On ViewPalais De Tokyo
February 2–May 14, 2023
While recently in Paris, I saw a curious, complex, and riveting exhibition titled Exposé·es at the Palais de Tokyo. It was inspired by and named after art historian, critic, and activist Elisabeth Lebovici’s highly personal book What AIDS Did to Me (Exposées: D’apres “Ce que le sida m’a fait” d’Elisabeth Lebovici). The exhibition, which runs through May 14, 2023, was created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to look backward and forward in time into the work of artists and artist-groups affected directly by AIDS. Ultimately transformed through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, it addresses the continuing and residual effects of the AIDS epidemic. It also examines the discourses, languages, and activism in social, political, and historical terms that art has engendered by the persistence of AIDS. As such, the work sometimes confronts AIDS and those directly affected, while sometimes it concerns the artistic/political realities and even the support and healing strategies that continue to emerge.
One enters the exhibition on the lower level of the Palais de Tokyo, confronted first with Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s monumental, physically enveloping text piece My Epidemic (Teaching Bjarne Melgaard’s Class) (2015). This is comprised of a series of crumpled, loosely draped, “blood-stained” sheets carrying extended texts related to sexuality, disease, and specifically AIDS. Its monumental scale is likewise compromised by the purposeful frailty of its fabric support. The writings, created by the artist as parts of lectures to her students, are graphically presented for this new, larger audience. For me, this selection of works and the installation itself felt particularly visceral, compared with the cluster of fiftieth-anniversary Stonewall exhibits seen several years ago in the US, which often included some of the same artists. This emotional and physical response was no doubt the result of some of the other immersive and interactive works included as well as the hybrid modes of curatorial mechanics in the galleries. The emotive effect was simultaneously prompted by the rugged, muscular, under-renovated, even menacing, galleries of the Palais de Tokyo’s ground-floor level. Dramatically, the installation shuttles back and forth between darkness and light, the galleries paced somewhat theatrically to offer spaces with different emotive valences. In part, one can attribute both the poetic subtitle and the installation modes with what Dutch art historian Debora Meijers has called a “northern European romantic” or “Saturnian” curatorial sensibility. This stands in contrast with what might be considered a more pragmatic, more deductively rational, scientific, analytic mode of Anglo-American installation.
Historical touchstones here include US and British artistic and activist practitioners including Félix González-Torres, David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Derek Jarman, Moyra Davey, and the group Fierce Pussy. Yet there are also impressive examples by contemporary artists I was unfamiliar with, including a number of French artists: e.g. Yann Beauvais, Hervé Guibert, and the previously mentioned Lili Reynard-Dewar. Noteworthy, too, is the powerful emptiness evoked by photos of the disease victims’ material remnants by South African artist Santu Mofokeng, as well as the sometimes tender, sometimes potent, always vulnerable photographs of Régis Samba-Kuozi and Julien Devemy. The latters’ images of militant trans women of Transgender Equality Uganda portray its members’ tenuous balance between physical and psychic tenderness and resilience.
Immediately following the encounter with Reynaud-Dewars’s freewheeling installation, with its combination of texts and “bloodstained” floor-to-ceiling sheets, viewers encounter a standard white-cube gallery with colorful, playful—yet again highly personal—self-portraits by the Bambanani Women’s Group. Artist and designer Jane Solomon and this group of patients at the Khayelitsha hospital (outside Cape Town, South Africa) created life-size paintings called Body Maps. Each participant generated a full-scale outline of their body traced onto canvas. These human outlines were completed looking into the individual’s interior organs and bodily systems. They also included symbols and surrounding texts to create autobiographical, medical, and highly intimate, yet energetic portraits. Emotional and physical care of those infected, as well as pedagogical and therapeutic elements, remain an important cross current found in numerous communal and participatory works in the exhibition. Indeed, the purpose of the Bambanani Women’s Group project was to emphasize and impart to its creators and future viewers how to live and survive with AIDS.
Visitors to the exhibition move back and forth between standard white gallery spaces and more roughly hewn, often cavernous spaces with rugged exposed brick walls in addition to dimly lit black box galleries. As intimated above, viewers are propelled through various emotive and experiential loci. Here appear Georges Tony Stoll’s photographs of different portions of his nude body at the Gramercy Park Hotel in 1999 and Jesse Darling’s large-scale vitrines of detritus scavenged from the relational installations by Félix Gonzáles-Torres. Positioned against the distressed brick walls of the Palais de Tokyo, this conceit augments the collision of the fragility implied or represented in each work with the brutal, coercive nature of the societal architecture. Félix González-Torres’s textual portrait frieze mixing personal, sometimes ambiguous moments with shared historical events is stenciled on the upper part of an adjacent, neat white space. This curatorial strategy moves visitors from Darling’s gritty materiality and Stoll’s self-representation to a more conceptual space—a space of symbolism and free association, of memory and reflection. Particularly effective is the way another one of Stoll’s works, this time a sculptural installation of about two dozen humble, sometimes folding, sometimes vintage side chairs featured jackets and shirts draped over several of their backs. Recalling the photographic representations of Santu Mofokeng, but now staged sculpturally, Stoll here intimates missing or lost bodies with a simple but highly effective juxtaposition. Physical contrast between the hardness of the furniture and the softness of the castoff clothing serves as a symbolic three-dimensional analogue to Gonzáles-Torres’s more allusive, self-effacing, insistently flat texts.
A sizable number of the artworks, installations, objects, and videos fall under Claire Bishop’s rubric of “participatory art.” Such a participatory aspect ricochets among creator, collaborator, and the ultimate viewer as accomplice. This is enhanced and complicated by the persuasive curatorial juxtapositions. The entire installation reads as a suggestive, exponentially rich experience of the viewer’s internalization of idea and sensation.