fogged-out distress signal or a drowsy peepshow. An all-female island-themed soft-core short, La Rivière (The River), 2001, directed by the author, plays in a carpeted baisodrome suite. In the next room, eyes adjust to blindingly glossy souvenir placemats advertising scenic French regions, such as Guadeloupe and Bretagne, which tile the floor and rebrand the nation as one turquoise-skied terroir. Combas has contributed several glinting, convulsive paintings that look like religious icons becoming unhinged. All this nervous enjoyment, culminating in a functioning smoking room, seems convinced of an unusable past and a fait accompli.

Rester vivant” (Staying alive), the title of the exhibition, may for Houellebecq name an undertaking that is just barely bearable. Even the most sentimental chapter, devoted to his adorable pet Welsh corgi Clément, RIP, intimates the secret suspicion (or hope) that the trembling eyes of a loyal pet alone may save us from the abyss gazing back.