A pergola comprises two parallel rows of colonnades that support an open roof of girders and cross rafters, providing a structure for climbing plants, usually set within a garden and attached to a house. The Palais de Tokyo—with its aspirations to function as a socially permeable, transparent, and nonhierarchical platform for contemporary art—recently became a metaphorical pergola for an idiosyncratic constellation of exhibitions and projects by five artists who engage history and memory through the languages of sculpture, the monument, installation, technology, architecture, and design.

I was most curious about Laith Al-Amiri’s Symbol of Courage, originally produced in January 2009 (in collaboration with kids from a local orphanage in Tikrit, Iraq) as an outdoor public monument to Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who in December 2008 threw his shoes at George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad and was promptly arrested. Al-Amiri made an oversize copper shoe with a green plastic shrub placed in it and installed the work on the grounds of the orphanage on a white fiberglass base that simulates the flowing undulations of a regal fabric; it generated some international press buzz, then was quickly dismantled by the Iraqi government. The large shoe rematerialized here somewhat awkwardly and abjectly, remade for the occasion and sited in the building’s main entry space. It is inadvertently comic and yet, as a work produced in reaction to one of the most surreal moments of an altogether tragic and absurd war, Symbol of Courage has an undeniable resonance. Its presence in this context inevitably raised the question of whether it is contemporary art, an uncanny folk-art object, some type of homespun civic monument, or all of the above.

On the other side of the spectrum of object making was Valentin Carron’s exhibition-within-an-exhibition, “Monsieur,” which delivered us headfirst into the postauthorial abyss of postmodernism. In his droll, hypersimulated pastiche of the codes of modernist and Minimalist sculpture, as well as of large-scale public art, the Swiss artist is apparently endeavoring to neutralize art history by converting it into something in the neighborhood of interior decoration. With hanging lanterns casting a deliberately incongruous incandescent light in the otherwise fluorescent setting, his sculptural simulacra (the large-scale structures surfaced with a material that resembles stucco) flirted with the condition of art-kitsch. It’s a stage set upon which the banalities of institutionalized art history were played out, as if outsourced to Euro Disney. Here, art became a cheap (postaesthetic) scent of itself, for better or worse.

Nearby, a modest survey of the German artist Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985) revealed an ideological proclivity decidedly different from that of Carron, featuring sculptures from Posenenske’s “D” and “DW” series, all dated 1967. These operate according to a modular logic and suggest appurtenances that might be found within factories or other industrial buildings. Posenenske invokes a rational, utilitarian design aesthetic—yet she intended, in fact, to facilitate a kind of (neo-utopian) participatory social sculpture, in which curators would be able to manipulate arrangements/installations and viewers would have the opportunity to reconfigure the structures. The ways in which viewers might actually intervene in her works at the Palais de Tokyo were unclear, but at least the aroma of participation was in the air.

Beyond social utopias, an actual historical technology (designed to facilitate a mode of economic exchange) is reproduced by New York–based Serge Spitzer in his elaborate, large-scale installation titled Re/Search, Bread and Butter with the Ever Present Question of How to Define the Difference Between a Baguette and a Croissant (II), 1995–2010. Originally presented at the 1997 Biennale de Lyon, the work is a jumbled network of suspended, transparent plastic tubes, based on a nineteenth-century communication technology: a pneumatic messaging device originally used to send commercial orders, installed under the streets of Paris. In this desublimated, aboveground, Rube Goldbergian version, it becomes a tautological apparatus in which a canister-like device (perhaps containing a message) is propelled to and fro through the plastic circuitry; the ridiculous mechanism is itself both sender and receiver in an endless feedback loop, with the whooshing sound of the pneumatic instrument punctuating the space of the Palais.

Finally, Raphaël Zarka’s La Draisine (Gang Car), 2009, revives a similarly futurist technology from the past: The Aérotrain design developed in the 1960s by French engineer Jean Bertin, a fantastical yet apparently functional hovercraft locomotive, is re-created by the Paris-based artist as a hybrid of two motorcycles designed to function on a monorail system. “Pergola” likewise operated according to a recombinant logic, suggesting that history is the trellis upon which art grows as a necessary fiction.

Joshua Decter