It is a rare pleasure to visit an exhibition where a specific purpose can be detected. It is all the more a pleasure to wander around an entire art centre and visit several exhibitions all revolving around the same theme. It was a true pleasure to visit Palays de Tokyo during my trip to Paris a few weekends ago and discover that contemporary art can still speak to us in a cohesive way, without being a mélange of random things, but an arresting web of interconnections of meaning and beauty.
The fil rouge of this season’s programme at Palais de Tokyo, EN TOUTE CHOSE, is an exploration of our relationship with machines, in most cases factoring nature into the picture. One after the other, the installations, photographs, videos, and sculptures investigated the dynamic and unexpected links between nature and culture.
Exhibition view of Emmanuel Saulnier « Black Dancing », Palais de Tokyo (2017)
Courtesy of the artist. Photo : André Morin. Courtesy ADAGP, Paris 2017
As it is usual at Palais de Tokyo, several artists were displayed at the same time, leaving the visitor spoilt for choice on what to see. While my friend and I saw the majority of the exhibitions, the good thing about variety is the freedom it allows one to compare different artworks, and more importantly to compare one’s reactions to them. Variety acts as a fertile terrain from which aesthetic thoughts can sprout.
There were a few artworks that, albeit arresting, I wouldn’t call ‘beautiful’ or ‘masterpieces’, and yet they still grabbed my attention and seemed reluctant to let it go. One of them was Abraham Pincheval’s ‘Ours’ (2017), a sort of retrospective and claustrophobic sit-in. The artist decided to live for 13 days in a bear’s belly, embracing the stillness and enclosure mammals experience during hibernation. The work spoke of autarky and immobility, and while it made me feel uncomfortable on behalf of Poincheval, it certainly stuck with me.
A similar sensation of pleasurable unplesantness was caused by ‘Rites and Aftermath’ (2017) by Dorian Gaudin, a ‘theatre show’ all performed by machines. The creepy and unpredictable spectacle offered by electric chairs, tapis roulants, and mechanisms of all sorts was disturbing in every possible way. The predominant sensation I felt was that machines were about to take control and they would reach out to the audience any moment. In spite of this constant threat, we had to force ourselves away from this display of automation, as we found ourselves completely enthralled by what was taking place before our eyes.
Exhibition view of Dorian Gaudin « Rites and Aftermath », Palais de Tokyo (2017)
Courtesy of the artist, Dittrich & Schlechtriem Galerie (Berlin), Nathalie Karg Gallery (New York) and Galerie Pact (Paris). Photo : Aurélien Mole
Taro Izumi’s ‘Pan’, by contrast, is a rather reassuring and inclusive exhibition. With the same playfulness, cheekiness, and creativity of the Greek god Pan, Izumi presents a series of work that not only reflect on the relationship between men and machines, but also square in the dimension of time. The most intriguing works were a set of images, videos, and intricate sculptures. The artist selected photographs of sportspeople in acrobatic postures, and built intricate machines to serve as a support for others to recreate those postures. Mastering invisible forces, Izumi gives them a physical presence, creating a sort of ‘skeleton of gravity’, playing with the idea of what we can and cannot do with machines. Wandering around the dark room displaying both images and sculpture felt like understanding the secret rules governing nature.
Exhibition view of Taro Izumi, « Pan », Palais de Tokyo (2017)
SAM Art Projects. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie GP & N Vallois, Paris. Photo : André Morin
Similarly intellectually engaging at at the same time visually pleasant was Isabelle Cornaro’s video ‘Celebration’ (2013), part of the group exhibition ‘Sous le regard de machines pleines d’amour et de grâce’. Her triptych of moving images, alternating between black and white and colour ones with the utmost symmetry, was absorbing as it was stimulating. Multiple connections could be drawn between the images displayed, which went from random objects to snapshots from Disney movies to rosy clouds. Once again, the sensation of being presented with a fine distillate of nature, humanity, and machines was there. Cornaro’s work sealed a holistic art programme where not only there was a message to communicate, but it was also communicated effectively and inspiringly.