Thursday, 6 March 2014

Richard Hamilton's Paintings of the Troubles

Richard Hamilton
Tate Modern, London
13 February 2014 – 26 May 2014


The retrospective of one of the founding artists of Pop Art, Richard Hamilton, inhabits eighteen rooms at Tate Modern, detailing his sixty-year career, and in so doing, a history of post-war pop culture and British public perception of the world. Whether impressed by Hamilton’s exceptional and innovative techniques in painting and collage, or curious to see an original take on modern British history, the exhibition will satisfy and fascinate most who attend.  

From early exhibition designs of the 1950s, epic paintings of Mick Jagger and Tony Blair, and a print of the famous, ‘Just what it is that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956) – to the wide range of subject matter that the artist considered in his work, everything that filtered through to pop culture and awareness has some part to play in the exhibition. I was particularly drawn to Hamilton’s overtly political art, such as Treatment Room (1984), an installation that shows a hospital bed wired up to a TV screen flashing images of Margaret Thatcher, and Shock and Awe (2010), depicting Tony Blair as a grimacing cowboy. The Kent State shootings are used as subject matter in some of Hamilton’s last paintings, and, more subtly, the assassination of President Kennedy is featured on a TV screen in Interior II (1964), in a space otherwise filled with an Eames chair and a woman fashionably dressed, and contrasting to the rest of the painting in being shown in black and white rather than colour – disorientated as well as focussed upon – with politics and tragedy as something going on in the background of modern life.

Hamilton’s paintings that concern the conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, however, are not subtle at all, even if in the scope of the rest of his work, and this exhibition, in a sense they still show politics as something going on in the background. Even the fact that Hamilton’s paintings of the Troubles show individuals (or rather, caricatures) of the conflict, rather than make any effort to communicate the reality of a situation that bordered on civil war, and involved thousands of people across many decades, is to deny the political grounding of the situation, and to focus instead on the surface stereotypes, misconceptions and superficial dramatization, as routinely put across in the media that Hamilton must have been inspired by.

In so doing, Hamilton’s paintings of the Troubles, especially the triptych, Citizen, State and Subject of the late 1980s and early 1990s, are very simplistic, and shallow in their understanding of the subject matter. In these works, Hamilton presents three stereotypical images of the groups involved, reducing a long and extremely complex armed struggle between the British state, the Republican movement and the Unionist movement in Northern Ireland, to a sort of trailer for an action movie.

In The Citizen, (1981 – 1983), for example, Hamilton represents the Republican movement with a single figure: a ‘blanket man’ - a bearded prisoner protesting the state giving IRA detainees criminal rather than political status. In that protest, prisoners refused to wear prison clothes, or to wash or cooperate in any way with the prison guards, protesting the humiliation they had been forced to endure by smearing excrement on the prison walls and, eventually, going on hunger strikes also. To reduce that situation, and the whole conflict, to this slightly ridiculous image, (and a few other similar images of IRA prisoners, who all look alike) is extremely misleading. Firstly, no effort whatsoever is taken to put the situation, or this vapid looking individual, into any context, political or otherwise. One would not guess, from this, that not all Republicans were prisoners, or in the Provisional IRA (the paramilitary wing), rather than in the political party Sinn Fein, or one of the other Republican groups. Secondly, it is difficult to think, from this picture that the Republicans were real people at all, given the caricature of the prisoner, with a blurred face, gormless expression, and somehow effeminate character, with the swirling patterns on the wall, the long hair curled neatly at the bottom, and the prison blanket looking like a shawl.

The painting in this series depicting the British state (The state, 1993) shows another stereotype: a young, fearful soldier, looking rather innocent (the pale, mime artist face paint, perhaps) in spite of the machine gun strapped to him. As with The Citizen, the subject of the painting looks like a doll, in a puppet show version of The Armed Struggle. Also in this vein, The Subject, (1988 – 1990), presents a Loyalist in the theatrical pomp of his marching outfit, managing to show the Unionist side as King-like and upstanding, despite the fact that this faction, too, was armed, and carried out at least as many bombings and murders as the Provisional IRA (given that it was a conflict fought by two sides – three, if the British state are considered separate to the Loyalists, which is itself ambiguous, given that the Loyalists and the state infiltrated and collaborated with one another; it was not a clear-cut conflict). 

Had Hamilton wanted to give a more balanced view of the situation, he might have also used these images and ideas: the Unionists planting bombs, the Republicans marching, the Civil Rights movement protesting peacefully, the various massacres that went on at the hands of all groups, including the British army. The spies infiltrating domestic lives, the police standing back as Catholics were burnt out of their homes, and the way in which Republicans took refuge in Paris, went to training camps in Libya, and trained FARC in Colombia. There was so much going on, and many more people involved, than these three stereotypes. Furthermore, to represent them as three distinct individuals seems strange: these groups were surely divided, but conflict (and peace processes) are about integration, clashing personalities and ideas, and entanglement as much as they are about distance.

Hamilton has depicted the conflict in Northern Ireland, then, in the most simplistic and misleading terms: why? If we understand Hamilton’s paintings and art more generally as a history of how the public saw the world, then these works make more sense. He was depicting what the public saw, how they understood the conflict, and implicitly, how the conflict was communicated and depicted through propaganda. These are the players in a political spectacle and propaganda performance, not the reality. As with his other paintings on pop culture, we see a montage of what people saw through television and magazines, and newspapers, which is obviously artificial by nature.

Hamilton’s work, therefore, is interesting and valuable (aside from his technical brilliance) as a visual history of what the public saw and how political events (and culture more generally) were understood. It is a testament to how domestic and international events, in politics and otherwise, were over-simplified and distorted by the media and public consuming it, to become mere entertainment. Whether Hamilton truly understood this or also went in for the interpretations of events that he witnessed via the media, is unclear, but whether intentionally or not, he has left an artistic legacy that is also a treasure trove of primary historical sources, and a history of how the British public saw the world.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson The Centre Pompidou, Paris 12 February – 9 June 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Centre Pompidou, Paris
12 February – 9 June 2014


Approaching the vast exhibition at the Centre Pompidou this Spring, with waiting times of over an hour and rooms packed with people looking closely and intently at the many photographs, films and paintings on show, it is clear that Cartier-Bresson is a much loved figure in the capital of his country. Highly respected by the people as well as the critics, there is an interestingly serious, even studious atmosphere to the rooms, one that is as sombrely respectful as it is excited. Capturing over 500 of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moments’, the exhibition is almost overwhelmingly substantial and worthwhile. After only one room, I am certain I will revisit many times over the next few months that it is on.
            A sense of nostalgia exists not only in relation to the images of times now past, but also in connection to the ideals with which photography, and especially photojournalism, were tied up. Each phase of Cartier-Bresson’s life and career (which forms the structure of the exhibition) notes a significant part of his vision. The first phase (1926 to 1935) is concerned with Surrealism, and is presumably as good a place as any to start a photographic voyage. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography:

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” (Sontag, 1979, 52)

            By starting with Surrealism, however, Cartier-Bresson provided a foundation of ideas and images that make his later photographer seem somehow more ‘real’ for being implicitly compared to these early photographs of entangled bodies and limbs, grotesque forms, and confusing effects. Although there are some interesting consistencies, and some later images retain the complex patterns and ideas of the earlier, there is nevertheless is clear shift between what looks like a dream, and what looks like ‘reality’ (a clever trick of presentation, at the very least). This was in line with the fate of Surrealism itself, which hardly survived the war.
            The second phase, 1936 to 1946, was the beginning of Cartier-Bresson’s political era, when he worked for the Communist press and traveled widely. From 1947 to 1970, he created the cooperative Magnum Photos. From this brief history, but more importantly from the exhibition, and the many rooms of very different styles and phases, it is clear that, “there was not just one but several Cartier-Bressons”. (Centre Pomidou, 2014) What emerges most dramatically, however, is the sense of history recorded (perhaps because the exhibition is after all a retrospective and the photographs presented chronologically). Not one history, but several.
The clearest, perhaps, is the history of France (and its relation to other countries): a careful, studied, and seemingly impassioned one. It is a subjective one, of course – a history of what Cartier-Bresson saw, as much as what happened, but that is important in itself. As Mitchell explains:

“Every history is really two histories, the story of what happened and the story of the perception of what happened, its representation in verbal and visual narratives, punctuated by iconic moments...” (Mitchell, 2012, 161)

Cartier-Bresson’s history is interesting also because it is a dominant narrative, or perception, of French history and people, partly because of a political and public will for that to be so.

“A photograph … cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.” Photos of Vietnam had an effect in America, but only because there was already an anti-war sentiment. Journalists felt supported in their efforts. But there was little similar feeling around the Korean War, so there weren’t the same kinds of photos published. (Sontag, 1979, 17-18)

            To study the Cartier-Bresson legacy, and the enthusiasm of the people seeing the exhibition, is to pick up on that public mood, and the revived identification with the images and history that he depicted many decades ago. At the exhibition, there are crowds around “Lib√©ration de Paris, France” (1944) for example, which shows a chaos of flags, barricades being taken down, and shaky, out of focus snapshots of Paris, still damaged with rubble and confused soldiers.
There is laughter around the photos of the Coronation of King George VI in London (1937), showing the ordinary Londoners in curious states of both interest and alienation: a child screaming on his father’s shoulders; a drunk or asleep man passed out in a bed of newspapers, below scaffolding on which rows of people look out for the King. The camera, at all times, is pointed towards the people rather than the new King. (Perhaps this is a very French or Socialist perspective of England – which, according to the laughter, is no past sentiment.)  
There are startling shots of wartime France, including Nazi rallies and bizarrely forced cheerfulness of wartime films (with a full audience), are strangely moving and sad, especially with titles such as, “The Amazing New Film from Spain: Return to Life” – with a note explaining that the film is an “aid to Spanish Democracy”. The political context seems oddly familiar.  
In the photographs taken during a year in Africa meanwhile, (shortly after his military service ended), he shows children playing in the street, fishermen, rowers, and everyday life along the Ivory Coast – with the contradiction of ‘everyday’ and ‘sublime’ that characterises the best of Cartier-Bresson’s shots. 
These “decisive moments” affect a real intensity in the exhibition – hundreds of brilliant, piercing shots, fascinating in so many ways. The experimental, Surrealist forms, the exploratory series of Africa, the tragic-comic scenes of British society… Time slips away with each new photo. All that has gone – ideals, people, politics, and even a mood of innovation and revolution that existed when the photos were taken. Now, many decades later, they seem like sudden flashbacks to another time – strangely familiar (partly because some of the images are familiar, and others refer to familiar events) as well as strange.

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Susan Sontag, 1979, 16)

Perhaps this is the gentler side of voyeurism. To walk through hundreds of photographs by Cartier-Bresson is to walk through his life, and that of France. As a visitor, somewhere between tourist, student and immigrant, it is to stumble into a world that is within view but will always be someone else’s, which is perhaps the essence of all photography. It feels particularly so with these photographs. There is such a sense of life and grounding in them, of discovery and enlightenment, that it is difficult not to think, at times, that you have lived in these moments too. And that is what makes Cartier-Bresson such a brilliant and accomplished photographer: he has opened up a world of people, ideas and life that are so clear and direct that empathy with them is tangible and unforgettable.
Sometimes, people still consider photography as a secondary art. Even Cartier-Bresson said that the camera did everything, rather than himself. Perhaps he was exposing the art of photography by saying something so absurd, since his vision and attention to other people is present and discernable, even to the most cynical critic. It would be difficult to see this exhibition, anyway, to witness so many frames of evidence of that spark that drives people to announce “this is art!” – That magic, or empathy, or brilliance in a “decisive moment” to use the photographer’s language. To see so many people intently admiring and engaging with rooms and rooms of black and white photography is outstanding in itself. Though there is a nostalgia that comes from seeing old ideals and times now gone, the exhibition is fresh evidence, nevertheless, that the effects and power of Cartier-Bresson’s vision is alive and well.


Sontag, Susan (1979): On Photography. Penguin Books.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (2012): Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press
Centre Pompidou (2014): Notes in the exhibition

Rufus Wainwright: Vibrate: the Best of Rufus Wainwright

[for Line of Best Fit]
Rufus Wainwright: Vibrate: the Best of Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright recently turned forty, and as a bookend to his youth, has released a ‘Best Of’ that is proud, passionate and impressively varied – as well as a fascinating collection of stories. Perhaps because Wainwright’s songs seem often to be fragments of a long memoir – and inspired by opera and musical theatre – his music is particularly well suited to a ‘Best Of’, which joins up the strands of stories and ideas in his various albums, to present a substantial and interesting narrative of his life until now, and an expanse of expression and experience. 

The classics are all there: “Hallelujah”, “Poses”, “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk”, “Out of the Game” and “April Fools” – and with them a repertoire of familiar stories of love, charm, heartfelt jadedness and occasional yearning. The album’s lead single, a playful and sultry “Me and Liza” teases elements of Liza MInelli’s own sound and attitude, with a music hall flourish.  “Going to A Town”, meanwhile, contains the melancholia and regret that Wainwright sings of so charmingly and uniquely: “I’m so tired of you America / Making my own way home… I’ve got a life to live, America” - there is both regret and an underlying sense of unrequited love, or at least a complicated one. Romantic and political, both the capital ‘R’ and little ‘r’ – he casts an image of a disgraced and tragic ‘home’ that he returns to and leaves in circles. The implications of absurd, homophobic moralizing and the idiocy at its core - “Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved? / Tell me, enough of thinking everything you’ve done is good” – make a song about home, belonging and rejection exceptionally moving and pertinent.

The deluxe version of Wainwright’s Vibrate contains two discs of 34 tracks – combining songs from six studio albums as well as seventeen rare and unreleased recordings, some live, some studio, and including “Chic and Pointless” and “WWII” – both produced and the latter co-written by Guy Chambers. This disc is perhaps the highlight of the album, especially for fans or anyone who is familiar with the better known tracks of the first side. A beautiful cover of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is also included on the second disc, having been previously used in the soundtrack to the film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”. There are many covers of this song, but Wainwright’s is somehow more fresh and youthful than the rest. Other soundtrack songs released on Vibrate include “La Complainte de la Butte” (from Moulin Rouge) and “The Maker Makes” (from Brokeback Mountain). The latter is especially charming and sad, and although he is not drunk on the record, somehow it seems the kind of song a drunk and regretful person would sob at the end of a wedding, full of whiskey and melodrama (in a good way).

In the best possible way, in fact, this record is defiantly proud, and defiantly discontent. It is full of songs of adoring and missing people, of being in love and in rage, and even if one does not go for the overtly flamboyant and joyful tracks, there is something quite moving about the album as a whole, and the stories wrapped up in a familiar but increasingly intriguing, soulful voice.

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789 - 2013

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789 - 2013
Tate Liverpool
8 November 2013 – 2 February 2014


On a single floor of Tate Liverpool, 200 years of art influenced by the Left is exhibited: a big idea, in a small space. And rather than take a Marxist or Socialist approach to curating the show, the organisers seem to have gone with a more Anarchist approach. From the Guerilla Girls’ posters, to Alan Kane’s touring art show, Folk Archive, and from Bauhaus democratising pleasure, to David’s stabbed Marat of the French Revolution, the exhibition is certainly an excellent opportunity for those with prior knowledge of political art, or rather, some of the individually brilliant works on show. But for anyone seeking to understand, in any depth or with any coherence, how values changed making art, as the title suggests we will find out, the show will likely confuse.

“Art Turning Left” says little of substance about art has changed, as there is no wider reference or intellectual discussion about how left wing values contributed to art practice; rather, it seems to exhibit token ‘protest art’ alongside aesthetic ideas about giving artistic pleasure and access to the masses, which although all “Left” in some respect, are extremely diverse ideas and approaches. There is no engagement with politics, or the context of the works, which would better explain their relevance and significance, and perhaps their connection to one another. This is almost certainly because the subject is too big, and the works, though exhibited thematically, are too diverse and unrelated to make sense of. 

Put another way, imagine an exhibition entitled “Art Turning Conservative”: it would be completely impossible to even conceive of an exhibition that would cover the Decadents of the nineteenth century alongside portraits of the Royals and aristocrats, Nazi propaganda, the whole Renaissance, most Medieval Art, and even the self-confessed Thatcherite Tracey Emin. “Conservative Art” would likely be a much bigger sample, but even “Leftist Art” is far too big and diverse to include in one room. Even the whole of Tate Liverpool, or all of the Tates in the UK, could not contain it, or explore it with enough breadth and depth. The problem, in a sense, is assuming that “Leftist Art” is a minority or a niche, even if many of the works of art in the History of Art have been in some respect Conservative.

“Socialist British Art” might be niche enough to warrant a focussed, in-depth exhibition, but the whole Left Wing is not. On that note, what of Communist art from the U.S.S.R? What about modern Chinese art created under Mao? What of Latin American left wing art? What of all the activist art from the 1950s, criticised and censored by McCarthy? What of the protesting activism of 1960s and 1970s America? Where these artists not influenced by the left? And what of political art from the same period in South Africa, Ireland, Germany and Australia? Or the Russian Revolution? What of all the other instances of revolutionary, or made-during-revolution art work? Of course it would be near-impossible to exhibit a representative and substantial exhibition that truly taught us about “Art Turning Left”, and that is the problem: this exhibition sets out to do the impossible. Its ideals are too great to ever be turned into a reality that makes sense. It is quite frustrating, really, that the exhibition manages to embody the simplistic criticisms so often thrown at the “Left” – and that is perhaps because it uses a term than is so vague and wide-ranging that it ends up referring to nothing in particular.

Another problem with the show is the assumption that these artworks are influenced by the Left, rather than by other factors such as Libertarianism (the Guerilla Girls could be considered Libertarian, which is far removed from Communism or Socialism, usually), globalisation, urbanisation, fashion, or reacting to the Right Wing (not necessarily being Left, but just apolitical, or anarchic). Then there is the problem of Capitalism: this exhibition is situated in a Capitalist society, and many of the works created with that context, even as Left ideals may have been in effect also. These works are bought and sold within that structure, and have a price tag – they have not left the Capitalist art world, and so it is doubtful how influential left wing politics have been on art, compared to any other ideology. An artist may profess to be left wing, but the practice of making art is naturally quite individualistic. Even the most collective art groups are working within a structure that values them in terms of monetary value and public image. Even if art is or wants to be Left, there is a responsibility to acknowledge the many other layers of influence, ideology and input. In not defining “Left” properly, the exhibition has inevitably fallen against the criticism of inconsistency.

There is no doubt that left wing ideals have influenced some artists, some of whom are shown in this room. But in lumping them into a single room with little explanation about how they were influenced leaves us no more enlightened than before entering the room.
As in a badly organised (if extremely good-looking) protest, there is no central aim, no clear, collective characteristics, no direction, and no serious understanding of politics. This is unfortunate, because many of the works are valuable and exceptional as individual artworks, but this brilliance is often obscured or cheapened in being shown in a crowded room. People may have power simply in congregating in a square; but artworks require a little more organisation.

One positive aspect of the show, however, is the great range of talks, events, and educational initiatives that are organised in parallel to “Art Turning Left”, however. If this show is anything, it is a starting point in a conversation, and there is certainly enough inspiring work in there to inspire those who attend. The exhibition itself does not answer any questions, but it does provoke more questions, and it has the structured education program to go with it. And that is where the “Art Turning Left” saves itself: through education, discussion, and at the very least, a means of attracting like-minded people into one space. It is tempting to think that such a small space has been chosen so that the visitors may spill onto the streets.

Cartier: Le Style et l’Histoire

Cartier: Le Style et L’Histoire
Le Grand Palais, Paris
04 December 2013 – 16 February 2014


At Christmas-time in Paris, the city sparkles and glimmers on every street. Shop windows are lit up with extravagant displays, selections of antique rings and costume jewellery shine from boutiques next to patisseries and cafes displaying equally sumptuous macarons, cakes and éclairs. Bon-bons are wrapped around gateaux like beads on haute couture, fairy lights sprinkle over trees, and the Eiffel Tower, as usual, glimmers on the horizon. The churches are lit with more candles than usual, and the evening twilight filters through stories in stained glass. The water of Canal St-Martin reflects crimson, green, blue and white lights from the restaurants along the edge, and the Seine reflects the stars.

This brilliant Parisian spectacle makes the wintertime exhibition of Cartier’s history well-timed and yet unexceptional. In the City of Lights, a collection of diamonds in a dark room – however rare the rocks and however magnificent the surroundings – is only one more corner in such an array of glamour and style that the richest details are not necessarily the most fascinating. The most extravagant tiaras in the world cannot compare to the stars or the moon reflected in the Seine. Diamonds may be forever, but there is something rarer, somehow, in catching the transient beauty of a Parisian night.  

And yet the many reviewers of this high-profile show have almost consistently sung its praises, especially in the British media, as if swapping words for diamonds themselves, or as if they had not experienced the rest of Paris at that time. Or, perhaps, diamonds really are fascinating to many people. Certainly there were crowds in awe of the various show-stealers: Elizabeth Taylor’s earrings from her third husband, and the necklace given to her by Richard Burton; the tiara Catherine Middleton wore for her wedding to Prince William; jewels made for Princess Grace of Monaco, and a 23.6 ct Williamson pink diamond, set in a flower brooch for Queen Elizabeth II. Wallis Simpson, too, had a number of pieces commissioned, when exiled in Paris, and rejected by the British Royal family: an exquisite scattering of amethysts, diamonds and sapphires; a brooch the shape of a flamingo, a panther made of diamonds. 

It is all quite extravagant, and yet writing about jewellery – or jewellery written about – is far more attractive and exciting than the jewels themselves. The stories behind the gems – the romances, inferiority complexes, the charisma of Elizabeth Taylor playing to the camera in a gift from Burton – are entertaining and interesting. The jewels, when displayed on black velvet, behind glass, with security guards, are less so. They have become rocks again, devoid of glamour, which has never really been wealth, but rather, spectacle. These are the tools of glamour, the currency of elitism. It is hard to wander around such an exhibition without feeling a slight bemusement, or even revulsion, at the crowds of ordinary people bustling in front of these windows for a chance to glimpse a princess’s brooch, or an oligarch’s ornament, or a movie star’s status symbol. For as much as Cartier say and believe that this exhibition is interesting because of the exquisite craft and design involved, or the natural dazzle of rare diamonds, it seems far more obvious that it is an attraction because of the people who have bought them. That is less an art exhibition, and more of a symptom of celebrity obsession, one with a clear historical precedent. Here we have a history of colonialism, slave labour, and oligarchy. Here we have monarchs spending money on pink diamonds during wartime, and rejected socialites making themselves feel better by buying from those royals’ jewellers. Wandering round, it is as if the ghost of the Great Gatsby haunts the exhibition: all these jewels, all this wealth, all this materialist desire, and for what? The designers of these pieces were no doubt brilliantly talented, but those designs (more beautiful on paper than realised in rocks, it must be said) have ended up mere mergers and investments (and a huge PR stunt for Cartier) explained as art. The Grand Palais is magnificent, with its Salon d’Honneur decorated with projections like a kaleidoscopic Rorschach test, though in a way that upstages the jewels themselves.

The most interesting part of the exhibition, in my opinion, were those displays ignored by the crowds: the Art Deco drawings and paintings, the costumes designed for the stage, and dresses studded with jewels for the ballet, including Ida Rubinstein’s headdress in “Scheherazade” – made of blue feathers, crimson and green stones, and pearls, and inspired by the designs of the Ballet Russes. Most fascinating of all was the bird made of jewels the colours of the French tricolour, in a golden cage, which was Cartier’s protest against the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII. A caged bird, of course, where the jewels do not matter so much as the principle, which on this case is a noble one, and a brave one, and a story that runs deeper than the many marriages and romantic gestures that Cartier has cast in diamonds through the ages. This single piece saves the exhibition, reminding us that some things are worth saving, some things are precious and rare. Freedom and spirit, whether expressed through diamonds or not, seem all the more desirable having spent time in “Cartier: Le Style et L’Histoire”. Walking outside into the Parisian night, the city aglow with its many natural (and not so natural) lights and all that glitters, we can be in awe once again.

Philippe Parreno: Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World

Philippe Parreno: Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World
Palais de Tokyo, Paris
23 October 2013 – 12 January 2014


It is an opportunity most artists would dream of – a carte blanche invitation to transform the magnificent space of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Philippe Parreno was given that dream job, and has risen to the occasion, with a stirring and eerie exhibition that asserts his central vision of the exhibition as an art form. Drawing on a long fascination and dialogue with architecture, and using work he created recently and years ago, Parreno’s creation is a successful synthesis of ideas and execution, of vision and style.

The visitors to the exhibition are given great consideration, and the experience of seeing the exhibition is quite like entering an interactive theatre or film rather than the static expectations of many contemporary art exhibitions. While Paris has long been a centre of thoughtful and meticulous curation, the idea of the exhibition as its own art form is nevertheless rare outside of the city. Parreno’s exhibition takes the idea further than usual, even by Parisian standards. His direction was central to the realization of the exhibition, and the Palais de Toxyo’s faith in him and freedoms given to him, are quite extraordinary and unusual. It is not inevitable that an artist-centered direction would lead to a visitor-centred experience, but Parreno and the Palais de Tokyo have managed to pull it off.

“You always have to establish a relation between the production of form and the exhibition of form. For me, they are both totally dependent on each other. There is no object of art without its exhibition.” Philippe Parreno.

The whole structure of the Palais de Tokyo’s building is reimagined and reinterpreted, so that rooms are given new functions and the experience of the artworks within those rooms is altered too. This process of reinterpreting the building used the expertise of set designer Randall Peacock and sound designer Nicolas Becker, to create a magnificent world within the Palais de Tokyo. Through a spectacle combining objects, lights, music, and film, visitors to the exhibition are absorbed into the exhibition’s world, and as in a theatre production there is less a sense of choice or freedom and more a sort of submission to the exhibition’s ideas.

The power dynamics have therefore changed: it is harder not to be engaged in the work, and not to be part of it. While many artists and curators have experimented with these shifting dynamics, and varying degrees of audience interaction, Parreno has perfected his methods of manipulation. He plays with words, sounds, and images to distort people’s perceptions of space, and therefore redefine how they experience parts of the exhibition, even commenting and suggesting new ways for art to be experienced. One could parallel Parreno’s ideas with the film industry’s foray into 3D film; perhaps that is even a technology Parreno will use one day. The vision of all-encompassing experience, anyway, is central to Parreno’s work, as is the idea of the artist as director (rather than simply observer). This does seem quite megalomaniac, as an idea, but because the show is realized so well and the audience is considered so carefully, that it works. An artist having control and direction, and shifting the power dynamics of the artist-audience relationship, may therefore be a good development, if that power is used in such a way as to benefit the audience and be artistically innovative. And it is in realizing that responsibility that Parreno’s exhibition does work, and succeeds as an ‘art in itself’ as well as an experiment with audience perception and crowd control.

Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World is a spectacular and hypnotizing experience: visitors are absorbed by visual and sonic tricks and effects, including parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (performed by Mikhail Rudy, via a self-playing piano, for added mystique), alongside an apparent ghost of Marilyn Monroe (his 2012 work, Marylyn, intended to be “a portrait of a ghost”) and an eerie garden in Portugal. The sound of dancers’ footsteps (from the Merce Cunnigham Dance Company) and pointe-work add to this ghostly, intriguing atmosphere, as does the bizarre encounter with the character “Annlee” and a seeming street lit with bright marquees. Multiple screens run clips from Zinedine Zidane, and secret passageways emerge from a bookshelf. Parreno uses the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Petrushka to signal these different ‘scenes’, as well as to create an overriding presence of the puppet from Petrushka, a ghost of ghosts, acting as a sort of Underworld guide for visitors in this alive but fantastical, magical but melancholic new world. Although the spirit of the exhibition seems to have power over its visitors, that power is transient and directed from a director (Parreno) who is absent – much like the puppet in Petrushka who inspires and haunts the show as a kind of automaton, in Parreno’s words:

“By definition, an automaton mimics life, but it essentially does only one thing over and over again. For me, the exhibition is like an automaton.” Philippe Parreno.”

The exhibition, then, feels more like an interactive theatre show, a ghost tour combined with an eerie circus, in a strange, imaginary town. Parreno’s playful and imaginative approach to his invitation from the Palais de Tokyo is a delight – combining excellent technique and collaborations, with a simple but brilliant style, and a complicated yet involving realisation.  To “see” this exhibition is to fall into a dream – someone else’s – but all the more fascinating for that. This is an experiment in subconsciousness and relationship: to become a visitor to someone else’s mind, is truly an exciting idea, and one that has rarely been so well presented since the Surrealists. Parreno does not alienate with his dreams, as many performance and conceptual artists tend to, he does not really frighten or intimidate, or abuse his invented power; instead he invites and involves, and creates bridges between one mind and many others, which seems a noble vision to have realized.