“Mots d'ordre mots de passe”

Espace Paul Ricard

Curators Cyril Jarton and Laurent Jean-pierre’s “Mots d’ordre mots de passe” (Order Words Passwords) gathered artists from across generations and media “to isolate and compare two strategies—order words and passwords—that operate in art as well as in politics.” Unfortunately, neither phrase was defined nor explained, though a prominently displayed press release informed us that the three consecutive rooms of the L-shaped Espace Paul Ricard were set up for order, passage, and combinations of the two, respectively. “Order words” would presumably represent the voice of authority speaking in commands, rules, or directions. But the function of “passwords” or “passage words” (as translated in the press release) was less clear.

In the first room, one had the feeling that artists and artworks were chosen to fit the curators’ categories. Many artists tended to shroud political vituperation in ambiguity and irony: Gil Wolman’s Situationist slogans, such as Man Looked at Things, 1979; Philippe Ramette’s big stainless-steel megaphone, Canon à paroles (Speech Cannon), 2001; Claude Lévêque’s Untitled (Arbeit macht frei), 1992, where Mickey Mouse plays host under Auschwitz’s notorious “Work Makes You Free” sign; Davide Balula’s sound installation of murmuring pigeons; Johan Bérard’s digital “timer,” Untitled, 2003, where tiny images of people coming and going are projected as time flashes by; or even the photographs and drawings from the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia (Steidl, 2004), which seemed an odd inclusion. Given the ambiguity of the art versus the apparent dominance of the curators’ intentions, I was left wondering whether the show was presented to the artists as being concept driven or simply an exercise in trend spotting.

In the “passage” room, Alain Séchas’s polyester-and-resin sculpture of a closed-eyed cat walking through a wide-eyed cat, Le Monument pour Jacques Lacan, 2002, suggested a negotiation of Other through Self. Street politics were engaged in STRIKE (K font V.I), 2005, a blinking neon-tube construction by the art duo Claire Fontaine (Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill), and also in Werner Büttner’s photocollages, one showing a hammer and sickle in a ring of fire, a toy produce shop, and wall sign that reads WAITED ON BY FRAU HAß. But one remained none the wiser as to what a “passage word” might be, nor how the idea relates to these artworks.

The confusion increased with the babble of videos from room to room: Pascal Lièvre’s political phrases sung to pop tunes, Abba Mao, 2001, and Lacan Dalida, 2000, in the first and second rooms, respectively, were only a few steps from Frédéric Lecomte’s edited porn video and film clips, also in the second room, which looked like colored Rayograms. From the last room a chatter permeating all the galleries was revealed to be recorded voices from a fake art dinner emanating from beneath Thierry Mouillé’s Le Banquet, 2001, an insipidly conceived work consisting of a U-shaped conference table set with white paper and plastic picnic utensils. On the wall, Bruno Perramant’s painting that looks as if rendered from a subtitled film image, Voice No. 15, 1999 (AND THERE WILL NEVER BE PEACE is scripted over a watery architectural reflection), lacked sufficient panache to be convincing.

“Order Words Passwords” could be construed as being critical of media consumerism through artistic irony. However, by the time one reaches the last room, the curators’ uneven selection of paintings, objects, and videos, and the obscure, apparently arbitrary terminology, seemed to undermine this position. In the end, at least some works—those by Wolman, Ramette, Lévêque, Séchas, and Bérard for instance—resisted and withstood the curators’ unclear constraints.

Jeff Rian