Lothar Baumgarten

Musée de l'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Through toponymy, geography is often cloaked in the mantle of history. In cities this is often apparent in the names given to streets, avenues, and public squares commemorating places and personages already charged by a history of their own. In big cities with subway systems, the map of the subway constitutes not only a spatial guide but a veritable encyclopedia of the past—or at least that version of the past endorsed by official history. In his first show in Paris, at ARC (Animation, Recherche, Confrontation—the contemporary section of the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), Lothar Baumgarten explored this phenomenon. On one of the interior walls, approximately 87 yards long, of the large, partially curved corridor that is the most spectacular and difficult space at ARC, Baumgarten reproduced in a monumentally enlarged format the diagram of the number 9 métro line, “Pont de Sèvres–Mairie de Montreuil," which is precisely the one that passes by the museum. While strictly observing the design and typography of these diagrams (well-known to all Parisians, as they are displayed in all the train cars), Baumgarten replaced most of the station names with names of his own choosing, including those of historical figures, literary works, tropical islands, and even short catchphrases and common terms, thus evoking an alternative history to the one selected by the official bureaucracy.

It is sufficient to mention just a few of the names honored by Baumgarten to demonstrate that the history to which they refer is that of France’s relations with third-world cultures both in recent times and in the more distant past, particularly with its own former colonies. “Toussaint L’Ouverture” referred to the martyr who led the movement to liberate Haiti from France’s yoke at the end of the 18th century; “Jean de Léry,” to the 16th-century anthropologist who explored Brazil, and “Alfred Métraux” and (Pierre) “Clastres,” to two of his 20th-century counterparts; and “Afrique fantôme” (Phantom Africa), to the well-known book by Michel Leiris. “Dien-Bien-Phu” reminded the French of the sad episode of their war in Vietnam,while “Nouvelle Calédonie (New Caledonia) evoked similar but very current problems in this French Pacific territory; ”Mururoa-Touamotou“ referred to the site of French nuclear tests; and so on. Similarly, the fact that Baumgarten chose to leave as is the name of the ”Charonne“ station could not help but remind Parisians that during the Algerian war this station was the setting for violent demonstrations during which several anticolonialist demonstrators died. If any doubt remained as to the meaning of Baumgarten’s diagram—which could also be read as a long commemorative poem—he made it quite clear by the catchphrases, such as “l’homme naturel” (natural man) “racisme tranquille” (quiet racism), “confusion totale” (total confusion)—used twice—and “optimisme sans fondement” (unfounded optimism). These appeared in the diagram primarily in the boxes below the names of certain stations, listing the connecting metro lines at those stations, so that, for instance, “Dien-Bien-Phu” connected with “Confusion Totale–Ponte de Neuilly,” “Optimisme sans Fondement,” and “Charles de Gaulle–Etoile.”

Because it was literally constructed on the site of this particular exhibition space–which effectively recalls a metro corridor–and constructed, in a more figurative sense, on the historical, political, and social contexts in which the exhibition (and thus France) is situated, this installation could be considered site-specific at several different levels of meaning. The artist tried to emphasize the specificity of the site through certain anecdotal details—recordings of the sound of the métro, seats borrowed from station platforms, a ramp lit with blinking neon lights taken from the train cars–which merely served to distract our attention away from the essentials. This is, however, only a minor reservation, because this Accès aux quais (Access to the train platforms, 1986)—the title of the installation, after a common metro sign–gave us a view into a much broader historical landscape than that of the Parisian metro.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.