Among the exhibitions that absorbed Paris gallery-goers last month, three are particularly noteworthy. They are related to each other by a common theme, the notion of the "trace," though in each case the idea is taken up in a different sense.
Twenty years ago, on April 16, 1981, Sophie Calle's mother asked the Duluc detective agency, at the request of the artist, to track her daughter. Calle's footsteps that day would be directed by the consciousness of being followed and by the will of altering, even slightly, the course of her follower's life. Her activities would be chosen in order to leave a mark on the man who was even being shadowed himself by a friend of the artist, who was charged of spotting and of taking photographs of the detective.
Twenty years later, Emmanuel Perrotin found an original way of convincing Calle to work with his gallery: on April 16th, 2001, he ordered another surveillance of the artist on the anniversary of her first experiment.
Records of both of these projects are exhibited at Perrotin. In both, the process is the same: a large photograph of Sophie Calle, supposedly taken on the day of her surveillance, the subjective and engaged written description of her own day by herself, the objective and neutral written report of her day by the detective illustrated by photographs taken by him and those taken of him.
Presenting these two investigations together in relation with each other endows them with still another level of meaning. Not only can we witness the relationship, between Calle and the detective, but we can also observe the way the artist responds to the same experience after an interval of 20 years.
First, the constants: the same silhouette, same kind of haircut, similar trench-coat, similar visit to a museum, failed or successful attempt of meeting with an (actual or fake) family member. Then, the differences: a yellow handbag rather than a yellow garment, a visit to Beaubourg rather than the Louvre, a meeting with her mother rather than a failed attempt of meet a stand-in for her father. And some additional changes: wearing glasses to read and using a car in 2001, and a more casual attitude towards the entire undertaking.
This exhibition establishes different levels of dialogue: between the two texts, between text and images, and between the two experiments united by their similarity but separated by 20 years.
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The work of Mark Dion deals with traces of the past, recent or ancient, natural or cultural, as well as the way our civilization comprehends those remnants through the way it classifies and displays them. Dion's work also reflects the influence of 17th- and 18th-century Cabinets of Curiosities, with their subjective and sometimes flighty arrangements of objects, on modern museological presentations.
Dion's recent work, Theatrum Mundi, realized in collaboration with the British artist Robert Williams and exhibited at In Situ, pursues this critical approach of modern scientific classification and display.
The Theatrum Mundi is a two-sided cabinet alluding to the alchemical works and the ars memoriae of Raymond Lulle and Robert Fludd, one side being dedicated to Nature and the other to Culture. These two sections are articulated around a human skeleton which embodies at once the continuity and the split between these two categories of knowledge. What's more, the sections are structured according to the Renaissance representation of the world, going from the underworld at the bottom to the spiritual realm at the top.
The unusual presentation of the objects, dug out (as it were) for this project by members of Cambridge University, transgresses the traditional boundaries between art and science.
Dion's project seems designed to undermine the possibility of a completely objective science, one deprived of all sensitivity and ideology. The dense display of the many objects in Dion's and William's Theatrum Mundi seems to argue in favor of the transcendent construction of a unified knowledge.
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In his latest body of work, Erotica,Vik Muniz takes his images from pornographic web sites and reproduces them in miniature using Play-Dough, subsequently magnifying them into large-scale photographs.
For these photos, exhibited at Xippas, the artist leaves traces of his physical intervention on the material itself, literal marks of his presence, as seen through the evidence of his working the clay.
Though Muniz denies any influence, seeing those large and colorful photographs, one cannot help thinking of Thomas Ruff's "Nudes" series, the raw material for which was also lifted from pornographic web sites.
But the comparison stops here because if Ruff idealizes and creates a distance between the viewer and his subject by blurring the original pictures and domesticates them by using smooth and reassuring colors, Muniz thrusts the subject in our faces by showing us close-up views of intertwined, truncated bodies and stiffened limbs, by the use of crude colors sometimes mingling together, and by using a material that requires a direct contact with the skin and which bears the marks of that sensual contact.
The fingerprints left by the artist in those pictures endow the final result with a tactile quality that is in perfect concordance with its subject. The molding and kneading of the dough, made visible through the twirls left on its uneven surface, give a sense of the movements and manipulations made by the artist's hands. This touch at the heart of the material, enhanced by the huge size of the pictures, plunges the viewer directly into the coarseness and carnality of the subject.
In his previous works, Muniz has used materials with a deceitful purpose -- in the "Pictures of Air," air bubbles injected in a transparent paste give the illusion of being views of starry nights (incidentally, also reminiscent of one of Ruff's work, the "Stars" series), or in his poetic "Clouds" series, a piece of cotton was cut out in the shape of a cloud itself, mimicking the form of an animal or of a familiar object such as a cat or a tea-pot.
Unlike those series, the material used for Erotica bears no ambiguity. Instead of misleading the viewer about the real nature of the representation, it serves to show it honestly.
Sophie Calle, "Changement d'Adresse," Oct. 27-Dec. 1, 2001, at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, 5 + 30 rue Louise Weiss, 75013 Paris.
Mark Dion, Oct. 27-Dec. 1, 2001, at Galerie In Situ, 10 rue Duchefdelaville, 75013 Paris.
Vik Muniz, "Erotica," Oct. 27-Dec. 12, 2001, at Galerie Xippas, 108 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris.
CORINNE BOURGEOIS KEVORKIAN is a writer living in Paris.