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by Chris Sharp
"La Force de l’Art," May 9-June 25, 2006, at the Nef du Grand Palais, Porte principale, avenue Winston Churchill 75008 Paris

Something of a bordel magnifique -- a magnificent mess -- "La Force de l’Art" was viewed with such horreur in the French art world that you couldn’t help but root for it. Initially conceived by French prime minister Dominique de Villepin and immediately dismissed as mere political window dressing for his forthcoming presidential run, the show had a rocky start.

The basic idea was that the ministry of culture would sponsor a sort of art triennial designed to rival the Whitney Biennial and the Tate Triennial in scope, size and international importance. Word. But time -- the idea was conceived only six months ago -- and funds were wanting. Unconfirmed rumor has it that the whole gig was originally pitched to Catherine Millet, editor of Art Press -- some might remember her lubricious foray into autobiographical literature a couple of years back -- who, perhaps not unwisely, rejected it.

Thus, "La Force de l’Art" was turned over to a rather motley crew of 15 curators, each of whom has organized an individual mini-show within a warren of art-fair-like booths set up in the grand nave of the Grand Palais, the vaulted Art Deco greenhouse originally built for the Universal Exposition of 1900 and only recently reopened after a lengthy restoration.

To the actual art exhibition has been appended an extravaganza of collateral events, including concerts, readings and assorted other "interventions," all of which are supposed to provide a voracious public with a sweeping, wholesale survey of contemporary French culture. My favorite here was Le Transversal, a presentation of French cuisine as a creative activity in itself, as if there was any doubt.

In the end, the esthetic Cassandras were right -- only a handful of the shows in "La Force de l’Art" manage to tread water, though that is preferable to sinking outright. A large number of works are borrowed from French public collections, a sure sign of a budget-conscious operation, and the few pavilions devoted to painting are generally so bad that they are touching, almost in the way small-town art fairs are. One exception is the multicolored suite of monochromes by Olivier Mosset, a veteran of the BMPT group of the 1960s, selected by Dominique Marchès, artistic commissioner for the Chamarande region.

Also admirable is the installation by the independent Paris-based curator Hou Hanru, whose pavilion is entitled "Laboratory for an Uncertain Future." Hanru’s show features more than 25 artists, from Adel Abdessemed to Chen Zhen, all presumably engaged in a search for an art that strives to improve society (what else?). The work that caught my eye, however, is more of a North African cri de coeur -- a fascinating video by Adriana Garcia Galan of a "human beat box."

Entitled Speech Box (2006) and set against a background that seems to be a distant Paris, the vid shows a strangely androgynous youth spouting an endless stream of beats, fragmented utterances and general weirdness, as if he were trying to tell us something through an insistently robotic but musical failure of communication.  

Lóránd Hegyi, the Hungarian-born director of the modern art museum in Saint-Etienne, dubbed his show of works by 11 artists "Heimatlos / Domicile," taking as his point of departure the notion of artists in search of an ideal homeland. As it happens, utopia is amusingly close at hand, as Hegyi’s artists -- Jean-Michel Alberola, Braco Dimitrijevic, Roman Opalka, Lee Ufan -- all come from outside France but now live here. Gloria Friedmann’s Le Locataire (2005) seems somehow illustrative -- a grumpy male figure made of earth, sitting atop a large earthen sphere.

The seeming ubiquity of Xavier Veilhan -- his work is included in three pavilions -- confirms his status as the darling of contemporary French art. Veilhan newest works, life-sized sculptures of lions and other figures done as solid, faceted masses, have made him something of a Thomas Couture for the 21st century. In addition, he was invited to stage his own pavilion.

As any artist might have done, Veilhan assembled a group of works that are of interest to him -- and as a consequence, his show can be viewed as a self-absorbed set of footnotes to his own practice. Thus, within a finely carpentered wood pavilion painted bright yellow, we are vouchsafed the opportunity to appreciate a sort of genealogy of Veilhan’s art, including contributions ranging from an 1876 equestrian statue to more contemporary sculptures of an Op Art column by Victor Vasarely and a pair of white plastic cats (titled Monument to Jacques Lacan) by Alain Séchas.

After so much confusion, Eric Troncy’s pavilion, titled "Superdéfense," was refreshingly well organized. This guy, the brilliant co-director of the Consortium in Dijon, even manages to make Bernard Buffet, who Warhol once claimed to be France’s greatest living painter, look good, installing his iconic image of the Eiffel Tower -- indeed, Buffet’s linear style is suited to a depiction of that girdered monument -- next to a fanciful sculpture of a typical viewer, rendered in skeletal woven basketry by, whom else, Xavier Veilhan.

Probably the cleverest solution to the cramped and beleaguered exhibiting circumstances was discovered by Philippe Vergne, the Walker Art Center curator who was fresh from exercising his postmodernist wit as co-curator of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Vergne invented an imaginary curator to take the credit (or blame) of the Whitney show, and here in Paris he simply discarded the notion of a pavilion altogether and scattered his works all over the Grand Palais, titling his effort "Between the Lines."

After spending half an afternoon trying to locate the works of this "pavilion," I eventually learned from a security guard that the piece by Tino Sehgal -- he of the gallery attendants singing "Oh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary" at the 2005 Venice Biennale -- is being performed by cashiers as they sold tickets. Apparently, at their own discretion, the change-makers are encouraged to quote sentences from the day’s paper in lieu of uttering stock phrases such as "thank you" or "have a nice day."

Daniel Buren’s contribution to Vergne’s show was apparently a nice, red-striped vest, a work he made in 1981. Was it worn by workers at the Palais? In the café, perhaps?

After a certain amount of such curatorial high jinks, the exposition becomes a matter of individual works standing out. In Olivier Zahm’s installation, a remake by Sturtevant of a Felix Gonzales-Torres sculpture -- a kind of light-ringed platform for a go-go dancer -- was paired with a video sculpture of a kid dancing with a tambourine by the designer Hedi Slimane himself (this work was almost immediately removed for being too fragile).

Daniel Walraven’s Serie Noire (1984-88), a large number of black monochromes, each commissioned from different industrial paint producer, remains a compelling interrogation of the now commonplace notion of the theoretical monochrome, not to mention more contemporary practices of artistic outsourcing. If you cannot muster any sense of authenticity by making the thing yourself, it seems, it’s best to hire someone else who doesn’t know any better to do the job.  

But who couldn’t like Franck Scurti’s sculpture in Paul Ardenne’s show, titled "Interventions" and focusing on art that "pops up where it is not expected," though not without elements drawn from advertising that the curator finds "problematical." A Paris-based artist who shows with Galerie Anne De Villepoix, Scurti contributes to "La Force de l’Art" a piece from a series titled "Works for Rats." It’s a sculpture of a large piece of Swiss cheese, presented Brancusi-style on a separate, rough-hewn wooden base.

In the end however, the showstopper for me was an interactive video installation by Christian Boltanski, entitled Six Septembres (2004), a work found in Bernard Marcadé’s pavilion, which the independent critic and curator titled "I Don’t Believe in Ghosts, but They Scare Me."  My cousin, a jazz pianist, once explained to me that he uses Mingus’ album, Blues and Roots, to try and turn skeptics onto jazz. This Boltanski piece would be my Blues and Roots for contemporary art, at least in France.

Boltanski collected clips from television news, dating from the day of his birth, Sept. 6, 1944, through 2004, and projects this material at a hair-raising speed on three large room-sized screens, rendering the audiotrack as an unintelligible stream of chipmunk-esque sounds. In front of the screens have been placed three, game-show-sized buttons, which viewers can hit to stop the lightning-quick procession of images.

Like the work of Paul Pfeiffer at his best, the more time you spend with this video installation, the more overwhelming and absurd it becomes. Not only is it one of the finer memento moris I have seen in a while, it also manages to synthesize a conceptual impulse with a visceral sense of intuition. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly ridiculous all at the same time. I would tell anyone to go to "La Force de L’Art," if only to see this work.

CHRIS SHARP is an American art critic living in Paris. He can be reached at