“L’objet désorienté”

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Like an Unidentified Flying Carpet, “L’objet désorienté” (The disoriented object) landed in the glass-roofed exhibition hall of the museum with a crew of nine contemporary Moroccan artists and a cargo of some four thousand everyday items from Morocco’s urban bazaars and rural markets. Suffice it to say that the “disorientation” was hardly limited to the objects on display. What to make of this giant installation, composed of everything from bread trays and butter churns to jogging shoes and motorbike seats, meticulously ordered by the artists into a series of geometric modules to create a kind of oriental carpet in 3-D? A brochure handed out at the entrance provided a schematic bird’s-eye view of the exhibition-as-carpet (or vice versa), accompanied by exhaustive lists of the objects used. Far less exhaustive were the explanations offered on the back of this user’s guide: a three-sentence statement of purpose about continuity and change in Moroccan popular culture, an equally terse summary of each artist’s contribution, and an explanation of the “method.” This consisted of dispatching students from the École des Beaux-Arts de Tétouan, at the northern tip of Morocco, to seek out the objects to be “disoriented” for the exhibition.

In the absence of labels, artists’ statements, or other curatorial clues, visitors were left to their own devices, most notably their eyes. But with a bit of visual effort, the welter of colors, shapes, and textures gradually revealed a sophisticated logic of form and content, leading from the obvious contrast between traditional crafts and their mass-produced modern counterparts to the far more subtle and intriguing evidence of survivals, appropriations, and creative adaptations within a living popular culture, which are too often overshadowed by the exotic museum pieces of the past and the tourist art imitating them in the present.

This latter reading emerged most strikingly from the works of two young artists from the Tétouan Art Institute: Younes Rahmoun effected often surprising transformations of traditional cooking implements by laying them out in stately friezes, while Batoul S’himi paid colorful homage to the tenacious survival of Moroccan decorative motifs on mass-produced goods that are now largely imported from Asia. The resulting accumulations, eight by each artist, provided visual and thematic links between the other interventions—the monumental constructions of Faouzi Laatiris and Bordeaux artist Jean-Paul Thibeau and the more understated, conceptual pieces by Hicham Benohoud, Safâa Erruas, Mounir Fatmi, Jakob Gautel, and Jason Karaindros.

But like a real oriental carpet, this metaphorical one was not meant to be broken down into its individual components. Its seduction and subversiveness lay in the seamless “weave” of artistry, craft, humor, and sociological savvy that left viewers to unravel the knots surrounding their (our) relationship to art and culture. Not the least of these issues concerned the very nature of artistic creation: Were the interventions of the nine artists more “artistic” than the objects they worked with? What about the contribution of the student “explorers,” whose legwork and eyework were essential to the project? And above all, how should one define the role of Jean-Louis Froment, the initiator of the show? Refusing the usual “guest curator” label, the former director of the capcMusée d’Art Contemporain Bordeaux, who has been living and teaching in Morocco for several years, chose to credit himself with “exhibition design.” In retrospect, “carpet design” might well have been more appropriate, as a way of emphasizing his involvement not simply in the presentation of the works but, like a traditional craftsperson, in the entire process of their creation. And as a way of signalling that “L’objet désorienté” offered not only another view of Morocco but another view of art.

Miriam Rosen