I had a flashback. I was a kid walking through the state fair arcade, and the barkers were calling out, coaxing, flattering, trying anything to get the girl to play the game. Everything was super bright and flashing, there were bells going off, megaphones sounding, fish swimming in little bowls. It was hard to see or focus on the rules of the games and inevitably I would just keep walking.
Why does this come to mind? I attended the opening of "Au-Delá Du Spectacle" at the Centre Pompidou on a slightly rainy, cold Sunday night with one of the artists who is in the exhibition. In the museum's large entrance hall was a boxing ring, surrounded by a gathering crowd and permeated with the distinct scent of farm animals. Ignoring the whole scene, we made our way to the top floor, where there is a queue to enter the exhibition.
My normally fluent-in-French friend goes straight up to a guard and busts into English in that endearing New York tone insisting he will not wait on this line to attend his own opening. The guard confers with another and a door is opened and we are escorted through the back hall, a corner is turned and SMASH we are at the show! Badda-bing badda-bang badda-boom (as the crackhead at the end of my street likes to say).
Everything is twirling or flashing or talking or whirling. I make a beeline through the first shiny gold wall I see, a plastic beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres that spans the breadth of the doorway. It was a welcomed separation between chaos and, well, more chaos. A band was playing on a clover-shaped platform, but I never figured out who they were.
Next I decided to seek out something stationary and found right before me the giant ashtray by Damien Hirst, filled with butts and called Party Time. Hirst is the hero of this show, which appeared last year in the U.S. at the Walker Art Center and elsewhere. Here is where his oversized ideas should be played out. The round huge spin paintings, beautiful, insane, insensitive, with their sign painter's colors and glossy sheen, are literally targets on the walls. Done in the mid-1990s, they have finally found a logical home as the Alpha sign of sensational art. Well, at least he was in this room.
By now the place is jammed with about 1,000 people, rockin', with music and more lights. Adrian Piper has her videotape Funk Lessons -- a tongue-in-cheek effort to teach white kids to dance -- clipping away on a monitor in the corner, but it's hard to notice in all the real-life hullabaloo. A lot of quieter work was lost in the thunder of the show. For instance I noticed if a piece does not emit its own light, as in Jack Pierson's red flashing Applause sign, it would just not be lit all. I guess the powers that be were confident in the reflective light factor.
Did I already say that the walls were painted with glitter? They were white, as most self-respecting modern museums tend to be, but these walls had a second life of silver glitter evenly distributed in the whiteness. The only artist who integrated this (happy accident or not) into his work was Jean-Luc Verna, who did a photo transfer directly onto a four-by-six-foot section of the wall of the Paramount logo of a mountain emerging from clouds. Verna pushed plastic faux-jeweled pins directly into the wall every 10 inches or so to make a grid. It was a crafty use of the glittering wall, and a lucky break for the piece.
Somewhere in this same vicinity I ducked into a dark room, where there was a largish object that appeared to be a cross between a submarine and a refrigerator with portholes. Opening the door and stepping inside was like being in a red velvet phone booth. Once there you could peruse the song list including everything from Joan Jet to ABBA to the Police, key in the appropriate number, pick-up the mike, look out the porthole and sing away to the lyrics projected on the wall.
This work by the Korean artist Lee Bul, which was on view in the last Venice Biennale, is a wonderful look at the culture of Karaoke. It made me think of the Thai-Chinese restaurant around the corner from where I live in Paris. It is a grand establishment that always seems to have people pouring in but the first time I went there were only a few tables full. As the night went on, plates and plates of food were carried past by me towards the back and almost every person who came in walked past our table too. I thought there must be some really cool back room with giant aquariums or something, but no, it was Karaoke.
I liked seeing Jeff Koons' trademark ceramic sculpture, Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Slightly larger than life, all decked out in gold, it's a 21st-century visit to classical form. I noticed that Michael reclines with the monkey on his lap and the finger of his right hand tucked under the breastplate of the monkey's shirt, where, say, a monkey's nipple might be! A weird sadistic twist to what is already a weird and twisted work.
In this show where everything demands your attention, everything is alive or trying. Interestingly, a truly dead spot in the exhibition was one of the famously lifelike figures by Duane Hanson called Bodybuilder. The slouched-over figure -- he has apparently just finished his workout -- paled beside the sperm-slinging buckaroo of Takahashi Murakami a few paces away or the blowjob-bobbing duo in Paul McCarthy's The Bunkhouse. Still, Hanson was first, even if quietly, Minimally.
French artist Alain Séchas has lined up a row of perky cartoon characters for his work Suspects -- though I don't know what crime was committed. To me the stork looked guilty, but after a while they all did and then all the lights would go on and the innocent game would start again.
I leave the escalating din of the galleries having lost the friends I had arrived with and walk into the restaurant George, which is adjacent to the galleries on the top floor of the Pompidou. It is an invitation-only affair hosted by Jean-Charles des Castelbajac with a few hundred people for a sit-down dinner. It is comparatively quiet and not nearly to the level of the ruckus that had preceded it.
On my final exit, I peer from the mezzanine over a space the size of a tennis court to the exposed floor below. In it two metal corrals have been made to pen in two herds of sheep. Yes, the mysterious smell of barn animals has been sourced. Dreamy blue and pink floodlights rove around to the tune, Lean Your Head on My Shoulder, and all the sheep have huddled together, as if by nature leaning their heads on the shoulders of their fellows. By Claude Lévêque, the work is titled Strangers in the Night. The sheep were only there opening night and now a video of the night is looping on the gallery floor in the main space, absent both the poetry and scent of the original.
JULIE RYAN is a correspondent for Purple magazine.