PRINT November 1997


the swing left

IT WAS ALMOST LIKE a fairy tale, it happened so quickly. One day France was on the right, and the president of the republic was feeling peevish. The prime minister was getting on his nerves. How could he get rid of him? Hold early elections. Next morning, to everyone’s surprise, France was on the left, as was the new prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Although the French are notoriously fickle when it comes to choosing their leaders, in reality it was neither fairy tale nor whimsy that prompted the swing left but the cumulative effects of a series of workers’ protests, the government’s continued nuclear testing, the rise of the extreme right, and an economic recession.

A socialist government is, in principle, favorably disposed to culture, and Jospin had the good sense to make European deputy and mayor of Strasbourg Catherine Trautmann the new minister of culture and communications. (See “No Pen Pal”) She has promised (so far with little success) to bolster the budget for culture and to institute, among other things, a museum for the “Arts Premiers” (or primitive arts). This is far different from previous years when the right, looking to suppress whatever failed to reflect its agenda, sought to reduce and even eliminate spending on some of the more important contemporary-art institutions (the FRAC and the DRAG, the Consortium of Dijon, the Magasin of Grenoble, and the ARC in Paris) as well as funding for entire regions (especially the Loire, Champagne-Ardenne, Limousin, and Languedoc-Roussillon).

One institution that has little problem with funding is the Centre Georges Pompidou, which partially closed in October for renovations. The smart and rigorously detailed exhibition this summer, “The Art of the Engineer: Builder, Contractor, Inventor,” presented a dazzling historical fresco exploring a number of works from the heyday of structural engineering, including London’s Crystal Palace, the Moscow Radio Tower, Eugène Freyssinet’s dirigible hangar at Orly, and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s clear from the exhibition that, though computer manipulation has facilitated what the hand and mind formerly found difficult to design or calculate, structural innovations since the ’50s—the onset of the computer age—have not been as impressive. Much of the inventive genius that once characterized the field of engineering has migrated elsewhere, especially into information sciences.

One of the country’s richest state institutions, with both public and private funding, the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations is probably also the most important for younger artists as it regularly buys and exhibits contemporary work. Through this fall the Caisse, headed by general director Francis Lacloche and director of the art program Hervé Mikaeloff, sponsored a pair of exhibits. The first, “Produce, Create, Collect,” cosponsored by the Délégation aux Arts Plastiques, was held at the Musée du Luxembourg. One of the most notable pieces was Xavier Veilhan’s La Garde Républicaine, 1995, a resin cast sculpture of four larger-than-life guards and horses. The second exhibit, “Transit: 60 Artists Born After 1960,” at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, showcased an international cast of young artists, from Philippe Parreno and Serge Comte to Mariko Mori and Henrik Plenge Jacobsen. The Caisse also collects videos and photographs and holds performances. One of the more interesting recent examples is Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s Imitsu, in which the artist, seated on an extralong tatami, invites the audience to gaze into her womb, that is, a hole cut into her long elastic gown, through which can be glimpsed her video of sumo wrestlers in training. (Guilleminot, one of the rising stars of the French scene, also had a piece in the “Here and Now” show in the Parc de la Villette, where she set up a bouquiniste stall—one of those ubiquitous green used-book kiosks dotting the banks of the Seine—and called it “The Box.”)

Artists complain that museums should be more intimate, less fustian, and closer to the street. With the appointment of Marie-Claude Beaud as general curator of the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, some artists may find those wishes fulfilled. Beaud, founder/director of the Fondation Cartier, past director of the American Center, and former curator of museums in Grenoble and Toulon, wants to complicate the distinctions between artists and artisans, between the fine arts and the fields of photography, fashion, and industrial and graphic design. This November she is preparing an exhibition in conjunction with the Villa Medicis in Rome, “Retours d’Italie,” that will include glasswork by Jean-Michel Othoniel and Erik Dietman and ceramics by Johan Creten.

To the extent that there is now a French art “scene” of international scope, one could trace its beginnings, strangely enough, to the polemic launched last year by a number of intellectuals and public figures against the alleged vacuity of contemporary French art. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard threw the first punch in the pages of the daily Libération by railing against the “worthlessness” of contemporary artists. Then Jean Clair, who heads the Musée Picasso and was the director of the 1995 Venice Biennale, joined the fray with the publication of his “Modernity Against Avant-Garde” in the right-wing magazine Krisis. While not a partisan of the extreme right, Clair disgraced himself by the company he kept, rehashing attacks on contemporary art in a publication in which Leon Krier suggested that Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was a genius on par with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Later, in an interview with Marc Fumaroli in Le Figaro, Clair—the once committed avant-gardist who founded the now-defunct journal L’Art vivant in the ’60s—was categorical in his denunciation: “The insularity, self-sufficiency, and self-satisfaction of contemporary art is an intellectual catastrophe.” Then came comments in the weekly L’Evénernent du Jeudi: “Contemporary French art no longer has any meaning or presence. . . . The State’s zealous and costly therapeutic efforts to prolong the agony are pointless: contemporary French art, unlike Italian, English or German art, no longer exists.” The controversy engaged cultural commentators on radio and TV, and the magazine Art Press devoted much of its April issue to the subject, exposing the National Socialist iconographic sources of France’s new right. As the toxic political discourse of the right drove France to the left, this particular episode afforded French artists, curators, and gallerists an occasion to make a common front.

The thirteenth arrondissement is where much of the new scene is centered. When one of Paris’ developmental agencies offered advantageous terms for a number of unoccupied spaces earlier this year, a group of six galleries uprooted themselves, mostly from the fashionable Marais, and moved to a part of the thirteenth that is quite literally uncharted territory (despite the proximity of the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the area doesn’t even appear on some maps of the city). But the hope is that others will follow suit, since the Ministry of Culture plans to open a new center for contemporary art only a few blocks away in ’98. And the thirteenth is already the site for “Austerlitz@utrement,” an annual art fair since 1987, which earlier this fall showed work from a number of upstart French and foreign galleries.

The six galleries at the core of what has come to be known as Scène Est—Jennifer Flay, Air de Paris, Emmanuel Perrotin, Almine Rech, Praz-Delavallade and Art: Concept—decided to minimize costs by promoting various endeavors jointly. They publish information as a group and hold collective openings (the latest, in September, was organized around shows featuring the work of Marylène Negro, Bruno Serralongue, Eric Duyckaerts, Willie Cole, Alain Balzac, and Stéphane Magnin). These joint openings-cum-parties are held under the archways of the semidetached galleries and at l’Audiernes, the café that has become something of the Scène Est dining room.

Jennifer Flay is perhaps the most energetic and international of this group. Since 1991, she’s shown Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as well as Melanie Counsell, Xavier Veilhan, and some of Claude Closky’s editions. Air de Paris’ Florence Bonnefous and Edouard Merino have presented Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (who has shown with Flay as well). Emmanuel Perrotin, a dynamic gallerist since the age of seventeen who several years ago was the first to show Damien Hirst’s work in France, has held exhibitions by Maurizio Cattelan, Mariko Mori, and Eric Duyckaerts. Another more recent French debut was Rebecca Bournigault’s show at Almine Rech. Through video and digital photography, Bournigault impressively uses deteriorated images to explore doubt and intimacy.

“There is a real cohesion” in the Scène Est approach, says Flay. “The competition that drove galleries and artists in the ’80s is no longer tenable. Artists in general, up until June anyway, have been on the run, so it doesn’t make sense to hope that other artists fail. Our six galleries create a pole of attraction that reflects a shared unity of artistic and cultural purpose.”

Intellectual mobility, improvisation, hybridization: these are some of the organizing principles found in contemporary French art. Some of the work is ostensibly social, as with the “Bar Mobile,” quite literally a bar on wheels that becomes, wherever it stops, a magnet for leftists, intellectuals, and artists. Drinks are served, and DJs are invited to mix music for the ad-hoc audiences that gather. Then there is a nomadic gallery, Laurence Hazout’s Mobile’2000, which makes use of various available spaces to show art. Hazout borrowed an art collector’s storage space for a show by Matthieu Laurette (featuring rebate coupons affixed to supermarket products) and young Korean artist Koo Jeong-a. The latter lived for some time in the space, and the detritus of her daily life and archaeological excavations of the site became the show. For the FIAC art fair, Hazout showed the work of several artists out of her car. Other invigorating approaches are being set in motion. The BDV (Bureau des Vidéos), run by Stéphanie Moisdon and Nicolas Trembley, has produced videos by Guilleminot, Thomas Hirschhorn, John Baldessari, and Pipilotti Rist, among others in unlimited editions.

The success of such small-scale initiatives and of artists who only recently were still considered marginal is remarkable. At the Venice Biennale, Fabrice Hybert took the prize for best pavilion for his television studio that investigated difference and community. Guilleminot, who, like Hybert, was included in the Münster Sculpture Project, has forged ahead with her fascinating inquiry into the body and the emotions linked to intimacy. Also of note was the decisive exhibition by Thomas Hirschhorn (another star of the Münster show) at Chantal Crousel, in which aluminum foil, plastic wrap, pieces of wood, and images clipped from magazines were used to create an amazing space in which each object is linked to another like a snake devouring itself. There is also Othoniel, whose meticulous and subtle treatment of sexual fantasy does not exclude irony. The work of these four, among others, belies Jean Clair’s vitriol. At least here and abroad, French art seems to be doing just fine.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.