PRINT September 2006


Jean-Luc Godard at the Centre Pompidou

Last spring, after months of controversy, Paris witnessed the opening of a complete retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, accompanied by the filmmaker’s first foray into multimedia installation. Artforum dispatched film scholar James Quandt and artist-critic John Kelsey to the Centre Pompidou to assess Godard’s much-anticipated exhibition.


Everything in life is like that—unfinished.
—Viveca Lindfors in Joseph Losey’s The Damned

THE JEAN-LUC GODARD EXHIBITION in Paris is a shambles, a ruin. A seemingly haphazard assemblage of hastily gathered and cursorily installed “pathetic” materials—abandoned sacks and hand-cut collages, photocopied images, tatty furniture, lazily scrawled texts, smears of gray paint, and scattered bits of dark flooring like so many poor-boy Carl Andres—the show belies Godard’s reputation as Swiss precisionist. The sheer visual beauty, dense montage, and complex sound/image interplay of his late films have here been replaced with an approach that is not so much unruly or artless as calculatedly crude. This slapdash quality may account for the largely negative reaction the exhibition has received, which has ranged from predictable schadenfreude—an exquisitely primed sense of embarras de pauvreté—to genuine dismay. Godard was called a seventy-five-year-old brat, a grand saboteur, while one Parisian wag joked that it took only one minute and forty-two seconds to traverse the Godard exhibition, as compared with the famous mad dash through the Louvre in Bande à part (1964), which took almost ten.

Commissioned more than three years ago by the Centre Pompidou’s Dominique Païni, former head of the Cinémathèque Française, and burdened by rumor and intense concealment from the media, the exhibition opened two weeks late, having already caused a rift both with Païni, Godard’s friend and colleague for decades, and with the Beaubourg, which, citing financial and technical reasons, refused Godard’s original conception of a complex exposition titled “Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema According to JLG.” That Godard would bite the hand of a commissioning institution should have been no surprise to anyone who has seen his films Le Rapport Darty (1989) or The Old Place (1998), or who has noted his vexed attitude toward museums, which he sees simultaneously as repositories and tombs, as keepers of history and killers of culture. But the very dun, ramshackle character of Godard’s show seems on close examination less a forlorn act of revenge than a devastating reflection of the director’s current sense of the world, and of his place in it.

The ultimate title of the exhibition, “Voyage(s) en utopie, Jean-Luc Godard, 1946–2006: à la recherche d’un théorème perdu,” shifts its references from archaeology and the academy (Collège de France) to Proust and Rossellini, key figures in Godard’s art. Proust provides the exhibition’s temporal structure, its three rooms (down from the originally planned nine) assigned three different tenses, and Rossellini its shaping metaphor: ruins. Rossellini’s epochal 1953 film Voyage to Italy was an item of faith for the French New Wave, and Godard has paid repeated homage to it, from 1963’s Contempt to 2001’s Éloge de l’amour. The invocation of Voyage, the portrait of a failed marriage that finds its salvation and rebirth among the ruins of Pompeii, in the exhibition’s title emphasizes Godard’s intention to build the new from the destroyed, the second show from the wreckage of the first. In this, “Voyage(s) en utopie” is the apotheosis of Godard’s obsession with detritus and ruins, from the catalogue of rape and waste in Les Carabiniers (1963) and the “survivors of the shipwreck of modernity,” as Godard called the characters in Contempt—an account of a marriage, a film, a culture being destroyed—through Weekend (1967), “a film found on a scrap heap,” to his recent sifting through the ruins of the twentieth century, both literal (the bombing of the Mostar Bridge and the Sarajevo library in Notre musique [2004]) and metaphoric (the destruction of cultural memory in Éloge de l’amour, which frequently repeats the enigmatic aphorism “Every thought should recall the debris of a smile”). Godard has also often constructed films out of aborted projects, such as Ici et ailleurs (1976), or from fragments of their former conceptions, King Lear (1987) the most famous (and misunderstood) example. So an exhibition extemporized from the rubble of its erstwhile self is entirely apposite for Godard. More important, its sparse, scattered, and incomplete nature is only seeming. Godard’s three-room chantier reveals an endless plenitude of signs, ideas, allusions, and the more time spent in it, the more abundant the bounty.

Protected by a mock-Dantean portal of heavy clear plastic, recalling nothing so much as the entrance to a ’60s porn cinema, the show demands you to abandon hope, no matter whether you turn right to Room 3, “Hier/Yesterday,” or left to Room –2, “Avant-hier.” Either way lies literal darkness, engulfing despair. The negatively numbered Room –2 contains the models and maquettes of Godard’s original conception, tricked out in little handmade boxes, and immures behind metal fencing totems and trinkets that were to be used in that initial installation. Godard rather grandly crowns this défense d’entrée enclosure of the “might have been” with a monitor repeating a clip from Citizen Kane in which the camera cranes up Kane’s gate to a No Trespassing sign. Godard thereby places himself among many directors, like his beloved Welles, Rossellini, and Nicholas Ray, whose projects have been hijacked, recut, disfigured by producers and studios (in this case, by Païni and the Beaubourg). Images and objects of restraint—stanchions, bars, fences—proliferate. Godard wants us to know that his show has been shut down.

In another abject corner, a painting by Matisse and its reproduction huddle in shadow beside a fetid bed. Art clearly offers no consolation. (A nearby Nicholas de Staël inadvertently reminds us that Godard’s taste in art, revealed in the S OSG-commissioned film The Old Place, is old-fashioned if not reactionary, stalled at de Staël and the School of Paris.) A wall of seven iPod monitors exhibits tiny clips from films by Godard and his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, including a Chris Marker–ish tribute to their cat; Godard’s latest film, Vrai faux passeport (whose illustration of Eros is Vincent Gallo encountering Cheryl Tiegs at a road stop in The Brown Bunny); and a sequence asserting Georges de La Tour’s paintings as the prototype of silent cinema—the sequence itself an echo of a cutout “close- up” of a face from a reproduction of the painter’s Card Sharp that greets you in the exhibition’s foyer. An excerpt from Godard’s masterpiece Passion (1982), with its surging sound track of Mozart’s Requiem, extends the room’s “end of things” atmosphere into the apocalyptic by flanking the film’s tableaux vivants of Goya paintings with a blowup from the artist’s “Disasters of War.”

Much has been made of the toy train that shuttles between this salle (“Avant-hier”) and the next (“Hier”) through a hole punched in the wall. Obviously a reference to the origins of cinema in the Lumière brothers’ legendary 1895 Train Arriving at La Ciotat, as well as to the trains that took French Jews to Drancy to be deported to concentration camps and that whisked collaborationist French film stars to German studios to make Nazi movies (both references in Godard’s recent work), the little locomotive also contains one of the exhibition’s many self-references: Its cargo includes two tennis balls, a funny allusion to Godard’s obsession with the sport. A Proustian and a punner, Godard clearly intends “Avant-hier” to semantically slip into its near homologue, “Avenir” (Future); one is left with the sense that it is not the past but the past-as-future Godard posits here, a kind of anteroom of the ensuant in which we glimpse a new Dark Age on its way.

By contrast, “Hier/Yesterday” seems truly nostalgic, with its series of monitors repeating Godard’s favorite sequences from formative films—Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Lang’s Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Welles’s (tellingly unfinished) Don Quixote, for example. (That these clips are shown on screens many times the size of those showing Godard’s own works in the same room suggests humility—or masochism.) Though the clips from Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova, Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, and Rossellini’s The Messiah are in close enough proximity to imply a connection between their images of women, children, and rural ritual, one is left perplexed by the Henri Rousseau jungle of potted palms that Godard has contrived for the center of the room. What does the visual rhyme of its square, black, shellacked planters and the square, black, shiny monitors placed among the palm fronds imply, if anything, and is it a coincidence that all the films shown in this makeshift Jardin des Plantes are French (Bresson, Renoir, Clair, Melville)?

Ironically, the room with the most natural light, “Today/Aujourd’hui,” creates a domestic hell. (The bedroom/kitchen/bathroom setting and concern with sex and language all recall Godard’s ’70s cinema, especially Numéro deux [1975].) Next to hand-clipped collages of magazine images of “ideal” interiors—a welcome reversion to Godard’s satires of consumerism—sit IKEA fixtures and furniture: a sink, a stove, a bed whose headboard is a widescreen monitor playing Black Hawk Down. The never-ending nightmare of American militarism, alluded to in the final, “Paradise” section of Notre musique, the obvious parallels between Somalia and Iraq, and Goya’s “sleep of reason” producing monsters are all condensed in this witty, withering setup. The room is full of Godardian asides. A panel of Maltese crosses that includes a Union Jack next to a Star of David effloresces into many meanings: a comment on British colonialism (Malta) and anti-Semitism perhaps, maybe a veiled allusion to Caravaggio, certainly a reference to the mechanics of film projection. (The essential part of the projector that stops each frame in front of the aperture is called the Maltese cross, which is also known as the Geneva drive, another of Godard’s fond references to his own Swiss origins, like an image of a Giacometti also in the show.) Everywhere are signs of inutility (a scaffold on its side, a sink whose plumbing has been pulled out, a broken typewriter), false utopias (domestic, sexual, televisual), and failed art (a chest containing a paint box alongside a kitsch picture).

Two television monitors showing an endless roundelay of sports, detective, and game shows next to an eviscerated typewriter, its keys torn off, obliterated, and mangled, presents a little allegory of the struggle between word and image that has long pervaded Godard’s analysis of cinema and its discontents. WHAT CAN BE SHOWN CANNOT BE SAID, a text (quoting Wittgenstein) tells us at the entrance to the show. Godard has always anguished over the arbitrariness and inauthenticity of language but now appears beset by the fear of its demise. The exhibition is full of abraded texts—incomplete, blacked out or crossed out, dispersed, canceled. A sentence by Bergson along the floor has to be pieced together room to room. A tiny picture of a striding Giacometti is matched with Godard’s childlike scrawl: JE NE MARCHE PAS. Throughout all three rooms, books by Schopenhauer, Bataille, Arendt, Prokosch (a nod to Contempt), Bazin, and their likes are skewered to surfaces, impaled like vampires, or strewn about like so much debris. If the precious filmic images of “Yesterday” (Godard’s cinephilic Eden with its own little grove) have been transformed into the vacuous signs of televisual culture (“the new Tablets of the Law”) and the hard-core porn of “Today,” words have all but lost any dominion or efficacy. Image is all, and that image is empty.

The duality of being and consciousness and the dissolution of difference between self and other that were central themes in Notre musique, most markedly in the canonlike treatment of the film’s two young women, Olga and Judith, shape and contain the sprawl of “Voyage(s) en utopie.” The show is full of doubles, doppelgängers, merging opposites: the shuttling train shadowed by a stationary one; a hetero gang bang followed by a homo blow-job orgy on the same horizontal monitor (each thoughtfully presented in both short and long versions); the Maltese cross and the Star of David; the very title of Godard’s latest film, Vrai faux passeport—which was made for the exhibition—a reminder of his statement in Musique that “the Truth has two faces.” Commentators have been mystified by the central placement of a monitor showing an extended clip from André Téchiné’s Barocco in the “Today” room, but as with much else in Godard and in the exhibit, one item or image sets off an avalanche of associations. A sort of reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the Téchiné has a dual role for Gérard Depardieu, as a boxer who is killed and as the man who kills him, both of whom are in love with the same woman (Isabelle Adjani), a double-trouble scenario that turns out to be a key to understanding this JLG nonexhibition, anti-exhibition, or exhibition about an exhibition.

“‘Voyage(s) en utopie’ is a Godard film, but it is not projected on a screen,” the Pompidou’s booklet informs—“it unfolds within a space.” That is its great attraction, its grave limitation. It allows us to examine and ponder its objects, texts, and images, unlike the impossibly dense Histoire(s) du cinéma with its quickly cut, overlapping, stuttering, superimposed images and sound bridges, but it also suppresses the impulse that defines Godard: montage. Vrai faux passeport tends to settle for blocky juxtaposition, chunks of films laid side by side, end to end. Similarly, the exhibition, as inertly installed as it is, depends on the viewer’s walking montage—to amble is to edit—to connect its components, analyze its associations. By inhibiting his essence as a montage artist, Godard has become like the Depardieu character in Barocco, a mise en abyme of himself.

James Quandt, senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, organized the most comprehensive North American retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard in 2001–2002. He is the author of numerous essays, including “Here and Elsewhere: Projecting Godard,” which appeared in For Ever Godard (Black Dog, 2004).


IF CINEMA STILL OFFERS a useful model for the contemporary art world, it is because of its capacity to produce images that move in relation to so many other, often competing movements—passing time, cash flows, erotic drives, shifting power relations, the encroachment of new technologies, global marketing trends, shrinking audiences, etc.—and because its particular way of moving has everything to do with this inherent impurity. A rhythmic means of intervening in the world, the machine that moves images also leaves itself open to manipulation on every level and at every turn, whether by screenwriters, distributors, advertisers, talent agents, or entertainment lawyers. Cinema is a battle at the crossroads of multiple speeds and interests, an ongoing fight, not for the specificity of any medium, but for a specific way of thinking and moving within a heterogeneous and despecified reality. We know it is cinema when it is able to assume its own historical possibility and meet the world (and its own death) face-to-face—which is to say, with all the cunning and artifice it is capable of. And to strategize for freedom of movement on the side of cinema is to convert whatever depletes its potential into yet another weapon. So we have seen Jean-Luc Godard reinvent cinema with television, and we have seen how sound can be turned back around as a means of moving images again, long after the advent of the talkie. Increasingly, the well-meaning guardians of film history have looked to the museum as a sort of final resting place, or refuge, for this endangered art. But some cinema keeps moving and prefers to undo itself rather than ossify into another monument to modernity. Godard is clearly not interested in putting cinema in the museum, whether to enshrine or entomb it there. Rather, he is using the institution as another means of putting cinema into a relation with its outside, with noncinema, and risking its own territory in the process.

Which brings us to the disaster of Godard the contemporary artist. An exhibition less installed than inflicted on the museum, “Voyage(s) en utopie” bears all the signs of the conflict that erupted between the seventy-five-year-old filmmaker and his institutional host, the thirty-year-old Centre Pompidou, in the final months leading up to the show’s delayed opening. (Originally planned for April 26, it didn’t open until May 11.) More than any particular thing in the three-room installation—a truckload of video monitors dumped into a flimsy decor of IKEA home furnishings and cheap potted plants, with an original Matisse hung casually by the door—what makes itself felt is the restless presence of Godard himself, the traces of his body moving through this ransacked space, his fingerprints still fresh on the walls, his use of a felt-tip marker to correct or delete wall texts at the last minute, and other acts of physical and aesthetic sabotage, such as holes left in the Sheetrock after his sudden decision to rip out a video monitor here and there, an overturned construction scaffold, rubble, trash, and so on. These are countered by eleventh-hour control measures on the museum’s part: the bolting down of chairs to the floor, the securing of loose video monitors with antitheft devices, the removal of empty wine bottles, and apologies to the public. Between the damage and the damage control, “Voyage(s)” is what happens when a museum attempts to program a filmmaker notorious for jump-cutting aesthetics into politics, and who already announced the death of cinema in films as early as Breathless (1960).

From Bande à part (1964), whose cartoon actors run a footrace through the Louvre, to Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), in which digital reproductions of Giotto and Goya are superimposed onto stills from Hollywood movies, Godard has often provoked tense encounters between cinema and the museum, whether to show that in painting (as opposed to theater) cinema preexists its own birth, or to question its power to produce images after the introduction of sound (and Auschwitz and television). Invited more than once to install himself as a living Picasso in a museum known for its motherly embrace of cinema, Godard has finally responded with a sort of mutant—or counterfeit—strain of installation art, a film retrospective lost in an exploded yuppie loft . . . over schedule, over budget, and not even finished. He has also produced an institutional scandal, and maybe the most anarchic and liberating museum-going experience in years. “Voyage(s)” is in fact less an installation than an occupation. And at the same time a desertion.

There is a rumor, seemingly confirmed by the unmade bed installed in one corner of the show, that Godard camped out alone in these rooms for a week before the opening. Other rumors—some backed up by the French press—relate how first he turned against and then fired his curator, Dominique Païni (recently absented to a new post at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France), and how the filmmaker himself disappeared to Switzerland with half the show’s production budget in his pocket. Such gossip fills a void imposed by the artist himself: the veritable information blackout caused by his refusal to collaborate with the museum’s public relations apparatus or to communicate with anybody outside the accounting department. No matter how the conflict between Godard and Païni in fact played out, an official statement by the Centre Pompidou claims that “Voyage(s) en utopie” is what ultimately emerged from the shelving of an original project titled “Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema According to JLG,” abandoned in February 2006 due to “artistic, technical, and financial difficulties.” This statement was posted at the show’s entrance, next to a taped-up photocopy of Fragonard’s The Lock. The sign, which reappears inside the show as well, has been corrected by JLG’s recurring Sharpie: “artistic difficulties.”

Punning on Godard’s unsuccessful attempt to introduce a course in cinema at the prestigious Collège de France some years ago, “Collage(s) de France” was meant to be a work in progress, with the filmmaker editing and projecting images on-site at the Pompidou for nine months. At some point those nine months of filmmaking became nine rooms, a hyperambitious plan for a meandering, immersive environment that was to include film projections, monitors, and film stills sharing walls with original masterpieces by painters from Delacroix to Monet. There was even a proposal to install a giant mirror across the street from the museum, doubling all this in the world outside. But all that remains of this initial project are Godard’s scale models for the nine rooms, constructed by hand using foamcore, photocopies, scissors, and glue. Peering into these rough-hewn contraptions, where videos play on cell phone–size screens, one might think of turn-of-the-century nickelodeons, but they are also like dollhouses or rat mazes, with paperback copies of Arendt, Bataille, and Chandler nailed crudely to their walls and floors. Stacked in one room of the present exhibition, the models attest to the radical incompletion of “Voyage(s),” a still-fresh wreck of a utopia that at one point promised a friendly cohabitation of painted and filmed images under one roof. But it’s the self-destruction of such a scheme that somehow preserves its utopian potential, because cinema is not something that wants to be installed and because Godard is maybe like Walter Benjamin’s “destructive character,” whose “need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.”

Everywhere cables are left dangling or snake up walls that are themselves unfinished so that AV equipment remains visible through rough gaps in the Sheetrock. Meanwhile, the latest flat-screen HD technology is allowed to be as obscene, ugly, and dumb as it wants to be. One monitor has displaced the pillows on a double bed, broadcasting Ridley Scott’s big-budget, racist war movie Black Hawk Down in vivid wide-screen video where the Western couple’s wide-screen head would typically rest. Another monitor is splayed horizontally across a kitchen countertop and shows bootlegged porn. A half dozen more have been unplugged and tossed in a rude pile, like trash. Screens of all varieties—from pocket-size portables to pedestal-mounted home entertainment systems—fill the space as if it were a Circuit City showroom, looping key moments from European and Hollywood precursors to the Nouvelle Vague (Johnny Guitar, On the Town, Bob le flambeur, Au hasard Balthazar, etc.). And this is how the “art of the masses” adjusts itself to a public that no longer comes in crowds but as an endless series of individuals, each one scaled to his or her own screen.

Between what is called Room –2 (“The Day Before Yesterday)” and Room 3 (“Yesterday”), a toy train shuttles back and forth through a smashed hole in the wall, carrying cigars, while a scene from Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny loops nearby. Room 1 (“Today”) has a bedroom, an office, a kitchen, and a living room (but no bathroom), presenting metropolitan life itself as the readymade of all readymades, a desert that spreads both in front of and within the HD screen that it integrates. Equating the customized catastrophe of Parisian home life with the bankruptcy of contemporary installation art, Godard travesties aesthetic strategies that no longer produce images of the world, that do nothing but blindly reproduce the sameness of museums or bedrooms (and the subjectivities that inhabit them). Images by Godard (from Weekend [1967] to Vrai faux passeport [2006]) and by his longtime collaborator, Anne-Marie Miéville, play on rows of small, wall-mounted screens pathetically decorated with store-bought photo frames. If the frame, too, is a readymade, a mere image of itself, it has also lost its power to produce an out-of-frame.

Aside from the Matisse and a couple of other paintings, everything here is a cheap reproduction of itself, either burned on a disc, scanned, or xeroxed, and all this appropriated, reformatted content is immediately subjected to the DIY violence of scissors and glue (and Sharpie). What “Voyage(s)” enacts is a politics of cut and paste, a guerrilla poetics of citation and détournement. And when Godard samples Levinas (“what in love is called the failure to communicate is precisely what constitutes the positive in a loving relation, the absence of the other being precisely its presence as other”), photocopies Goya’s “Disasters of War,” and pastes these next to a newspaper image of George W. Bush or a still from a John Ford western, then adds the caption “Fortress Europe,” he is militating against official history and its representations, against the flattening logic of information, and against the contemporary demand for institutional spectacle. It is one kind of flatness resisting another. And if cinema returns here, it’s in the idea that only in between two images, in the gap that both separates and joins them, a cut that is both spatial and rhythmic, can we begin to elaborate another relation to the world.

Godard has always countered the squareness of the frame (the screen, the wall, the page) with the shock of the cut (the out-of-frame). In “Voyage(s)” he applies this same dialectic to the museum and makes its rooms sing, for once. Following the moments of Godard’s spatializing practice—literally in his tracks—as if reconstructing a crime, the viewer is haunted by another possibility of inhabiting the museum. But what is this impure thing that only poses as contemporary art: scenographic critique? relational anarchy? In Godard’s own war film, Les Carabiniers (1963), soldiers conquer the world and return with nothing but postcard reproductions of museum masterpieces. Like everything cinema encounters, the institution is a raw material, flattened, repeated, and returned as something else. Causing the Pompidou to self-differ, to short-circuit in this way, Godard has found another way in and out of it.

John Kelsey is an artist and a contributing editor of Artforum.