Tuesday, June 4, 2013

George Pompidou Centre for Art and Culture

On the first Sunday of the month, Paris does something very civilized:  it opens its art galleries free of charge to the public.  We'd decided to do the George Pompidou that day, and it took virtually the entire day.  We were inside the museum by 11 and left only for a lovely lunch before calling it a day at 6.  They have two immense floors, and since the floor for art between the 1960s and the end of the century came first, that's where we began.  We had none of those feelings of being bull-shitted that had infused our time at the gallery of contemporary art of Paris.  Rather, we went from profound moment to profound moment while also feeling the inherent playfulness of the art the gallery's curators had chosen.  Your first view is of Tinguely's "Requiem for a Dead Leaf," a giant mechanical set of wheels and gears from which a small white leaf hangs.  (You can see the leaf about of a third of the way from the right hand side of the photo below, hanging from the first vertical bar.)  The piece is of an overwhelming scale, and many visitors stopped to take pictures of it, as if acknowledging how its monumentality struck them.  It was created in the sixties, and is perhaps an expression of the environmental movement begun by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, where she argued that we could not continue to see industrial progress out of the context of the pollution it created, pollution which was damaging the environment.

Many of the pieces, interestingly, involved the experience of one's body--or the imagination of bodily experience.  The first of these was "The Winter Garden"  by Jean Dubuffet, which is a disorienting piece of art work that you actually enter and walk around inside.  It has Dubuffet's characteristic style--spaces of white outlined by unpredictable black lines--except that once you find yourself inside it, you discover how disorienting those shapes are; in addition, the floor was uneven, but the unevenness wasn't necessarily indicated by the black lines, so that space and line seemed to be on different planes.  Dubuffet manages to defamiliarize our experience of orienting ourselves and shows how fragile our sense of where we stand can be.  I tried to take a picture of it, but people kept going in and coming out, obscuring the space inside. 

The next remarkably physical work was Yaacov Agam's "Amenagement de l'antichambre," a room made of pleated walls; in turn, colour has been carefully applied to the backward or forward-leaning pleats while sometimes the opposite side was left white.  The result is that everywhere you stand gives you the sense of a different room.  To complicate our vision further, a chrome ball and triangle distort the walls around you.  This was another piece that people were quite willing to play with, walking back and forth, looking at the room through the coloured glass on either side, considering the chrome ball.  On the one hand, viewers are simply delighted by the play with colour; on the other hand, viewers may or may not be aware of the questions Agam is asking about how we see our world, how subtly it can be distorted, how many sides it can have.  Again, this speaks to the skill of the curators (not to mention the artists!).  Unlike those perhaps at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris, the Pompidou's don't try to put arguments on the walls, but to find ways of engaging with viewers.

 As well, there is no attempt on the part of the curators to pretend that art isn't, in some way or another, inherently political.  Another work that engaged people was called "Tutto" by Alighiero Boetti.  At first glance, it is rather  abstract and colourful.  But if you stand in front of it for any length of time at all, you find yourself recognizing countless objects.  It is entirely embroidered by Afghan workers after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.  The artist worked on the shapes and arrangements, but left the choice of colours up to the artisans, with the proviso that there was the same amount of thread of each colour;  they could distribute it across the canvas as they liked.  There is actually seating in front of this piece (the galleries in Paris have, generally, way too little seating), and you could hear people calling out the shapes that they made out.

There was an entire room of "open work" inspired by artists like John Cage and Yoko Ono that made use of everyday objects in arrangements that gave them a significance they might not otherwise have.  My favourite of these was Robert Morris's "Card File."  You may have to be nearly as old as I am to remember these relics of office organization:  a long vertical file of see-through sleeves into which you could insert cards with categories on them.  Once you have established your filing principles, you can then file cards or slips of paper within the categories.  Morris's principles are quite intriguing; here is the selection from the "C" range:  cement, changes, communication, completion, conception.  Morris's work suggests that we might see ourselves, uncomfortably yet comfortingly, as having lives based on a series of principles or obsessions into which we might (sadly, perhaps) file our memories and our experiences.  One of the cards I photographed also suggests how we come back to concerns time and time again.

Two other artists also queried how we see ourselves.  One, so the didactic panel told us, had experienced something  like an identity crisis and had found about 100 identical biscuit tins into which he put everything that was in his studio.  Of course, the viewers of the artwork see only the rows of biscuit tins with cords running up them to the lights installed at the top, suggesting the extent to which this work is meant to live in a gallery.  So the artist as someone who accomplishes something was foregrounded.  In a second, there were boxes into which a photographer had put rolls of labelled but undeveloped film.  These works query who we are:  are we what we accomplish?  Are we our narratives or our memories?  Or are we experiences that are so rich and strange that no set of biscuit tins, let alone our own faulty memories, can contain everything?

The final work that really provoked us was "untitled" by Wade Guyton and Kelly Walker, though we came to call it "Yes, we have no bananas."  It is an installation of canvases that have been propped on the wall atop cans of paint whose labels suggest that when you roll it out you will have polka dots or checkerboards.  But there is one can, off to the left, that suggests it will allow you to paint bananas, though there are no bananas anywhere in the painting.  Again, this was a work with benches in front of it where people sat to puzzle out the fun, reminding me of Don McKay's reference to "homo ludens" while I was at Sage Hill.  We like to play.  It is one of our best ways of being thoughtful, critical, reflective.

At this point, we left the Pompidou for a lovely Italian lunch, returning to visit the galleries containing art made between 1905 and 1960. This is a more familiar narrative I can't relate with any fresh insights not already offered by art critics like Robert Hughes in Shock of the New.  The paintings on these floor was always  creative and adventurous, attempting to discover modernity as it unfolded, though the work created between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Second was more often anxious, dark, pessimistic.  The work moved us both deeply, though we couldn't help being relieved, at the end of several miraculous hours, by the advent of the Sixties.

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