“Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture, and Design from France, 1958-98”

A certain premise underlies the display of the art currently on loan to the Guggenheim from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In the decision to exhibit painting and sculpture in the uptown venue, the space of Manhattan is, in effect, divided: Masterpieces by Dubuffet and Matisse converse with their semblables uptown, while what is housed a hundred blocks below—what remains of visual culture, that is, when painting and sculpture are excluded—is made to attempt a more perilous conversation across the disciplines and practices of French photography, architecture, video, film, design, and installation art of the last forty years. Was the division made because painting and film have nothing to say to one another? Or to separate high art—the canonical elitism of painting with its careful, well-charted art-historical sequencing of styles, schools, and generations—from the potentially kitschy and largely unsifted detritus of the more “mass” arts? Does it reflect a historical transformation, designed to show the growing obsolescence of painting as—from the ’70s on—installation, photography, and video, the great triumphs of mechanical reproduction, begin to prevail? Or is it a marketing move, catering to a supposed division in the New York geography of art consumers: the staid contemplators of painting uptown, the younger, interactive set in SoHo?

The answers to these questions remain murky, but one effect is to enable the downtown material displayed—from Tinguely to Messager, from Le Corbusier to Portzamparc—to be grouped together under the rubric of “the spatial.” The show’s title, “Premises,” we are reminded throughout, refers to both an argument and a site. The argument is nothing less than a full-scale embrace of the spatial paradigm now dominant in cultural analysis—thus, sections of the exhibit are devoted to such diverse and vague spatial themes as “sites of memory,” “enclosures,” or “zones of communication/space of exchange,” and historical chronology is eschewed. The exhibition, the press material announces, represents "a literal mise-en-scène of current tendencies toward interdisciplinarity.

What are those tendencies? They are defined by the way in which the interdisciplinary terrain (including literature and the human sciences) has been successfully taken over and saturated by a kind of cobbled-together “spatiality.” Sometime in the ’80s, in a move that has since been baptized “the spatial turn” in cultural theory, the spatial sciences of architecture, urbanism, and geography made a successful bid to“wrest control of the interdisciplinary arena from the linguistically centered model in place since the heyday of semiotics and structuralism in the ’60s. The ”spatial turn" offered particular hope to language-based arts trapped in the rigidities of the text; spatial categories, it seemed, offered a way to break out of the corral of epistemology and grasp the social in a less mediated way.

But the spatial paradigm offers less promise for nonnarrative arts like architecture and installation precisely because these practices are themselves so deeply spatial; space, after all—defining it, manipulating it, constructing it, and above all marketing it—is their very material. When an art show whose subject is the relation between the artist or architect and the built environment adopts a spatial paradigm to justify its display, in other words, when marketed space becomes the object of a display devoid of historical reflection, the result is a reification of a reification. At a moment when the hegemony of the spatial paradigm has itself begun to come under critique, “Premises” locates itself squarely—indeed nests itself—in the limitations of that paradigm. And this is why its effect is one of heightening rather than combating our inability to see the ways in which space functions as a tool to control time and change. Certainly the material exhibited demands a theoretical organization that would go against the grain, so to speak, of its own thematics, that would historicize rather than reflect uncritically the production of a static postwar cultural universe, that would reintroduce temporality as imperiled—or that would, at the very least, introduce historical nuance or discontinuity into our picture of the last forty years. In the catalogue, at least, Benjamin Buchloh’s essay goes far in addressing the problems of history and its obliteration in the postwar period in a provocative analysis of Yves Klein and Arman. Readers interested in a general history of postwar French culture, though, can certainly find a more intelligent version than the derivative and confused one offered by Sylvère Lotringer’s essay.

Instead of history we get the fiction of an articulation between, say, artistic and architectural practices at a moment when, more often than not, such an articulation is not evident. Certainly no brooding of art on architecture or architecture on art is, in fact, shown in “Premises.” The fiction of relationship breaks down at the level of our physical experience of the exhibit. The decision to use semitransparent screens to separate the architectural displays from the art installations was made, we arc told, in order that the two disciplines might be “superimposed” on each other in a nonhierarchical way. Yet the effect is distracting if not disastrous. The slide projections on which much of the architectural displays of the work of Rem Koolhaas and others depend cannot be seen due to the poor image resolution caused by the translucent screens and a frequently cramped viewing distance. Maintaining the fiction of a dialogue without proving that any dialogue exists actually impedes our understanding of the artworks. Video and film, too, are badly served by the display organization. Where Chris Marker’s exquisite La Jetée, 1963, is granted adequate space for viewing, the porous material of the screen, again, renders the images ghostly and indistinct. Other significant film and video works are projected in cramped cells furnished with uncomfortable block seats and a TV screen equipped for channel surfing. Little invites the museum-goer to actually sit and watch, to invest the time necessary to experience what are in fact narrative works.

Still, the sound of spoken French that occasionally emanates from one of the video cells acts to remind us, somewhat jarringly, of a site or location—namely, France, national French culture—that is largely absent from the exhibit. Installation pieces that use language—Ben Vautier’s 1962 Ben’s Window, for example, or Jean-Luc Vilmouth’s 1997 Bar Séduire—deliver their messages in English (or Japanese). Indeed, the only work to address the question of national difference through one of its most palpable markers, spoken language, is Pierre Huyghe’s very funny 1996 Dubbing—a real surprise in the show. With most of the work, however, we are in the paradoxical realm of installation—“site specific”—art that was made specifically to go abroad, art conceived in and produced for a world market of bland internationalism, devoid of cultural references, markers, or allusions to any recognizable French popular culture. What the exhibit shows, in other words, is artists whose urban formations are far less the quartier than the world market, and architects such as Jean Renaudie responding to a historical situation like the postwar demand for large-scale housing—a historical situation and response that were in no sense uniquely French. Even many of the DATAR photographers commissioned by the French state in the ’80s to document transformations in the country’s social and natural landscape—those who focus on suburban or periurban sites, for example—produce landscapes that are not recognizably “French.” The scene of nonsynchronicity depicted in Robert Doisneau’s 1984 Villejust (Essonne), for example, of farmers bent planting by hand against the background of a half-built concrete utility plant, could very well be taking place in Mexico.

One of the lone instances of cultural specificity, of cultural difference asserted in the face of some vapid post-’60s multinational modernity, is Jean Nouvel’s lovely design for the Institut du Monde Arabe. Yet Nouvel’s use of traditional Arab motifs like the moucharabies (latticework screens) raises questions in the context of the exhibit. Why is “the traditional” associated here only with Arab culture? And why is Arab influence on French culture limited to the one building whose very purpose is to house the study of Islamic culture in France? Why has this purview not extended further, to the design of social housing, for example, or of private homes in Bordeaux? Why does French culture in the exhibit not reflect, in other words, an indigenous internationalism: thevery tangible presence of Arabs and Arabic culture in the everyday life of contemporary French metropolises, and the turbulent (and repressed) history that entails? The year 1958, after all, the opening date in the exhibit’s/time span, was also the peak moment of the Algerian War, and the absence of any allusion to the changes wrought in French lived experience of the last forty years by that historical, continuing relationship is striking—particularly when so much of the art presented is deeply embedded in the question of everyday life and when architecture cannot be explained without recourse to social history. Instead, the exhibition’s realm is one where art is made, buildings are built, and technological achievements succeed each other in a world devoid of the social. And the future direction announced by the exhibit seems to be away from what I am calling indigenous internationalism and toward the very different kind of internationalism provided by the market—toward what Rimbaud, in one of his most prophetic poems, referred to as “the same bourgeois magic wherever our baggage puts us down”: the internationalism of postindustrial reproductive machinery, of a synthetic and homogeneous object world, and of the transnational dynamic (or stasis) of new media technology.

Kristin Ross