Letter from Paris
A poster in the Paris Métro this summer features a recreation of Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People, only in place of Delacroix’s statuesque woman, the World Wildlife Fund’s giant panda carries the French flag. Captioned “Paris Climat 2015,” it promotes unity in preparation for an upcoming summit on climate change. While its update of an iconic image of the people (with ethnic as well as species diversity) appeals to France’s tradition of revolutionary idealism, it can’t help but call attention to today’s troubled social climate, with tensions over immigration and terrorism adding to uncertainty over the planet’s future. Summer exhibitions by an array of international artists inspire reflection on how—beyond making rhetorical gestures—a global perspective might help encourage inclusiveness or simply moderate the stress of daily life.
Inviting outsiders into the city’s rich historical context encourages controversy, and British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor makes no secret of his subversive intent at Versailles, introducing “chaos” into the perfect geometry of Le Nôtre’s tapis vert, with an immense metal tube set amid concrete boulders—“the queen’s vagina taking control.” As though in support of the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo, he’s assumed a politically provocative stance, installing a cannon shooting red wax in the hallowed space in the Jeu de Paume, recalling the messy violence that issued from the idealistic rhetoric of the Tennis Court Oath and arousing predictable outrage from cultural conservatives.
But other shows have expanded horizons while settling less controversially into the city’s monumental context. Multiculturalism, after all, is a staple of today’s art market, and France’s historic interest in foreign traditions includes Delacroix’s Middle East, the Impressionists’ Japanese prints, and Picasso’s tribal artifacts. The Palais de Tokyo dates to the turbulent period between the world wars when artists embraced ethnography and the subconscious, and it still seems under construction behind its elegant colonnades. The raw concrete walls on its vast lower level preserve the sense of an alternative space, an underground scene, where curators pursue edgy international projects and interventions on the building itself. This summer’s multimedia installations by Chinese artist Tianzhuo Chen and Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai are particularly ambitious and well produced. In a participatory spirit indebted to hip-hop, both emphasize the fusion of fiction and reality. Chen creates a neon-lit club scene, where the group rituals of youth culture cultivate mythic experiences. Drawing on Butoh, elaborately costumed performers dismember a leering idol with hypnotic, electronically animated eyes, apparently to exorcise the invasive power of drugs, celebrity culture, and media saturation. Arunanondchai, on the other hand, invokes Thai nature spirits, culminating in a panoramic video collage that opens up an alternative, tropical world for viewers lounging on cushions. This is the touristic fodder of the international art scene: set in the scale of the surrounding galleries, both installations feel limited in their immersive effects, while the violent implications of Arunanondchai’s paint-splashed mannequins and Chen’s videos of gangster dwarfs lend group immersion a threatening aspect.
More subversively disorienting, and more ambitious in its use of the museum’s spaces, acquaalta (2015) by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot turns much of the museum’s upper level into a lagoon. Visitors paddle wooden boats through the dark, flooded galleries, echoing with monotonous sound effects, illuminated only by video projections on distant walls and generated by their own activities. Alluding to the annual flood of the Venice lagoon, it arouses reflections on global warming and migration, and on the current celebration of international art at the Venice Biennale (where Boursier-Mougenot represents France), leaving an uneasy sense of being at sea, both physically and philosophically, in Plato’s Cave. Here, at least, art offers a calming respite in the gentle movement of the boats.
On the top floor of the Centre Pompidou, Lebanese-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum addresses the world on a different level, both literally and conceptually, in a major retrospective. In Map (clear) (2015) Hatoum has laid out a world map composed of clear glass marbles before an expansive view of the Parisian skyline. It’s an exhilarating spectacle, recalling Yves Klein’s bottling of Parisian air, yet the transparency of the tiny spheres, and their tendency to move, recall the instability of global boundaries and link the piece to other more unsettling works. Hatoum is not so much a “global artist” as one who takes global art seriously—who doesn’t deal in vague spirituality but in down-to-earth political concerns. She’s addressed immigration and oppression more literally in performance pieces from the 1980s, included here in videos, but she now tends to refer to the body more indirectly. Her poetic, minimalist sensibility, leavened by surrealist wit, takes advantage of space and light to endow modified everyday objects with ominous overtones. The stacked cages and moving lights of Light Sentence (1992) and the claustrophobic projections of her own internal anatomy in Corps étranger (1994) arouse fears of confinement and surveillance. Her turn to Surrealism, like the playful reference to Duchamp in “Why Not Squeeze...” (2009), or her installation of electrified kitchen equipment in “Home” (1999), rests on an appreciation of Surrealism’s origins in the shock of war and revolution, and of how its technique of “defamiliarization” turns us all into outsiders.
Hatoum shares her floor at the Pompidou with Le Corbusier: The Measures of Man, a show exploring the body as a focus of Le Corbusier’s architecture. Recent research about Le Corbusier’s flirtation with Fascist authorities during the war has highlighted the totalitarian aspect of his designs; this show traces how his painting and sculpture nurtured an organic impulse that emerged from the austere modernism of the International Style into something like Picasso’s surrealist figures of the 1930s. Reflected architecturally in the sculptural mass of projects like the Chapel at Ronchamp (1950), where the cave-like, dramatically lit interior combines severity with spiritual mystery, it contrasts with Hatoum’s more focused and specific invocation of space, which roots humanism in an individual response to displacement rather than in visionary idealism. (Corbusier’s minimalist furniture, molded to the forms of the body, seems to invite her playful intervention). The scope of Corbusier’s vision—ultimately realized on the scale he desired in Chandigarh, in the new state of Punjab—still inspires, if only in our longing for grand solutions. The exhibition features his seldom seen Poème electronique (1958), an animated collage that sets his work in the broad context of human evolution and world art. Shown originally in a futuristic building designed by composer/architect Iannis Xennakis and accompanied by an electronic score by Edgard Varèse, it anticipates André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls and Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village, not to mention immersive environments like those at the Palais de Tokyo.
Across the Seine, crowds of visitors escape from media saturation under the luminous vault of the Musée d’Orsay, at a survey of Pierre Bonnard’s long career. Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia promises some bourgeois comfort, a return to the scale of the individual, but it comes with its own underlying tensions. Attracted to Japanese screens and prints, Bonnard, a master of compositional ingenuity, exploits the expressive possibilities of their stylized flat shapes and abrupt spatial transitions to invest everyday situations with strangeness. Like Hatoum, Bonnard scratches at the surface of domesticity until he arouses sensuality or unease, and, like her, he advances the cause of art grounded in daily life. If Matisse and Picasso develop the constructive legacy of Cézanne and, like Corbusier, the modernist ideal of pure form, Bonnard develops Monet’s reliance on the immediate effects of color, on incidental encounters, and on random juxtapositions indebted to photography.
The show features an especially powerful array of monumental studies of women in mirrors or the bath—bringing the luminous surfaces of Monet into compressed, claustrophobic spaces around their sculptural forms—including portraits of his mistress, Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide when he married Marthe, the subject of most of his bathtub paintings. This tragedy, and the two world wars he endured, lend darker undertones to the astringent luminosity of his large-scale decorations and undercut the tranquility of his domestic scenes. Bonnard’s current popularity may lie in this suggestion of unarticulated narratives, of the stresses embedded in our common experience—our inner “climate”—as we work to keep up our normal routines in exceptional times.
HEARNE PARDEE is a painter based in New York and Northern California.