The celebrated American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia opened an exhibition of his work at the Centre National de la Photographie (CNP) on Jan. 14, 2004. The show fills five rooms and includes photos made over 25 years, from 1975 to 2000. DiCorcia is especially good at that essential photographic mission -- the search for hidden meaning in an everyday world.
Most of the pictures taken of people in the street, from the series Streetwork" (1993-1997), "Two Hours" (1999) and "Heads" (2000), catch his subjects unawares, deep in thought while in transit. Lit with a halo of hidden flash while in this protected-but-forward-moving mode, the people in these exceptional pictures give up something of their inner lives. Their faces shine with an almost religious reverence.
The series "Hollywood" (1990-92), by contrast, is something of a political statement regarding the sexual censorship that roiled the cultural waters in the U.S. in the Reagan era, and which eventually led to a kind of purge at the National Endowment for the Arts. "Hollywood," which was sponsored by an NEA grant, documents male prostitutes and hustlers in that area of Los Angeles. The photos are each titled with the subject's name, age and price paid, and seem a restrained statement in regard to the commodification of the flesh, in distinct contrast to Robert Mapplethorpe's more Dionysian (and notorious) photos of similar material.
The CNP, currently housed in the hotel Salomon de Rothschild on the rue Berryer, officially closes on June 28 after an exhibition of work by Orlan (the French performance artist who has notoriously used plastic surgery to transform her own visage into a new ideal). After this final show, the CNP moves into the former Galerie du Jeu de Paume at Place de la Concorde.
The restructuring has caused confusion and protest since it was announced in late 2002 by Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon. The scheme is to combine three independent spaces into one, merging the management of the CNP, the Galerie du Jeu de Paume and the Patrimoine photographique, which is now at htel de Sully.
The announcement that the Jeu de Paume is henceforth to be dedicated to "The Image: photography, video and multimedia" has done little to inspire confidence. Most gallerists seem to be against the merger, with the word "catastrophique" being bandied about like a beignet before a bike race.
The downside is obvious: less space, less money, reliance on generalized historic expositions and permanent collection shows to carry the transition. The good news is that CNP director Rgis Durand has been tapped to head the new enterprise. One can only hope for the best.
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The triumph of New York painter Lisa Ruyter continued at the opening of her February show at Thaddaeus Ropac, called "Can't See the Forest for the Trees" and featuring brightly colored images of sylvan landscapes. The fashionable Parisian crowd was in attendance, and word was that the show sold out before the drinks had been drunk.
Within her photo-based, paint-by-number technique, Ruyter is able to play with color and design a sense of space that seems oddly emotional and subjective. In these particular images, the deep perspective strongly implies a viewer wandering through the trees, and conveys a strange sense of potential or aborted narrative. Big success.
Just up the street from Ropac, at number 15 rue Debelleyme, is g-module, a still relatively young gallery founded in Paris by the American dealer Jeff Gleich and showing mostly emerging artists from New York and Los Angeles. Like a breath of fresh air, this gallery is always energizing to visit, with smart, cutting-edge, and unusually interesting works by its group of talented artists.
One recent example were the paintings by New York based Michael Rodriguez, works that could be called techno-molecular sci-fi abstractions. A kind of updated Tachisme with a new and delicate allure, Rodriguez's paintings are his own vesica piscis, joining a gravitational center and the light use of flocking to give a sense of purposeful movement to the elements within the paintings.
Downstairs, g-module was showing Eddo Stern's Vietnam Romance, a touching 19-minute-long video made from clips taken from computer war games and accompanied by a soundtrack of pop songs from the Vietnam era. The dreamy video triggers three-decade-old memories, in what is a surprisingly intense viewing experience. The music starts off with Nancy Sinatra's Boots, accompanying a scene of prostitutes and soldiers on the sidewalk, and segues through Creedence Clearwater Revival's Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit and the Rolling Stones' Paint it Black. Stern ends his tape with California Dreamin' by the Mamas and Papas, as a soldier dies and his soul desperately tries to find its way back home.
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In keeping with the Year of China in France, which runs from last October through next July, a show of new and exciting video work by Chinese artists is on view the Maison Europénne de la photographie (until Mar. 14). Dubbed "China: Generation Video," the show includes three stand-outs.
Kan Xuan's video A Chorus (1999) stars a lineup of toes that have been transformed into a group of frighteningly amusing patriots with assistance from a simple marker. The comical toe chorus sings a military propaganda training march, subtitled Without the Communist Party, the New China Wouldn't Exist. It's rather catchy.
A video by Chen Shaoxiong, titled Anti-Terrorism Variety (2003), showed tall buildings in Shanghai being attacked by airplanes -- buildings that, through the magic of video, are able to save themselves from disaster. Most poetic is the tower that simply bends out of the airplane's path like a tree in the wind.
Finally, Cao Fei, a young woman from Canton, presented Hip Hop, a grow-on-you funny video where construction workers, policemen, criminals, and the homeless all stop what they're doing for a moment and dance to a hip hop tune. The tape didn't include any aghast or confused passersby, and so seemed more Captain Kangaroo meets MTV than Gillian Wearing.
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The beautiful and witty Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) forged her reputation in the 1960s with dramatic "shooting paintings" and later cemented her status as a French national treasure with playful, hand-painted "Nanas," inspired in part by the art of Henri Matisse and the kinetic creations of her longtime partner, Jean Tinguely. The Nanas do it all, and now they're on view in a retrospective survey at JGM Galerie on rue du Temple, Mar. 6-Apr. 17, 2004.
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The Institute Finlandais is situated in the heart of the Left Bank, across from the famous Brasserie Balzar and diagonally opposite from the Sorbonne. But when you enter, you leave Paris behind. Architect Juhani Pallasmaa has redone the first two floors, fitting them out in clean wood lines in the typical Finnish style. To inaugurate its refurbished quarters, the institute did a show of four new media artists from Finland. The show included works by Hanna Haaslahti, Juha Huuskonen and Roi Vaara, but the powerhouse draw was Eija-Liisa Ahtila, whose triumphant installation at last summer's Venice Biennial is still in everyone's memory.
Guests filled the viewing room's 60 chairs, with more added for overflow, to see a mini-retrospective of Ahtila's films and videos, ranging from Me/We, Okay, Gray (1993), If 6 Was 9 (1995) and Today (1996-97) to Consolation Service (1999) and Love Is a Treasure (2002).
Ahtila likes to construct a fragmented and multiple narrative that attempts to work through, resolve or profoundly examine a dilemma or rupture, either real or imagined. Her films are like the eye of the storm, pulling the viewer into a calm where there is a raging all around.
In Today, for example, we see the aftermath of a car accident through the eyes of three different family members. A grandfather, while walking along a darkened forest road, comes up to the camera, stares directly into it and without saying a word, goes and lies down in one of the tree shadows, effectively disappearing from view. "Suddenly one of those shadows stood up," says the narration -- it is the grandfather's son, who has run over him with a car -- "and then again, an accident happened."
Another character, named Vera, complains about adults who refuse to grow up, as if to cast the accident in terms of an Oedipal episode. "Your life is just drifting from one accident to another and you can't even decide," says the narration. "You can't even decide whether they've been good or bad."
Throughout the video, the third character -- daughter of the son and granddaughter of the grandfather -- is seen bouncing a ball, which sets up a psychological rhythm of anxiety. We want it all to stop, but life's messiness continues, and we either reply or die.
Love Is a Treasure, Ahtila's latest effort, is a series of five short fictional films based on true stories of women with psychoses. Here we see more visual play and experimental camerawork to express these difficult mental states and transitions.
A window piece by performance artist Roi Vaara stopped people even in the cold Paris rain. They stood on the sidewalk under their umbrellas, smiling and agreeing with his work, which is titled Artist's Dilemma. On a large, flat screen, the image of a well-dressed man stands in the middle of a frozen lake. There is a sign. One arrow points toward life, one toward art. The man walks first toward one, then the other. What to do?
What to do?
ERIN COWGILL is an artist writing on art from Paris.