As the days grew short and dark, Paris galleries were aflicker with the pale light of moving pictures. The Centre Pompidou presented "Víctor Erice / Abbas Kiarostami: Correspondences," Sept. 19, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008, an unusual curatorial undertaking that placed works by the two filmmakers and artists side-by-side. The show argues that Erice and Kiarostami, who were born within a week of each other in June 1940 (in Spain and Iran, respectively), are kindred artistic spirits -- anti-establishment filmmakers whose work has been revolutionized by the hand-held video camera.
The show opened with a kind of "fork in the road," twin entrances to galleries devoted to each filmmaker, marked by huge photographs of them both. Visitors are told to pick with whom they want to start. This tactic struck me at first as a curator’s attempt to placate two artistic egos. But the installation design also reflects the way the filmmakers draw their audience into direct participation in their works.
I decided to start with Abbas Kiarostami. An Iranian photographer and filmmaker who has made close to 40 films, documentaries and shorts, Kiarostami also exhibits his photographs and video installations in galleries and museums. The Pompidou show includes over 80 of his photos dating from 1973 to 2005, notably black-and-white shots of expansive landscapes traversed by winding roads or paths. Stark and graphic, the pictures can be read as metaphors for the course of life, or perhaps the course of art under a repressive government.
Kiarostami’s two video installations are also arresting. Sleepers, his well-known projection onto the floor of a good-looking couple sleeping in a life-sized bed (it was exhibited at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York in 2000 and at the 2001 Venice Biennale), is a guilty, voyeuristic pleasure that takes on an amusingly heightened eroticism in a French context. The sense of anticipation is palpable, as the young woman turns over on her side and the young man wiggles his fingers.
Kiarostami also has made a large sculptural installation for the show, entitled The Forest without Leaves. In a mirrored room is a "forest" of columns, each covered with a "bark" made of detailed photographs. Supposedly the piece includes 84 tree trunks of various sizes, though it seems like there may be less, and the room has a soundtrack of bird calls, more like a jungle than a forest. The work toys with notions of what is real and what is reproduction. It’s noteworthy that for his "screen" Kiarostami chooses tree trunks, which are both immobile and in motion, as they grow taller and widen.
Víctor Erice, one of Spain’s greatest living filmmakers (and a critic as well), has three feature films to his credit, including the prize-winning The Quince Tree Sun (1992), a collaboration with Spanish painter Antonio López, Erice’s friend and subject of his film. At the Pompidou is Tumultuous World, Silent Paintings, which pairs light and sound installations by Erice with paintings by López. The play of light on the paintings, varying both in intensity and color, heightens both the drama of painting and the role that light and sound play in the "cinematic experience," even with a static image.
The overall exhibition’s pièce de résistance is Correspondence, ten video "letters" shot by Erice and Kiarostami with hand-held video since 2005, specifically for the Pompidou show. Each filmmaker’s side of the exhibition winds around to this moving and original work, in which the filmmakers communicate and comment on each other’s work in their own language of images and sounds. I felt like I had been allowed to enter an extremely intimate space created and shared by the two artists.
The show also included two video projections entitled The Art of Childhood and The Childhood of Art that were less effective. Directed by Alain Bergala, one of the show’s curators, the vids pair shots from Erice’s and Kiarostami’s films side by side under headings that are supposed to highlight their similarity. This kind of pedantry seems contrary to the spirit of their work, which revels in mystery, in freedom of discovery and the hypnotic imprint of time as a way to construct meaning.
The show was originally presented in Barcelona and Madrid. The fact that the Pompidou Center has given it a major exhibition space as it celebrates it 30th year is a sign of the importance that cinema holds in French culture. Not to mention, it was a fun exploration of the multifaceted world of moving images.
At Galerie Praz-Delavallade, California artist Jim Shaw tried his hand at video with The Hole, an arty, black-and-white take on B-zombie movies that starts with a housewife, a recent convert to Shaw’s own, comic and made-up “O-ist” religion, peeking through a hole in the wall into a foggy No Man’s Land occupied by staggering male zombies dressed in suits and ties who become progressively more dazed and bullet ridden. The piece finishes with a low-tech zoom into a window -- located in a zombie’s head.
His brains, or maybe his thoughts, turn out to be an abstract universe represented by an undulating smorgasbord of textured and shiny fabrics. The show also includes some of Shaw’s paintings, loosely painted zombie faces over abstract squiggles in warm colors. The works bring to mind intestines and other innards. Shaw is an expert at turning a madcap comic-book sensibility into avant-garde art, and the show is fun romp with high and low culture that takes itself far less seriously than the cineastes at the Pompidou.
Jousse Enterprise, which opened in 2000 and has a program that embraces both high-end design and contemporary art, has recently been occupied by French artist and filmmaker Ariane Michel’s The Screening, a work that debuted in the "Art Statements" section of Art Basel in 2007. Michel’s film-about-film shows an outdoor screening in the forest, where the arty audience is observed by night critters. The work was originally screened outdoors, in the very location that it had been shot, so the audience for the premiere could have the impression of being watched by the owls, foxes, frogs and other creatures that populate the film.
All this self-reference actually plays better than it reads. In any case, in a black-draped screening room on the Rue Louise Weiss, the impact of The Screening is diffuse but still palpable, thanks to Michel’s beautiful animal images and night sounds.
Next door at GB Agency, Elina Brotherus, a Swedish artist living in France, also shows a video art piece, titled My Happiness Is Round, about a little girl and her three older brothers (roles possibly played Brotherus’ own children). The work has its lyrical moments, in which viewers can enter into the child’s perceptions, but in general My Happiness has the air of home video.
Brotherus also shows a series of intriguing landscapes called "Large de Vue." Each image is covered with a piece of glass on which is etched, in small and faint type, a French word taken from Eric Satie’s detailed instructions on how to play his Apercus désagréables.
Also of note on the Rue Louise Weiss is the work of French photographer Bruno Serralongue at Air de Paris. His large-scale photographs are from a series in progress, entitled "Calais" after a refugee camp in Pas-de-Calais, the closest point in France to England, closed down in 1992 by then-Minister of the Interior (now president of the Republic) Nicholas Sarkozy. Despite the camp’s closing, refugees still flock to the town.
Serralongue’s pictures document this shadow world, showing a makeshift tent and trash in an idyllic French glade, isolated figures loitering by a highway as Mack trucks carrying containers rush by, or an abandoned trailer swathed in a Babel of graffiti, the whole scene bathed in an eerie purple-blue light. His images record the lives of people who are there but not there, and somehow even the figures whose presence his lens captures are floating in a no man’s land.
SARAH CANNER is a writer based in Paris.