PRINT March 1996


Pascaline Cuvelier

LET’S TALK MONEY—that’s always the stickiest subject. In France, after 15 years of smooth sailing, the art world greeted the new year with a distinct sense of foreboding. The problem isn’t the artists, but the State, which has recently emerged as “an enemy of contemporary culture.” By now everyone knows that the much-touted one percent of the national budget allocated each year to “the arts” has been withdrawn. Only theater, which is perhaps better at defending itself because, by nature, it doesn’t operate on the “every-man-for-himself” principle typical of players in the visual arts, will suffer fewer cuts. This situation is very threatening: a number of art centers will no doubt have to close their doors—not only the least viable, but also those that have successfully presented challenging or difficult work. To meet a budget cut by some $2.5 million, the state plans to decrease or even cancel the commissioning of artworks by provincial art centers. At the same time, museum acquisition budgets will also be eliminated—a loss for the nation as well as the arts. Xavier Duroux, the shrewd director of the Consortium in Dijon, calls this budgetary regulation nothing short of “highway robbery.” That the present is a rough time for art is confirmed in every press release that makes its way to your mailbox; the word “crisis” is on everyone’s lips. One of these recent missives even bore an adage from Seneca: “It is not because things are difficult that we dare not, but because we dare not that things are difficult.”

While no one following the Parisian art world since the summer would say that museums and galleries bowled anyone over with their adventurousness, we can at least note the small things that did whet our appetite, such as the resurfacing, here and there, of performance art. It is as if, as soon as you talk about “a crisis of confidence” or an “economic slump,” artists turn to the ephemeral—the gratuitous gesture or intervention becomes the only way to demonstrate their playfulness and generosity. This was the case with an event entitled “Dites 33” (Say 33)—the phrase doctors ask patients to repeat when they check their lungs—held one evening at the Galerie Anne de Villepoix. It marked the 33rd issue of an odd but rather sweet publication called Sommaire (Summary),which is distributed by mail and consists of a single sheet of paper on which a different contributor presents a project each month. During the course of the evening, several artists and performers sang, told stories, or showed parts of films or videos, including a rather wonderful videotape of Roman Signer inflating oil drums. The most powerful event that night, in a gallery filled with a warm, receptive crowd—something rarely experienced these days—was Annette Messager’s performance. In the darkened gallery, illuminated only by a nearby streetlight, a man helped the artist put a hooded coat on backwards so that it covered her face and blinded her. He then led her through the by that time silent crowd as she bound people together with lengths of yarn as if to link them in her memory. Throughout the performance, Sylvia Bossu’s burned and torn film was projected against a wall of the gallery. Self-destructing as it passed through the projector, this piece served as an homage to Bossu, who died recently in a car crash.

That same night, we were treated to an especially diverting piece at the École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs that enabled us to look on art schools and pedagogy itself with a friendly eye. Watching Renée Kool’s astonishing black and white film—shot during a workshop by the Dutch artist at the École des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg—one quickly understood that Kool had asked her students to “teach her something.” From this role-reversal emerged a funny little masterpiece that depended in equal measure on mischief and genuine human interaction, on skill as much as awkwardness. This little cinematic tour-de-force stands up against the best film-based performance work being done today.

Speaking of little things that make you think, we should mention the Christmas show at the Galerie du Jour, which is owned by designer Agnès B. In the main room of this former meat shop, Roberto Martinez wedged an immense pine tree between the ceiling and the floor (which colonized the space like some vegetal monster) and invited children to display their toys in an adjoining space. He covered this whole area with numbers like those the police used to mark the sites of the bomb attacks in Paris last fall. In another room, on a large platform across from the kind of map used in geography class, Claude Lévêque spread out small toys and holiday decorations, among which one could make out round antipersonnel mines (the kind that often disfigure children in war zones) the size of toys.

Let’s skip over the media’s pronouncements on the Cézanne exhibition at the Grand Palais, which all seemed to be founded on the same premise, i.e., that Cézanne was an unknown painter urgently in need of discovery. High comedy was achieved with nothing more than the usual spiel about appetizing apples and delightful bathers. (To be fair, what else is there to say at this point about the precursor of Cubism?) Poor Cézanne, we love you anyway. To prove it (or perhaps out of guilt for having said terrible things on the radio with my fellow art critics), I ended up buying one of the many marketing tie-ins—a twisted and clumsy dish (in which I promise never to put any apples, pears, or lemons)—without ever discovering from which painting it fell.

Discouraged by all these blockbusters, which parade the number of works in the exhibition as if quantity guarantees quality, I went to the movies. Egyptian films were showing at the Institute of the Arab World. We navigated through the tranquil semidarkness of the historical flicks, were transported by a few clips that were as mesmerizing as incunabula, then parked in a space decorated in a kitschy, pseudo-Arabic style, free to browse through films that could be viewed on video monitors and to delight in all kinds of musicals, both saccharine and moving. Another room, with a desert decor, showed cavalcades from action films, and the last one featured clips from more contemporary dramas. At the end of the show, we found ourselves in a souk, where we ate pastry in the café. We left relaxed and happy, as if we had been in the steam bath of a hammam, sorry that exhibitions as soothing or entertaining as this one are so few and far between.

Continuing down the filmic road, we carefully avoided Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic, which was described to us as a cybernetic toy that drills into your eyes and ears. We were drawn to Kids by Larry Clark’s cinematography, but the effectiveness of the rapid cutting couldn’t make us forget that these teens seemed to be remote-controlled, too good-looking to be true. We left before the movie ended without ever experiencing the life force that animates Clark’s photographic work, but still hopeful that real kids will get the message and wear condoms. To continue on the topic of moving pictures, the talented Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman ascended to the much-coveted status of artist—a miracle that took place at the Jeu de Paume. In the first room we watched her film D’Est (From east). There is not much to say about her random if insightful walks through the streets of Eastern Europe. But in order to look like an “artist,” since that’s what the museum asked of her, Akerman presented her film cut up into little pieces on three rows of monitors, 24 in all, in the adjoining room. The result? Nothing but a second-rate Nam June Paik.

As far as sex goes, there was Man Ray’s violent little film, quite daring for the time, that shows two women making love, and Andy Warhol’s endless kiss, both in Féminin-Masculin, the huge show at the Centre Pompidou, which comprised hundreds of pieces that talked sex in art, and set tongues wagging the most this season. A sojourn in the treasure-house of sex? Not exactly. You emerged exhausted by all the acrobatics, wondering if simply giving your lover a kiss (whether chaste or lewd) was still possible—Whatever happened to that accursed pair, love and eroticism? There were, of course, some beautiful museum pieces, but given the overcrowded installation it was all rather academic and suffocating; everything (unfortunately) seemed familiar. The reclining penis, held and stroked by our beloved French granny Louise Bourgeois was no more surprising than the fascinating L’Origine du Monde (Origin of the world, 1866), by grandpa Courbet. Thankfully, on the ground floor, where the crowds pouring into the Pompidou first enter, younger talent was given carte blanche. There Fabrice Hybert set up his own salon with hairdresser Denys Masson (an angel of patience and sweetness) who for his usual fee gave haircuts to museum visitors. For the artist, it was a question of bringing something “living” into the museum. And, I must confess I sacrificed my long hair to this art epiphenomenon, thereby experiencing the passage from viewer to viewed.

There’s not much room left to tell you how much we liked the disturbing complexities of the exhibition Les Cinqs Continents (The five continents) at the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. Artists from each continent were invited to select an object from the museum’s collection that they found representative of their ethnic group and to juxtapose it with one of their own works. The Chinese (Huang Yong Ping), with his ferocious, lively, combative animals, and the European (Bertrand Lavier) with his indigenous everyday objects, won the prize. We remained somewhat undecided about the tentacular Passions Privées (Private passions) at the Musée d’Art Moderne, which showed collectors’ collections. A good idea in principle, but a little vague and scattered in reality. (Only the small photos documenting collectors’ apartments were truly exquisite.) It’s always a pleasure to enter Nan Goldin’s personal hell (at Galerie Yvon Lambert) but we wish her images would shift into another gear. As for La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the beast), the show of young Americans at the Musée d’Art Moderne—too pro, too pretty, too proper, and too derivative. In Jeff Wall (at the Jeu de Paume) we discovered an atrociously intellectual, neoclassicist painter. We were entranced by Ilya Kabakov’s chaotic Soviet-style nightmare (at the Pompidou). We very much liked Gloria Friedmann’s animal décors and troublesome tableaux vivants at the Pompidou’s Children’s Studio. We were touched by the visual dialogue between the Ivoirian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and the Italian Alighiero e Boetti (at the American Center), surprised by the constructive but delirious madness of Bodys Izek Kingelez and his utopian cities (at the Cartier Foundation), and knocked out by the audacity of Claude Cahun’s transformations (at the Musée d’Art Moderne). We also made way for new blood: Jean-Michel Othoniel’s perverse and dreamily subtle sculptures (at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot) make his a name worth remembering. Finally, we were saddened by the death of Gilles Deleuze, that radiant philosopher of “becoming.”

Pascaline Cuvelier writes on art and style for the Paris-based daily Libération.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.