“L'Internationale Situationniste, 1957–1972”

The Internationale Situationniste has made a surprising comeback on the French scene, after having sunk into the recesses of revolutionary history following its self-disbandment in 1972. The Centre Pompidou recently presented an exhibition of the artistic output of a movement that claimed to have had a direct role in triggering the events of May 1968 in France. More than any other movement of the ’60s, Situationism had roots in several artistic avant-gardes. Founded in 1957, the movement came out of the dissolution of COBRA, the Internationale Lettriste, the Mouvement International pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste, the Psychogeographic Committee of London, and several other groups. It brought together personalities such as Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, Asger Jorn, and Guy Debord, who, in 1968, published La Société du Spectacle, a work that served as guide to the movement. It found expression through a variety of means: magazines, books, and, of course, works of art.

The exhibition here tried, as well as it could, to recapture the specific atmosphere of this unruly group. The undertaking, however, came up against a multiplicity of difficulties, not the least of which was the attempt to museumize a movement that saw art, and even more so the museum, as old hat and to be buried as quickly as possible. To see the Situationist pamphlets today, primly displayed under Plexiglas, is unintentionally comic. It is unlikely that the concept of the “dérive urbaine” (urban drift)—the “shortcut across a variegated terrain” (to quote Debord) that was central to situationist practice—was adequately represented by a video illustration at the entrance to the exhibition. To have exhumed situationist works without attempting to place them in perspective would have been even more suspect. We might as well smile at this unavoidable paradox without any further attempt to analyze it.

The works themselves, with some exceptions, are clearly valuable documents. Beside Jorn’s little-known paintings, there were anonymous canvases of painted landscapes, portraits, and such, bought at flea markets and repainted rather aggressively. For the most part, these works are valued more for what they express than for any intrinsic quality they might hold. None of the works has aged well: not the industrial paintings of Pinot-Gallizio, represented here by one of the rolls intended to be dispensed and sold by the yard, 1959, nor his La Caverne de l’antimatière (The cavern of antimatter, 1959), a huge painting made up of a series of canvases that form a cavern. Aimed at definitively destroying the market value of art through inflation, today these works are but poor dead relics supported only by the project that gave rise to them. The same is true of Constant’s architectural models of 1959 and 1960 illustrating the antifunctionalist bent of Situationism in urban issues, while the narrative works, such as those by J. V. Martin, may be viewed even more harshly. However, this exhibition is necessary at a time when there is endless talk of simulacrums and simulations, if only to recall that the situationists were the first to register an esthetic as well as a political response in performance before they disbanded—in their own words, so as “not to become the last form of revolutionary performance.”

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah