El Anatsui, Broken Bridge, 2012, mixed media. Installation view, Galliéra, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photo: André Morin.

El Anatsui, Broken Bridge, 2012, mixed media. Installation view, Galliéra, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photo: André Morin.

La Triennale: “Intense Proximities”

El Anatsui, Broken Bridge, 2012, mixed media. Installation view, Galliéra, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photo: André Morin.

“INTENSE PROXIMITY” is a sexy name for an exhibition showcasing art produced for a postcolonial era. It intimates a situation in which distinct cultures, thanks to new technologies and economies, are brought within kissing distance of one another, even if they ultimately end up coming to blows. And by privileging proximity over, say, mixture, an exhibition can explore the differences that persist despite the homogenization that rhetorics of Western globalism often favor. Such was the accomplished goal of La Triennale 2012, which opened at the newly renovated and expanded (though still tastefully grungy) Palais de Tokyo this spring. Organized by veteran perennial curator Okuwi Enwezor (along with Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Émilie Renard, and Claire Staebler), “Intense Proximity” assembled more than one hundred image and object makers from scores of countries (with a particularly strong showing of Eastern European artists), all of them addressing the powerful aftereffects (and after-affects) of cultures pushing up against one another.

The massive exhibition occupied three floors, as well as off-site locations such as the Musée Galliera (the fashion museum facing the Palais de Tokyo), whose facade became the support for El Anatsui’s radiant drapery, and the Louvre, which allowed visiting scholars and artists to give tours of its collection according to topoi of La Triennale. The exhibition sprawled across disciplines, too: Several “contributors” were anthropologists, including such legendary figures as the late Claude Lévi-Strauss and Timothy Asch. Instead of a traditional catalogue, Enwezor edited an anthology that placed writings in art history alongside those of ethnographers, anthropologists, and postcolonial theorists (Édouard Glissant, Jean Rouch), thus bringing art history to a position of scholarly proximity with social science.

If all those disciplines are inextricably tied to the advent of Western modernism, Enwezor effectively deflated that weltanschauung in the opening rooms with objects that politicized twentieth-century abstraction. Daniel Buren applied his signature stripes to chicken wire, which, stretched across the main entry point of the exhibition, subtly converted museum attendants into border guards. Monica Bonvicini torqued the primary structures of Minimalism by topping a mirrored cube with an incomplete cube of chains, testing the weight of metal and slavery against the lightness of viewers’ narcissism and denial. Ivan Kožaric´’s assortment of objects made of bronze, wood, and other materials related to the show’s conceit more overtly by exploring tactility and intimacy; his soft and slumping forms looked as if they had once been small, thumb-pressed things that had somehow mutated into larger sizes.

This attention to modernist form at the show’s start implicitly rebutted those who have accused Enwezor of emphasizing politics at the expense of aesthetics—an argument that would be difficult to sustain here, given the exhibition’s remarkable number of works that managed to calibrate sensuous appeal with radical insight. In this respect, Camille Henrot’s mirthful installation of plants, Is It Possible to Be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?, 2012, was paradigmatic. Bits of said flora were pinched off, displayed in a sort of heterodox ikebana (appropriate for a “Japanese Palace” in Paris), and given botanical labels that presented, in addition to plant taxonomy, titles of literary works encouraging an allegorical interpretation of the specimen. The humble typeface on one card read XENOPHILE (in reference to André Breton’s erotic ode to Oceania) and, below that, PHORMIUM TENAX; next to it hung two leaves of New Zealand flax amid a tangle of electric cord. With it hung a familiar conceptual tangle as well: What rereading of Western letters is possible, the work asks, what whimsical illustrations of it can we make, such that we might revel in, say, the delicious oneirism of Breton’s poetry even as we question its exoticism—its literal lust for the other? And how long can an artist attend to a crisply bent leaf or the uncanny reproduction of automatist drawing in a plastic cord before pleasure overcomes message?

These were questions posed by many of the works in the exhibition, and in the best cases they were not answered. Haim Steinbach’s Caution, 2007/2011, voiced a similar opposition, though, as usual, the artist let consumerism do most of the talking. In Steinbach’s slick and colorful display, two rubber, pumpkin-shaped welcome mats counterbalanced two Rubbermaid CAUTION signs and an amusingly pooplike rubber dog toy; if the chewie was for a guard dog, then all the elements marked boundaries in one way or another, and the choice of material seemed especially appropriate for an exhibition in France, where the Vietnamese origins of rubber for Michelin tires remains largely undiscussed, and where the old dynamics of center and periphery remain profoundly fraught. (Witness the supremely strange reorganization of the African, Oceanic, Asian, and American collections at the Musée du Quai Branly just across the Seine.) Indeed, the troubling of spatial and structural binaries of margin and center, undertaken by thinkers invoked in the show such as Glissant, played out in fruitful ways throughout the exhibition, going far beyond the sphere of textuality within which much of recent postcolonial studies has been rooted.

Now, I will confess that the most intense kind of proximity I’ve ever experienced has been the naked kind, so I was relieved to see the body as a prominent subcategory of this exhibition. The exposed bodies belonged almost exclusively to women, however, problematizing the politics of the show. From the eclectic sexuality of Carol Rama to the savvy and provocative nudes of Chris Ofili, from the delicate melancholy of Ewa Partum’s photographic self-insertion into the streets of Cold War Poland to Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s spritzy and weirdly shameless minstrelsy (covering her nude body and wispy bob in black paint, she danced among giant Robert Indiana–esque numbers to achieve a performance that was half Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn, half Josephine Baker), women were the chief signifiers of sexual difference in this show. But Enwezor is prolific and hardly blind to the gendered dimensions of cultural politics, so I don’t doubt there will be many opportunities ahead for him to explore masculinity’s complex proximity to postcolonialism more fully as well.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.