“Paris Stopover”

Paris pour escale” (Paris stopover) was presented as a companion to “L’École de Paris, 1904–1929, la part de l’autre” (The School of Paris, 1904-1929, the role of the other), a survey of foreign-born artists active in Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century. Reflecting the current obsession with the globalization of contemporary culture and arts, “The School of Paris” presented its artists as assimilated (although not without difficulties) outsiders who enriched French-read universal culture during the renowned années folles. Both exhibitions emphasized that Paris has been a magnet for foreigners searching for artistic innovation, freedom of expression, and economic stability. However, “Paris Stopover” shifted the focus from a romanticized construct of the Paris-based bohemian who finds a spiritual terre d’accueil and achieves artistic excellence in the French capital to a multiculturalism rooted in nomadic experience. The show emphasized that contemporary artists often choose Paris for a transient residency, without the same commitment to settling there. And while exiled Europeans constituted the majority of the artists in the School of Paris, “Paris Stopover” made a point of showing artists with predominantly non-Western origins.

The show addressed issues of cultural dislocation in works by twenty-seven artists worhg in different media, giving priority to multimedia installations. The Korean-born Han Myung-Ok’s arrangement of 750 slices of bread and the Algerian-born Samta Benyahia’s work with moucharabieh (openwork partitions behind which women are confined in traditional Arab houses) were among the most visually compelliig pieces. Relying on the ornamental. the two female artists mixed social commentary and personal disclosure. To make Untitled, 2000, Han used red thread to embroider slices of bread with the image of the veins on her hands. She then arranged the bread in a floor pattern. In Nuit du destin (Night of destiny), 2000, Benyahia glued delicate paper moucharabieh to the glass doors facing each other across the museum’s courtyard to create a setting for recordings of poetry concerningwomen and tolerance read by the female poet Zineb Laoèdj and the actress Fatouma Ouslahi.

The exhibition’s curators, Evelyne Jouanno and Hou Hanru, say they want to subvert Eurocentric modernism by “introducing elements of ‘Other’—i.e., non-Western—cultures.” But the terms “multiculturalism” and “the Other” have become tired catchwords by now, and the art chosen for the show looked quite homogeneous, despite its vaunted diversity and pluralism. Although many non-Western artists referenced their original cultures, their artistic vocabulary is essentially “Western.” Today’s “Others” belong to an international colony of artists, mobile and flexible enough to present their works in mainstream institutions worldwide. Due in part to the proliferation of biennials around the world, which include a growing number of ethnically diversified artists, marginality requires a context that reaches beyond the polemics vis-à-vis traditionally designated art centers. There is too much déjà vu and too little serious reflection in a work like the Chinese-born artist Shen Yuan’s Un matin du monde (One world morning), 2000, which comments on the omnipresence of mass culture by covering a TV antenna on what looks like the roof of a typical Chinese house with empty cans of Western-brand soft drinks. Or in the Philippines-born Gaston Damag’s Les disparitions (The disappearances), 2000, which presents an African statuette stuck on a rod in the middle of some kind of an engine, described by the catalogue as a comment on the violence of encounters between Western and non-Western cultures.

Nevertheless, with its calculated ambiguity and gentle scolding of dominant cultures, the show distinguished between “participation in” and “identification with” the system. Mirroring dominant structures while maintaining an accusatory stance vis-à-vis stereotypes of other cultures, the exhibition celebrated marginality. “Paris Stopover” also managed to convey something universal: Social mobility can provide artists with great opportunities to reinvent themselves.

Marek Bartelik