A number of recent exhibitions have reflected on 1960s psychedelic art, but “1∆0: Explorations psychédéliques en France, 1968 – ∞” took a radically different approach. Curators Axelle Blanc, Tiphanie Blanc, and Yann Chateigné Tytelman mounted a conceptual, counterintuitive exploration of the French side of psychedelia by not dwelling on the full-bodied experience we would automatically expect. In the CAPC’s imposing, sparingly lit exhibition hall, the beholder was instead met by a few documentary slide projections, a memorabilia time line that demonstrated how psychedelia was also the pathetic visuality of the handbill and the homemade light show effect, and selected works by artists including Frédéric Pardo and Martial Raysse, all scattered along the periphery like so many subterranean riddles. In the center of the vaulted space stood two mirror-clad stages and a strange installation of a pair of stylized rainbow pyramid eyes that loomed from floor to ceiling, each vast eyeball fitting into an arch in the ceiling. Mandala Eyes, 2008, by Lili Reynaud Dewar, was an oversize three- dimensional reinterpretation of the cover image for the band Gong’s 1974 LP You. While Dewar admittedly played on an archaic spirituality here, her work’s gigantism was entirely in order: Indeed, psychedelia was precisely about displacing the logocentric subject through ecstasy, exaltation, and awe—something Mandala Eyes dosed out in its flippant reinvention, somehow serving as more than a spectacle while hovering between art and set design. On the stages, screenings of films and performances by veteran bands (organized by Maxime Guitton) took place during the course of the exhibition. Instead of attempting an exhaustive or representative mapping, the show took Gong and its front man, poet and musician Daevid Allen, as what the press release called its “ideal vector” for a curatorial route through the sprawling terrain of psychedelia, documenting the artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians with whom the band had been in touch.

By the 1960s, Paris had, of course, relinquished its position as capital of the avant-garde, and “l∆0” makes the tough concession that psychedelia was not a homegrown phenomenon but arrived in France from London via musicians and artists like Soft Machine, the Boyle Family, and David Medalla. But it was not all Anglo-American import. In the late ’50s, Jean-Jacques Lebel introduced Allan Kaprow to Antonin Artaud and the beat poets to Henri Michaux. Psychédélisme was hardly unconnected to national tradition—on the contrary, it is to the French scene you would want to turn in order to grasp the cross- pollination between psychedelia’s aberrant modernity and the historical avant-gardes. Situationist tactics, too, were resolved in unlikely ways, exemplified by the Zanzibar group’s “cinéma violent.” In the show, however, genealogies were only present through the ’60s material, and while the inclusion of modernist greats could have reduced their hip descendants, unfairly, to derivates, a stronger documentary effort might have explored specifically French characteristics of psychedelia’s transnational, bastard idiom.

The strategic curating of “l∆0” was a risky approach that banked on a thinking viewer. The deliberately underwhelming staging made for a nonchalant translation of the curatorial research effort into an exhibition form that didn’t pander to audience expectations, and re-coded its subject matter by theatrical means and through a hermetic title. For a beholder coming cold to psychedelia, the show must have seemed distant and difficult to access, but a rewarding time could be spent cross-referencing screenings and concerts, facsimiles of underground magazines, and a film and audiovisual archive (curated by Bertrand Grimault). To be sure, “l∆0” worked in accordance with its subject’s experimental and transformational imperatives, avoiding display strategies of easy identification. That it did so, along with the exhibition’s nocturnal, ambivalent mood, kept nostalgic promises at bay, clearing a space for something new to happen—or allowing for the psychedelic dream to escape, or die, the way it was. What a rarity: a historical show that allowed time to pass.

Lars Bang Larsen