Charlemagne Palestine

Galerie Damasquine

Charlemagne Palestine is a pioneer of experimental and minimalist music (with recent discs on the Alga Marghen and Barooni labels) as well as video art. But he is also known for his sculptural détournement of stuffed animals. This last obsession has led some—particularly young artists enamored of electronic music—to believe that he is the unjustly overlooked inspiration for the stuffed-animal work of one Mike Kelley. But to emphasize the connection would be to misunderstand Kelley’s intellectualism as much as the obsession that haunts Palestine; above all it would be to ignore the quasi universality of the material itself. For Kelley, stuffed animals are the equivalent of symptoms; for Palestine, they are extensions of himself, incarnations of his “spirituality.”

Paradoxically, it is probably the success of Kelley’s work that has led to Palestine’s being reconsidered today—so why complain? Palestine now lives in Brussels and recently presented two remarkable installations of the aforementioned toys. Last September, in the context of a group exhibition on the industrial site of the nonprofit Tour &Taxi, he arranged D Day P Day, 2001, a hilarious tableau of stuffed parachutists. More recently, at Damasquine, the central piece, Etoile d’Amour for Harry, 2002, was a saraband of rocking chairs suspended from the ceiling on which pairs of large multicolored teddy bears—Elmer and Ducky, Janos and Shaan, and Gauch and Pedro—seemed carried away by speed. Around them countless portraits of stuffed animals were framed like so many ex-votos, offerings of thanks for secretly accorded favors. In the center, a piano served as an altar for this installation. A pagan, spiritual, and poetic ceremony, it silently evoked a world deserted by a supreme being who has ceded his place to a horde of old synthetic animals, the secondary divinities of a cult whose great, disenchanted director would be none other than Charlemagne Palestine—let’s not forget that he was once the bell ringer at St. Thomas’s church near the Museum of Modem Art, New York.

“I’m the living hybrid in my own work of the physical gesturality of Jackson Pollock and the spiritual color chemistry of Mark Rothko,” Palestine has said. But the declared ambitions of his enterprise—the evocation of fetishes and totemic languages, the search for forms of the sacred—might be embarrassing were they not happily contradicted by the modesty of the means employed, the vague and indiscriminate intermingling of references, and the humor of their arrangement. The disordered, the incomplete, the worn, the floppy, and the sweet are qualities that, employed with skill and gaiety, establish a minor mode, a personal alternative to a modem authoritarianism that until quite recently would no doubt have refused to take such a project as seriously as it deserves.

Anne Pontégnie

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.