PRINT April 2010


reports from Paris

THESE DAYS, THE STOCK PHRASE “lives and works in Paris” appears on the résumés of numerous artists, curators, gallerists, and critics, and no longer seems a euphemism for “survives in Paris while waiting to work in Berlin or elsewhere.” It has the ring, rather, of a proud declaration. La force de l’art—to quote the title of the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais’s triennial, which highlights Gallic creativity—is evidently resurgent in France. Of course, the picture is not entirely rosy, as is confirmed by a recent study pointing to the impecuniosity of artists and young galleries. Yet the “Zero Budget Biennial,” which took place at Galerie Carlos Cardenas and galerie schleicher+lange last September, offered insouciant evidence that people are bearing up reasonably well and even forging a new esprit de corps. Despite the financial crisis, there seems to be a current of fresh air blowing through the capital’s art scene. Last spring, British artist Ryan Gander sent smoke-machine fog wafting over the city for his two-part exhibition at gb agency gallery and at the Kadist Art Foundation. The vapor, which was released whenever sensors detected that a visitor had entered the gb agency space, brilliantly lived up to the show’s stated aim of “rendering the invisible visible” (per the Kadist press release), just as smoke allows us to see the eddies of the atmosphere. Ninety years after Marcel Duchamp captured fifty cubic centimeters of “Paris air” in his readymade vial, Gander’s work enjoined us to take note of which way the wind was blowing. While established institutional spaces such as Palais de Tokyo (with its Modules program for emerging artists including Etienne Chambaud, Vincent Ganivet, Aurélien Porte, and Yann Sérandour) and the Jeu de Paume (with its Satellite series for contemporary works such as, notably, Tris Vonna-Michell’s Finding Chopin: Endnotes, 2005–2009) continue to present compelling work, these days the art-world weather vane is definitely pointing toward very small spaces. It is in such spaces—particularly those in Belleville, a once drab neighborhood in the northeast of the city, and its immediate environs—that the most interesting projects are to be found.

Since Jocelyn Wolff established Belleville’s first gallery, in 2003, new venues have opened at an ever accelerating pace, according to the usual art-district pattern; the most recent arrivals include Cécilia Becanovic and Isabelle Alfonsi (Marcelle Alix) and Axel Dibie (Galerie Crèvecoeur). In the adjacent suburbs are a number of strong nonprofits, including the contemporary art center La Galerie, the alternative space Mains-d’Œuvres, and café au lit, which offers exhibitions in a small “intime-public” apartment. The area has not yet become a “bobo El Dorado” like the Marais (to quote dealer Alfonsi), but it could yet emerge as the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side or London’s East End. In the meantime, one ideally sets out to tackle Belleville’s labyrinthine streets with the same curiosity as Raymond Queneau’s wide-eyed Zazie and with a mind as alert as that of Sophie Neveu, the cryptologist in The Da Vinci Code. My own recent meanderings turned up rewards in the form of David Lamelas’s conceptual films at Galerie Gaudel de Stampa; the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden whispering in the works of Oscar Tuazon at Galerie Balice Hertling; Karla Black’s blush-colored drapery seemingly suspended in space and time at Marcelle Alix; and the minimal and earthy poetry of Katinka Bock and Guillaume Leblon at Jocelyn Wolff. The smallest of all the small spaces is a new project room, called La Chambre, at Galerie Xippas: Offering glimpses of the work of Jean-Marc Chapoulie, Marcelline Delbecq, and Vittorio Santoro, among others, in an out-of-the-way anteroom, it proves that less can certainly be more when it comes to a gallery’s square footage.

Together, these spaces have created a spirit of community that acts as a kind of antidote to the economic crisis. The credo of Saâdane Afif, who last year won the very official Prix Marcel Duchamp, could be that of the young Paris scene in its entirety: “Our society and the structures that govern it, including the art world, deeply encourage a turning inward. However, ideas and forms often benefit from being shared.” Extending this conviviality across national borders is the new custom of late-January exchanges between Paris and Berlin. The most recent incarnation gave rise to some unusual collaborations, like the invitation to peruse the personal library of the late, eccentric dealer Colin de Land that was extended to visitors by Alexander Schröder and Cosima von Bonin, under the auspices of Daniele Balice and Alexander Hertling. The announced departure of Wolff’s pacesetting gallery notwithstanding, the area seems robust. Indeed, the thrice-yearly review of contemporary art 02, envisions creating a biennial there (one with an actual budget) in the months to come.

It would seem that Belleville belongs to an expanding archipelago, in the Édouard Glissant sense of the word: As he describes it in his Traité du tout-monde, Poétique IV, the archipelago is not merely a geographic formation (Glissant himself was born in Martinique) but a way of ordering reality that “draws on the ambiguous, the fragile, the dérivé. It complies with the practice of detour, which is neither escape nor resignation.” In line with Glissant’s ethos, the galleries of Belleville and of the community (inside and outside Paris) of which they are a part would probably not be at all averse to a biennial. This chain of mini-territories generates its own desires, projects, and encounters, but it is not oppositional in the way that art communities have often imagined themselves to be; artists in Paris now do not contemplate “escape” into a state of total off-the-grid disobedience. This isn’t to say that artists are embracing complicity. Indeed, the Dada spirit is once again in the “Paris air,” from Beaubourg (which recently celebrated “Vides” [Voids], various artists’ takes on the trope of the empty gallery, and “Subversion des images,” an exploration of Surrealist film and photography) to La Maison Rouge, where Jean-Jacques Lebel, enfant terrible of Dada and Surrealism, recently posted his “mental and civil disobedience manual dedicated to artistic and social counter-currents that dare to reject all the roles and all the limits that the bling bling civilization attempts to impose on them.” Also in the Dada spirit is a resurgent emphasis on the performative: In particular, the Nouveau Festival at the Centre Pompidou is helping to blur the line between genres and disciplines with performances by Marco Berrettini, Elmgreen & Dragset, Jean-Yves Jouannais, Franck Leibovici, Sophie Perez and Xavier Boussiron, and Claudia Triozzi.

So what are the critical issues preoccupying the denizens of this art archipelago? Recent solo exhibitions like Ulla von Brandenburg’s or Keren Cytter’s—both at Le Plateau, and both of which included moving-image works that reflexively explored how we make sense, or fail to make sense, of narrative, visual, or linguistic fragments—suggest that the issue is meaning itself, or rather, the investigation of the ways in which meaning is created. The goal of the group exhibition La Planète des signes (Planet of the Signs—perhaps a pun on Planète des singes [Planet of the Apes]), organized by independent curator Guillaume Désanges, was to investigate the role of artists as “smugglers of knowledge” who create their own cognitive system, free of academic norms. Marshaling works by Art & Language, the radical Chilean collective CADA, Mike Kelley, Jean-Luc Moulène, Matt Mullican, Suzanne Treister, and the talented young French artist Raphaël Zarka, among others, the exhibition raised questions of scholarship and knowledge and their relationship to art; viewers were exposed to cognitive/affective positions as diverse as Mullican’s visionary trances and Art & Language’s incisive, analytic conceptualism. Emblematic of the blossoming of highly active critical thought are the activities of castillo/corrales, a collective of artists, curators, critics, and writers (including Thomas Boutoux, Boris Gobille, François Piron, Benjamin Thorel, and Oscar Tuazon) that operates as a commercial gallery. Their projects tend to be extremely trenchant and enjoyable exercises in free-form pedagogy. The exhibition “Breaking Point: Kathryn Bigelow’s Life in Art,” for example, brought to light the Point Break and Hurt Locker director’s surprising past (she was a fledgling artist on New York’s 1970s scene, rubbing elbows with Lawrence Weiner and Richard Serra and contributing to the Conceptualist journal The Fox) while exploring the cinematic rhetoric of violence.

This turn toward newly flexible, even playful, modalities of knowledge and meaning production is informed by a range of theoretical positions, from Jacques Rancière’s spectatorial emancipation to Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of the radicant—the “altermodern” subject who is rooted in the very idea of constant mobility, who has rejected the notion of stable, affirmed identity, and who is thus equipped to resist the “standardization of the imagination” imposed by globalization. Also relevant are the ideas of Elie During, Michel Gauthier, Laurent Jeanpierre, Christophe Kihm, and Bruno Latour. However divergent, all of these figures might be construed, in one way or another, as theorizers of precarity’s potential. If escape is impossible, we can perhaps pursue a kind of wobbly balancing act, seeking moments of fleeting equilibrium when we can gracefully parry the forces that act on us. The archipelago of Parisian art appears to be experiencing such a moment.

Emma Lavigne is a curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.