PRINT September 1996


Civic Art

JAN DIBBETS’ HOMMAGE À ARAGO (Homage to Arago, 1994) provides a striking corrective to the prevailing if outmoded assumption that public art is synonymous with statues, frescoes, fountains, and bad taste. One hundred thirty-five bronze medallions—identically stamped with the name Arago and the directional markers North and South—are embedded along the axis of Paris’ ten-kilometer meridian. Besides honoring the 19th-century French scientist and political reformer François Arago, the “longest sculpture in Paris,” as Dibbets calls it, offers those armed with the list of medallion locations a magnificent pretext for walking through six of the city’s arrondissements and centuries of its history.

Hommage à Arago is just one of over seventy works featured in two exhibitions on French public art recently held in Paris under the joint title of “Monument et modernité” (Monument and modernity): “État des lieux: commandes publiques en France, 1990–1996” (Inventory: public commissions in France, 1990–1996) at the Musée du Luxembourg, and “à Paris: art, espace public et enjeux de mémoire, 1891–1996” (In Paris: art, public space and matters of memory, 1891–1996) at the Espace Electra. Despite the paradox of evoking site-specific works inside a museum, these shows amply demonstrated the exceptional nature of government-sponsored public art programs in France, which provide both a structure and a space for innovative encounters between artists and the public. In 1983, the new Socialist government began to implement a historic policy of shifting decision-making power and funding away from the central government, creating Regional Departments of Cultural Affairs to act as intermediaries between local officials and the Ministry of Culture in Paris. The impetus behind this restructuring was, in a sense, to make all art more “public” (through regional art centers, art collections, theaters, and dance companies), but the particular wisdom of those involved with the public art program lay in recognizing what the contemporary avant-garde, inspired by Conceptual art, Land art, or arte povera, had to contribute to their effort. It is no small irony that in the ’80s and ’90s public commissions financed the work of the most anti-Establishment artists of the ’60s and ’70s. From Daniel Buren’s Les Deux-Plateaux (Two plateaus, 1986) at the Palais-Royal in Paris to Dan Graham’s Nouveau labyrinthe pour Nantes (New labyrinth for Nantes, 1994), to Mario Merz’s Fibonacci numbers embedded in light-boxes between the tracks of the Strasbourg tramway, projects with roots in an oppositional culture were brought into the mainstream—not of the art world, but of everyday life. In all, some seven hundred works have been funded by the “new” public commissions that are found in cities, towns, and villages throughout France. They range from urban redevelopment projects such as the 1994 Strasbourg tramway (which also includes interventions by Barbara Kruger, Jonathan Borofsky, and French artist Gérard Collin-Thiébaut) to the renovation of historical monuments such as the Romanesque pilgrimage church of Sainte Foi in Conques, where painter Pierre Soulages spent eight years creating an extraordinary set of stained-glass windows. In the town of Châtellerault near Poitiers, Jean-Luc Vilmouth transformed the smokestacks of the former government weapons factory into lookout towers (Comme deux tours [Like two towers, 1994]), while in nearby Chauvigny, designer Sylvain Dubuisson created a state-of-the-art elevator for a medieval donjon that was converted into an ecomuseum inaugurated in 1994. Each commission has its own, rich history of exchange and collaboration, not only between the artists and the State but also between artists, local officials, grassroots organizations, and the public at large.

If, like any “sponsor,” the French government has sought to enhance its image with this ambitious arts program, the wealth of media, movements, generations, and even nationalities—43 at last count—represented in nearly 15 years of public commissions belies an official style. The most interesting works are compelling precisely because they are not art objects, much less monuments, but, rather, subtle alterations of public space. Aside from this impressive balance sheet, and a somewhat misleading flurry of works inaugurated over the past few years but begun much earlier, the future of the public commission in France is more than uncertain. For one thing, the economic crisis has taken its toll on the Ministry of Culture’s budget as a whole, and as one administrator points out, “It’s much harder to eliminate a post in an institution; public commissions involve artists, and they’re not an organized body.” In fact, funding has been declining since the peak levels of 1989–90, the period of the French Bicentennial celebrations, when the annual budget for public commissions climbed to 33 and 33.5 million francs respectively. After a “disastrous” cutback to 6.3 million francs last year (15 million less than the sum initially allocated), 21.8 million francs have been allocated for 1996, but program officials fear additional cost-cutting measures may be imposed before year’s end. The other source of concern stems from the politics of art, or more accurately, the art of politics, insofar as the Right is back in power, and after one year in office, the Minister of Culture, Philippe Douste-Blazy, has attracted more attention for his showmanship than for his cultural acumen. A yearlong billboard project inaugurated by the Minister in January serves as an uncannily appropriate metaphor for current arts policy. The initial idea—which predates Douste-Blazy’s appointment just after Jacques Chirac took office—was to commission 12 young artists to design pairs of billboard posters that would rotate like ads on the façade of the Ministry of Culture’s future headquarters, which are currently undergoing massive renovation. Suffice it to say that the results, as of this writing at least, suggest an almost total indifference to the basics of graphic design, never mind the demands of the public space. Two of the originally commissioned posters were scrapped—if not censored. Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn committed the indiscretion of juxtaposing the logos of multinational corporations such as American Express, Maggi, and l’Oréal, with photographs of refugee camps in ex-Yugoslavia. Citing the danger of lawsuits from the corporations in question, the review committee declined Hirschhorn’s proposals. The other ill-fated posters were by Franck Scurti. The young French artist assembled different ad motifs in the shape of a giant mushroom, an image which, by the time the review committee met in the summer of 1995, had become something of a sore point given France’s highly contested decision to resume nuclear testing. Hopefully, Eric Poitevin’s cow billboard, duly accepted last sum- mer and scheduled alto be displayed in October will not come to be seen as a threat to Franco-British relations because of its unwitting allusion to Mad Cow disease. But so far, the only real message that has emerged is the Ministry of Culture’s advertisement for itself.

Miriam Rosen contributes regularly to Artforum.