PRINT October 2017


Michel Houellebecq

View of “Michel Houellebecq: French Bashing,” 2017, Venus, New York.

THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY, Michel Houellebecq’s Prix Goncourt–winning 2010 novel, takes its epigraph from the fifteenth-century nobleman and poet Charles d’Orléans: “The world is weary of me, / And I am weary of it.” The sentiment will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with the celebrated, controversial French author’s work, which teems with an apparently inexhaustible array of sad sacks and misanthropes—the damaged, the soul-sick, the emotionally stunted. Among other things, The Map and the Territory is the story of an artist and a satire of a particular kind of cosmopolitan artistic milieu; it name-checks such boldface figures as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and features a Famous Writer (one “Michel Houellebecq”) who ends up the victim of an exceptionally gruesome murder. For all this, however, the book is actually among the least jaundiced of the author’s creations: It’s relatively free of the sexual miserabilism, reactionary political disquisition, and misogynist provocation that (too frequently for many) garnish his storytelling. And its moments of lyricism, many of which gather around descriptions of artmaking and artworks, suggest a genuine affinity for the practice, if not necessarily the company, of visual artists.

In summer 2016, Houellebecq—who, alongside his writing career, has been taking photographs for many years—was formally inducted into the society of “artists” himself when he was invited to create his first-ever exhibition, at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. “Rester Vivant” (To Stay Alive) was a sprawling affair, featuring not only the writer’s photos but also a variety of installations spilling across eighteen galleries. This past summer, New York got its own taste of the author’s crossover bid, with a recast tidbit of the Paris show taking up occupancy at Venus on the Upper East Side. “French Bashing” consisted of thirty-odd photographs split between two visually contrasting, if similarly mordant, areas of the gallery. The works on view—and the installation itself, which included a pair of corresponding low-volume soundscapes created by Raphaël Sohier—not surprisingly engaged with topics familiar from the author’s books: physical and affectual marginality; a kind of garish forced happiness that papers over fundamental anomie; authenticity of all types (especially of the French cultural sort) devolving into speciousness.

The first of the exhibition’s two rooms was dark, save for spotlights trained on a series of midsize photos. Shot in color but desaturated into browns and grays, they most often focused on peri-urban zones, places at the edges of metroplexes marked by anonymous and dour housing compounds and various species of bureaucratic and infrastructural bodies—rail lines and highway arteries, toll booths and train stations, fences, towers, pipes. Several of the images were aerial shots—of bland suburban apartment blocks taken from a hot-air balloon; of the dry rural landscape of Inscriptions #018, 2017, over which floats the phrase I IDENTIFY WITH THE BIRDS, a vaguely wistful echo of Houellebecq’s preferred posture relative to the rest of humanity (watchful but fundamentally separate). These works seem to tempt overdetermined readings: The gallery’s press materials, for example, describe the squat concrete EUROPE sign depicted in France #014, 2016, as a “crumbling” symbol of “a continent on the verge of decomposition,” when in fact it seems pretty much intact, if undeniably a bit stained. And yet one senses that the pervasive vibe of fatigued disdain that the work registers is at least as much personal as political, that the gaze it offers looks inward to matters of existential disposition no less than outward to matters of state.

Superficially at least, the feel of this first space—heavy-handedly forlorn and lugubrious, like its lighting scheme—stood in stark contrast to the second room, found on the other side of a heavy curtain, where all was fluorescent glare and hot, gaudy color, the floor carpeted wall to wall with hundreds of kitschy laminated place mats from popular French holiday spots. The dozen or so photos, printed at a slightly larger size than their cousins next door, were also dominated by mostly depopulated images evoking a kind of touristic veneer—hotel interiors, a bus wrap water park ad, a clutch of cookie-cutter Spanish vacation homes climbing up an escarpment below an aspirational sign reading BEVERLY HILLS—or, in a few cases, the encroachment of “civilization” into the realm of the “natural,” as in the show’s most memorable photograph, France #002, 2017, in which a crappy-looking chain supermarket clings to the side of a bucolic cliff face like a consumerist bubo. Sohier’s soundtrack for this space featured not the chilly urban rumbles of the previous room, but rather faint sounds of play and celebration. Yet the amusements to which the room gestured remained distant and disembodied—evoking a vague sense of merriment, perhaps, but one conspicuously lacking any sign of flesh-and-blood merrymakers—and the enjoyment it figured felt rote and etiolated.

On the day I visited, one small, unauthorized sign of embodiment had insinuated itself into the gallery (which, fittingly enough, also appeared to be totally unstaffed): a single latex glove sitting crumpled on the floor, left perhaps by a hypochondriac visitor or a distracted art handler. Whatever its origin, it provided a telling accompaniment for this world-weary work, which, like the novels that paved the way for it, starts from the proposition that civilization is fundamentally ill, a kind of patient on Houellebecq’s table whose only (slim) chance for survival must necessarily begin with an invasive, clinical examination.

Jeffrey Kastner, a New York-based writer and a regular contributor to Artforum, is the senior editor of Cabinet and a coauthor of Artists Who Make Books (Phaidon/PPP, 2017).