"Dionysiac: Art in Flux," Feb. 16-May 9, 2005, at Centre Pompidou, Paris.
The Greek god Dionysus is emblematic of intoxication, ecstasy, music and wild revelry, all of which provide the rationale for "Dyonisiac," the winter contemporary blockbuster at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Organized by Beaubourg curator Christine Macel, the sprawling show features specially commissioned installations by 14 top guns of the international art scene, ranging from John Bock, Christoph Büchel and Maurizio Cattelan to Jonathan Meese, Jason Rhoades and Keith Tyson -- all male. You got to admit, that takes balls.
Five years in the making, the show has put Macel on the curatorial map and, despite typically snide attacks from the French press (or perhaps because of them), is attracting visitors in record numbers. Obviously, the cultivated French have a taste for the gangbuster mentality of "fuck you" art. This is the right exhibition in the right city at the right time, exactly the type of show that Paris sorely needs to amp up its contemporary art profile.
The show opens with an installation by the Vienna-based collaborative Gelatin, featuring the group's trademark group portraits amplified by 3D Play-Doh additions, plus a daffy 20-foot-tall sculpture. Constructed in velvety pink synthetic fabric, Cockjuice Joe (2004) resembles a giant ferret standing on its rear legs, with teeth made of fluorescent tubes. The towering absurdity is emblematic of the chaotic free-for-all sensibility that prevails throughout "Dyonisiac."
Thomas Hirschhorn's messy contribution to the show, Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake (2000), gives the proceedings an anarchic political edge. Made of Hirschhorn's signature materials -- cardboard, aluminum foil and packing tape -- the piece first appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago, and illustrates the artist's view of the fragmentary diametric oppositions between global consumer excess and hotbeds of economic and political oppression.
Hirschhorn's intense and socially edifying work is a welcome antidote to the affected fluff offered by the usually more reliable Kendell Geers. His pinup-inspired La Sainte-Vierge (The HolyVirgin) (2005) is a graphic black-and-white wall painting of a reclining nude, done Rorschach-style to create a mirror-pair of odalisques. The painting's China ink runs drippy and is puddle dry on the floor, where are scattered shards of smashed wine bottles.
Sadly, Geers' PG-13 eroticism isn't lewd enough for this show; it's much too polite for the over-the-top attitude associated with a drunken God. A "performance" that had opening night revelers imbibing champagne from a crystal flute shaped like a penis caused a bit of an indulgent shrug, as long as the bubbly kept flowing. No word yet as to whether the artist himself modeled for the well-endowed tumbler.
Likewise Keith Tyson's ho-hum assemblage of paintings and objets d'art, listlessly spread across a stepped platform, falls far short of Shakespearean. Picked up by the powerful PaceWildenstein gallery and feted in a recent issue of über journal Parkett, the 2002 Turner Prize winner is a big gun now, but has yet to prove himself to non-native audiences.
Swiss artist Christoph Büchel's Minus represents the aftermath of a rock concert held inside of a walk-in meat locker. Buchel actually held a party with two bands performing for a crowd of beer-swilling hipsters. The instruments, speakers and assorted debris was then frozen, giving the work an impressive Nuclear Winter esthetic. While queueing up to enter the boxy construction -- only two or three at a time -- one could contemplate life's sudden and dramatic changes in fortune, as well as the overindulgent rock-star lifestyle that informs the entire show.
The ghost of Dieter Roth looms from room to room, notably in the films of John Bock, who once again delivers a carnival of zany images in Concrete Salon (Betonstube) (2005). A splendidly Bockian love story set in some industrial nether-world and featuring French actress Anne Brochet, the kitchen-sink melodrama usurps the more novel forms of entertainment found in Hollywood movies, pulsating with funny-bone humor and a melodious music soundtrack.
Tough love goes to Jonathan Meese for daring to use bronze for his series of creepy sculpture busts, paired with a 30-foot-wide horizontal expressionist painting. Meese's body of work is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, with cruelty, violence, Satanism and nihilism all finding their sick place within the specter of a Dionysian energy.
Senior artist in the muscular "Dionysiac" lineup is Richard Jackson (b. 1939), teacher of Paul McCarthy and guru of Jason Rhoades. Jackson is on a roll, having recently had two simultaneous New York shows and being picked up by Hauser & Wirth. Still, his dumbly titled Pump Pee Doo (2005) is a riddle that cannot be decoded. Eight molded fiberglass bears, some with Duchampian urinal heads painted in bright Pop colors, are standing at urinals "pissing" paint onto walls and floor. Though undeniably lively, it nevertheless falls a little flat.
The collaborative installation by McCarthy and Rhoades, by the way, left a stinking mess in its gallery, with holes punched in the wall and a stained museum carpet. McCarthy was absent, though Rhoades was on hand to serve as emcee of an opening-night performance that featured a band of merry pranksters dressed in gorilla costumes. To the accompaniment of drums, grunts and shouts, they produced "sheep plugs" -- or is that "shit plugs"? -- made of soap from a set of molds.
Images from past performances were projected on the wall, candles were ritualistically lit and trash left over from Documenta 11, preserved in blue cans with phallic lids, was incorporated into the new soap sculptures. The overall cacophony of the event -- paradoxically combining the ancient tradition of moldmaking, almost 50 years of happenings and performance art and 21st-century digital video -- left an indelible impression on the memory afterwards, though the actual event seemed a bit forced.
But where, you may ask, are the French artists? "Dionysiac" has deux -- Fabrice Hyber and Malachi Farrell. Hyber's ensemble of animated videos, drawings and one large painting leave a lot to be desired, for his interdisciplinary methods are lodged too much in the intellect. Fabrice, get out of your head! Yes, reality is complex, multi-layered and in flux all of the time, but why am I left indifferent to your postulations?
On the other hand the Dublin-born, Paris-raised Farrell turns out to be the surprise star of the show. From behind a curtain comes the sounds of a blaring radio and the whir of machinery -- it's Farrell's O'Black (Clandestine Workshop) (2004-05), an automated sweatshop with running sewing machines, bare incandescent bulbs, leaky water, an assembly of clothing on moving racks, and chairs on pneumatic devices moving to and fro.
The fluid dynamics of its Tinguely-inspired mechanics appears low-fi but is in fact more digitally oriented. Hand produced by the artist along with its sophisticated operating software, the installation periodically gives off a plume of smoke that fills the room, adding another dimension to its illicitness.
Maurizio Cattelan's contribution consisted of the street theater antics of a dwarf named Bernie, in a performance commissioned by Cattelan that added another element of outrageousness and absurdity to the show. Dressed as an Alpine hiker and wearing prosthetic mitts and a mask to give the appearance of a gnome, Bernie spoke in a voice that was electronically modulated by a microphone, hurling insults at the picture-taking audience.
For an exhibition that purports to be about art in a state of excessive flux (and "the contemporary tragic," in the curator's words), "Dyonisiac" is an extravagant production that is on the one hand a thrilling rollercoaster ride while on the other is entangled by its agitprop driven anti-esthetic. The show's loony irrationality butts against the commercial imperatives of the art market -- though the collision obviously isn't as cataclysmic as it may appear. Clearly, these artists are in search of an antidote to corporate homogeneity and the easily digested art experiences of the past.
Macel herself took some heat for her conscious omission of women artists such as a Pipilotti Rist or Rita Ackermann. Les Artpies, a group of women activists, passed out fliers denouncing the show, sarcastically noting that "the Pompidou has at long last opened up to masculine art" and proclaiming "glory to virile art" and "100 percent male."
Still, the pugnacious curator dismissed the catcalls at the rambunctious affair as a dazzling Parisian night ensued. Girls danced wildly at Maxims, a lot of champagne was consumed, and men got into fistfights all keeping in line with the presentation at hand.
A rambling, fumbling and bumbling Alpha Male cavalcade led by a woman, "Dyonisiac" somehow leaves visitors with a memorable and rewarding feeling, especially for members of the sophisticated art set that makes entertainment a focal point. We live on the periphery of normalcy and madness, lynchpins in a carousel of surrounding fickleness, extremist dogma and downright stupidity. What is left for the arts but to say fuck-off to more and more displays of encroaching conformity while trashing the store and leaving our enduring presence in place.
MAX HENRY lives in New York. He is art editor of the Paris Review.