The fall art season in Paris got under way this year on Oct. 7, 2006, with something called "La Nuit Blanche" (which is French for "all-nighter"). An ephemeral night among ephemeral Parisian nights, "La Nuit Blanche" features, at least on the artistic end of things, a variety of artist projects presented in various quarters around Paris.
The event is so dispersed and the crowds so maddening that attempting to see everything seemed pure hubris. Instead, I simply stuck with the La Goutte d’Or in the 18th arrondissement, where my goal was Indian artist Subodh Gupta’s much-talked-about sculpture in the Eglise Saint-Bernard church.
La Goutte d’Or (The Drop of Gold) is famously one of Paris’ most "ethnic" and underprivileged neighborhoods -- the neighborhood around the metro at, say, the Chateau Rouge stop seems transplanted from sub-Saharan Africa. That Gupta’s sculpture should be located in a church in this quarter was n’était pas anodin, as the French would say -- not harmless (in terms of significance).
At any rate, after a good hour of wading through the crowds, puzzling over the city-provided map and stumbling upon other pieces, such as Franck Scurti’s Commerce -- a kind of neon Pop version of Robert Smithson’s partially buried woodshed, i.e. a trio of glowing shop awnings arranged in a vacant lot -- I finally reached my goal and was ushered into the nave of the church where the work was majestically located.
Entitled Very Hungry God (2006), Gupta’s sculpture was impressive and thoroughly worth the pilgrimage. Constructed expressly for the event, the monumental skull is finely crafted out of aluminum pots and pans and weighs in at 1,000 kilos. A prodigious momento mori and then some, the sheer spectacle of this work with its dazzling vacancy all but blinds you to its essentially morbid content.
Cinq milliards d’années
On the institutional end of things, Paris is currently looking pretty good. The Swiss curator Marc-Olivier Wahler, who formerly headed the Swiss Institute in New York, recently inaugurated his tenure at the Palais de Tokyo with "Cinq milliards d’années" (Five billion years), Sept. 14-Dec. 31, 2006, which one can take as a kind of prologue to his curatorial program. Basically Wahler is suggesting that in an ever-expanding universe, in which no fixed point may be located, art cannot be expected to explicate reality so much as ornament it, so to speak, by making it more dense and adding more layers. Apparently as a natural consequence of this thesis, pretty much all the work in "Milliard D’années" is formally linked by the circle, either literally or symbolically.
The show is beautifully installed in the Palais, which is some accomplishment, considering the museum’s crescent-shaped layout and open ceiling structure. It includes works by Christian Andersson, Michel Blazy, Mike Bouchet, Loris Cecchini, Philippe Decrauzat, Marcel Duchamp, Ceal Floyer, Urs Fischer, Mark Handforth, Joachim Koester, Vincent Lamouroux, Lan-Baumann, Tony Matelli, Jonathan Monk, François Morellet, Gianni Motti and Charles Ray.
Though scandalously short on women artists, as it happens the work that is probably most emblematic of Wahler’s thesis is Ceal Floyer’s Autofocus (2002), which consists of an empty slide projector, placed about a foot away from a wall at about waist height, projecting a square of yellow light, perpetually and arbitrarily going in and out of focus. This work clearly falls into the more intimate "poetic" side of the show, which Wahler manages to combine with more spectacular, visually seductive installation pieces.
Despite his penchant for elaborate gimmicks (such as the mini-moto ballet and chain-saw carving contest which took place the night of the opening), Wahler as a curator is a graceful stylist, much in the spirit of French curator Eric Troncy. Intuitive and formal values and unlikely groupings take precedence over installations that are overly didactic.
The entryway is delineated by Lang/Baumann’s Perfect (2006), a pair of curving metallic black walls set with a grid of light bulbs, which open into the main space. The first object there is Michel Blazy’s Patman 2 (2005), a sculptural form made out of spaghetti, evocative of the ghosts from the Pac Man video game. To the left of the spaghetti monster is Mark Handforth’s installation Honda (2002), featuring a couple of mopeds lying on their sides and dotted with colorful lit candles and melted wax. Looping overhead is Scape (2006), Vincent Lamouroux’s enormous arabesque of slim steel bars that snakes down toward the floor, joining the ceiling and the main room and, in general, as the French critic Claire Jacquet aptly remarked, "brilliantly articulating the space."
Spatially and visually all of this makes perfectly harmonizing sense, but it’s hard not to wonder how each of these works would fare on their own. In any event, Wahler has raised the Palais de Tokyo bar and it will be interesting to see how or if he can manage to outdo himself.
Yves Klein, Corps, Couleur, Immatériel
Yves Klein is enjoying his second retrospective at France’s most prestigious institution of contemporary art, Le Centre Georges Pompidou (the first was in 1983). Entitled "Yves Klein, Corps, Couleur, Immatériel" (body, color, immaterial), Oct. 5, 2006-Feb. 5, 2007, the show of 120 works demonstrates well that Klein was not merely the inventor of the copyrighted IKB (International Klein Blue, in 1956) and a painter of monochromes in the same hue, but a much more multifaceted artist who was into performance, architecture, sound art and public art installations.
At first glance, it appears that a lot of Klein’s work, aside from his hideous sponge sculptures, still looks fresh -- and some of it is downright beautiful. His gold-leaf monochromes bring to mind the work of contemporary artists like Rudolph Stingel, while Klein’s notorious fire paintings, at once reminiscent of cave-paintings, calligraphic markings and, occasionally, Jackson Pollock, wield an elegance that seems almost too considered to be spontaneous. A number of his anthropométries (body paintings) are likewise surprisingly pleasing to the eye, especially the smaller ones wherein a blue boomerang-like arc is described by sweeping a model across the canvas.
A number of films show Klein at work with the blowtorch making fire paintings, making his anthropométries and showing his unexpected and laughable architectural projects (roofs made of currents of air, walls or fountains made of fire, etc). The show also includes a good deal of documentation of ideas for unrealized or thwarted projects, such as his plan to illuminate the Obelisk of the Place Concorde in IKB on the night of an opening in 1958 (the Paris mayor pulled the plug on that one at the last minute). This project, by the way, was posthumously carried out for the recent "Nuit Blanche," for the second time -- the first being for Klein’s first Pompidou retrospective in 1983.
Roman Signer and more
Not far from the Pompidou, at the Centre Culturel Suisse, is a charmingly diabolical little show by Roman Signer, an artist who cannot claim to be entirely uninfluenced by Klein, at least where fire or destructive tendencies are concerned. Invited by director Michel Ritter to participate in the center’s "Aller/Retour" program, which consists of invited artists themselves inviting another artist to exhibit alongside them -- Signer invited the Paris-based Japanese artist Jiro Nakayama -- Signer has soberly invested the Centre Culturel Suisse with a number of innocuous -- and at least one potentially lethal -- sculptures and a score of discreetly devastating videos.
Something of an elder Swiss statesman, Signer is a sculptor of ephemeral, time-based sculptures that combine child-like impulses "to see what will happen" with the methodical tenacity of a mad scientist, all with a clownish, not un-poetic sense of dry (Swiss?) humor. Perhaps one of the most memorable and unexpectedly touching pieces in the show is the video of a remote-control helicopter (something of a pet leitmotif in Signer’s oeuvre), which takes off in a large, enclosed wooden box, hovers, runs into a wall, falters and then proceeds to doggedly and thoroughly decimate itself in a technological tantrum thrown at the uncomprehending benefit of its own mortality. Other works often involve minor, choreographed explosions and wildly circuitous or inefficient ways of getting elaborately useless things done.
Elsewhere -- very much elsewhere in the Parisian banlieu (suburb) of Brétigny-sur-Orge -- another Roman is enjoying the extended "finissage" to a year-long show at the CAC Brétigny. The Czech artist Roman Ondák, invited by director Pierre Bal-Blanc, initially began his show roughly a year ago, incrementally adding objects or orchestrating subtle interventions -- in a minimal fashion, rather than the accumulation of junk that is so popular in the avant-garde -- throughout the course of the art center’s regular program, all of which was intended to culminate in the present exhibition, entitled "Here or Elsewhere."
Works include Awaiting Enacted (2003), a 16-page newspaper in which all the images show people waiting in line, and Is That the Way It Was? (1998), a bench made from a cut-out portion of a nearby wall with a wooden birdhouse affixed to the wrong side -- that is, the inside -- of an adjacent window.
The show-stopper is, perhaps, the room-sized installation entitled It Will All Turn Out Right in the End (2006), which was co-produced with the Tate Modern and originally shown there -- a smaller-scale, walk-in version of Tate’s colossal Turbine Hall. One can only imagine the Alice in Wonderland effect it must have had in London, while here in this Parisian banlieu it becomes an unlikely parody of displacement and disorientation.
However, as I prepare to send off this article, another mysterious piece has yet to be added to Ondák’s ever-evolving show, which seems like a good place to end an article about a Parisian art scene that is, on a good day, fortunately, ever and always, evolving.
CHRIS SHARP is an American art critic living in Paris. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org