The Man­ne­rist Theme Park

Art Press - - DÉBAT -

The ac­claim that gree­ted the recent Pierre Huy­ghe and Phi­lippe Par­re­no re­tros­pec­tives was a case less of cri­ti­cal ap­pre­cia­tion than of a kind of en­chant­ment. The fol­lo­wing text is an at­tempt to be more mea­su­red, an exer­cise in cri­ti­cism ba­sed on exa­mi­na­tion of the work of these two ar­tists who for a long time were joi­ned in com­mon pro­jects.


At the end of 1990s a new dis­course about the ex­hi­bi­tion be­gan to take shape. It was ar­ti­cu­la­ted main­ly around three terms: sce­na­rio, for­mat and nar­ra­tive. Pierre Huy­ghe and Phi­lippe Par­re­no were as­so­cia­ted with this trend, along with other ar­tists ( no­ta­bly Do­mi­nique Gon­za­lezFoers­ter and Liam Gillick) and nu­me­rous cri­tics who com­men­ted on their work.(1) In these dis­courses the term sce­na­rio re­fer­red, wi­thout dis­tinc­tion, to fic­tion, a cri­ti­cal func­tion, an ideo­lo­gy, a men­ta­li­ty, a sub­ject, a concep­tual tool, etc.: a set of he­te­ro­ge­neous ob­jects and an ill­de­fi­ned concept, then, but the lat­ter had en­or­mous stra­te­gic breadth. It laun­ched and cir­cu­la­ted a fresh- to- the mar­ket vo­ca­bu­la­ry that pro­mi­sed new prac­tices, and al­so had a nor­ma­tive func­tion. In a context where “the ex­hi­bi­tion form of art,” to bor­row Jacques Ran­cière’s ex­pres­sion,(2) had al­rea­dy be­come the new pa­ra­digm for ma­ny ar­tists (es­pe­cial­ly those whose work was to be un­ders­tood as a critique of the mu­seum), this vo­ca­bu­la­ry could be­come a po­wer­ful ins­tru­ment of le­gi­ti­mi­za­tion. Let’s face it, the stra­te­gy wor­ked.


If we cut to the prac­tice, the term sce­na­rio is ea­si­ly un­ders­tood in the work of Par­re­no and Huy­ghe in that they seek to pro­duce nar­ra­tives that ne­ver go beyond being stages of a plot. The pos­si­bi­li­ties wi­thin these nar­ra­tives are said to re­main open, and the forms are not ac­tua­li­zed in any par­ti­cu­lar sto­ry but ra­ther in the amal­ga­ma­tion of pos­sibles that ap­pear in the ne­ga­tive and po­si­tive spaces pro­du­ced by the images and their com­po­si­tion.

Huy­ghe ex­plains: “L’Ex­pé­di­tion scin­tillante gave shape to a sce­na­rio that is now being rea­li­zed in A Jour­ney That Wasn’t. At the Bre­genz Kuns­thaus, the three floors are iden­ti­cal, and each one consti­tu­ted a phase in this sce­na­rio: the hy­po­the­sis of an el­sew­here and a dis­pla­ce­ment, an en­coun­ter, the mise-en-scène. […] Each le­vel cor­res­pon­ded to a scene from a pos­sible ope­ra. The first un­derwent the cli­ma­tic changes in the Poe no­vel [ The Nar­ra­tive of Ar­thur Gor­don Pym of Nan­tu­cket]: snow, fog and rain were fal­ling from the cei­ling. In the cen­ter of this same room was a big boat in ice, half­way bet­ween ve­hicle and des­ti­na­tion. On the se­cond le­vel there was a music box whose psy­che­de­lic lights and smoke ma­chines sug­ges­ted an in­ner jour­ney. This was an evo­ca­tive de­vice, a lan­guage. And then, on the third floor, was a plat­form for a fu­ture ex­hi­bi­tion, a ska­ting rink with black ice and a li­bret­to..”(3) The “sce­na­rio” that “gives form” to this ex­hi­bi­tion com­bines two sets of ele­ments. One com­prises at­trac­tive, ap­pea­ling and po­wer­ful­ly evo­ca­tive ob­jects that each consti­tute a star­ting point for a sto­ry and bring to mind child­hood mar­vels (the ice boat, music box and ska­ting rink). The other is made up of mis­sing things, ma­te­ria­li­zed by the se­pa­ra­tion of ele­ments on dif­ferent mu­seum floors, im­plying a sub­trac­tive poe­tics (the nar­ra­tive is wi­th­held). Huy­ghe’s “sce­na­rio” re­plays the func­tion of clues and traces in a com­bi­na­tion of the spec­ta­cu­lar and the emp­ty. He creates the pos­si­bi­li­ty of a nar­ra­tive where the pas­sage of time takes a ma­te­rial form, in the course of the ex­hi- bi­tion, in the slow me­ta­mor­pho­sis of the phy­si­cal ob­jects that make it up. Since Bre­genz, this ap­proach has conti­nued to guide the dif­ferent ele­ments of his work, wha­te­ver the ac­tual ob­jects he is wor­king with. Par­re­no states the same ap­proach: the idea is to turn ex­hi­bi­tions in­to a pri­vi­le­ged space for the as­sem­bly of ob­jects that com­pose a nar­ra­tive; to trans­form the ex­hi­bi­tion ex­pe­rience in­to the rea­ding of a picture book; and to de­fine the ar­tist as the in­ter­me­dia­ry for sto­ries: “When I was a student I spent five years loo­king at books. What haun­ted me was the re­la­tion­ship bet­ween sto­ries and ex­hi­bi­tions and that haunts me still. I have ne­ver found ob­jects in­ter­es­ting. What I was in­ter­es­ted in was not so much the ma­king of ob­jects but their in­ser­tion in­to a sto­ry, a context. Conse­quent­ly, at some point, an ob­ject, an image, will be­long to an ex­hi­bi­tion, which is their ex­hi­bi­tion, the condi­tions of their ex­hi­bi­tion. I lear­ned that from Bu­ren.”(4)


In this set of texts the term “for­mat,” like the word “sce­na­rio,” co­vers a vast range of mea­nings de­pen­ding on the ob­jects to which it is ap­plied (ma­te­rial and economic, his­to­ri­cal and aes­the­tic, contex­tual and stra­te­gic). Here we will note three ins­tan­tia­tions: The first is the for­mat as a pro­duc­tion norm ex­te­rior to art (in this case, film). Huy­ghe: “To say that you can’t use a form be­cause it has al­rea­dy been ta­ken up by other for­mats, and to le­gi­ti­mize this in­ca­pa­ci­ty by pro­du­cing a par­ti­cu­la­rism by de­fault doesn’t in­ter­est me.

I re­fuse to re­treat in that way. I want to go on wor­king on a cer­tain scale and, in this sense, I look to­wards other for­mats.”(5) The se­cond is for­mat as a gui­ding pro­to­col: “Here, I was loo­king to open up the pro­to­cols of the ex­hi­bi­tion to other for­mats. The ex­hi­bi­tion should be the star­ting point and not the end point; a pre-pro­duc­tion.”(6) The last is the for­mat as a norm of representation. “When we made the vi­deo Ozone,” Par­re­no ex­plains, “we said to our­selves, ‘Can we conceive an ex­hi­bi­tion that would take the form of a pro­jec­ted film si­gned joint­ly by all four of us?’ We loo­ked a lot at the work of Ge­ne­ral Idea from this pers­pec­tive. There was so­me­thing unique about it—the way they use ‘for­mats’: TV for­mat, ma­ga­zine for­mat. To me they were the first to think not in terms of forms and ob­jects, as be­fore, but in terms of for­mats. For­mats of representation, of rea­ding the world.”(7) Ta­ken in a ne­ga­tive sense, the word for­mat de­notes cul­tu­ral for­mat­ting, from which, ac­cor­ding to the norms of art cri­ti­cism, the “good” for­mat of art is ne­ces­sa­ri­ly dis­tinct. The point is to de-for­mat the for­mat. This the­re­fore ap­plies to the ex­hi­bi­tion, un­ders­tood as a cul­tu­ral norm. What does this mean concre­te­ly?


In their in­ter­views, both Par­re­no and Huy­ghe ex­hi­bit a wa­ri­ness of for­ma­lism that trans­lates in­to pro­mo­ting “for­ma­tism.” This shift does not en­tail a new ap­proach to­wards dis­play layout and its ex­ten­ded forms, which now more than ever are concei­ved from the point of view of the art­work as an or­ga­nic to­ta­li­ty. “Sce­na­rio” and “for­mat” are part of a for­mal lo­gic whose re­sources, at best, they refresh, be­cause it is through re­for­mat­ting that the trans­for­ma­tion from ob­ject to ex­hi­bi­tion-form is achie­ved, and in the to­ta­li­ty of the nar­ra­tive (as an art­work) that the ex­hi­bi­tion is re­con­fi­gu­red. “For­mat,” in this sce­na­rio-cen­tric dy­na­mic, de­notes an ex­hi­bi­tion-nar­ra­tive (for which ci­ne­ma was the mo­del, the screen the pri­vi­le­ged site and the image the prin­ci­pal means). Ho­we­ver, the “sce­na­rio” construc­ted with ob­jects does not so much fo­re­ground their for­mal qua­li­ties as such as their abi­li­ty to serve as signs, i. e. to func­tion in the same mode as clues and traces. That doubt­less ex­plains the abun­dance of cul­tu­ral re­fe­rences in these pro­jects where eve­ry si­gn points to ano­ther si­gn which it­self points to a gi­ven cul­tu­ral ori­gin.( 8) In short, the nar­ra­tive is a ta­pes­try of signs that the ar­tist’s prac­tice stages, re­dis­tri­butes or makes co­exist in one or se­ve­ral spaces.


Ann Lee, Snow White, Lu­cie, Zi­dane, Le Cor­bu­sier, Ma­ri­lyn Mon­roe, Pe­tru­sh­ka, John Cage and Merce Cun­nin­gham, a mo­der­nist sculp­ture and a clas­si­cal one, lit­tle worlds en­clo­sed in aqua­riums, a dog with a pink paw, books un­der glass, mas­ked cha­rac­ters—all are signs. What these signs have in com­mon, other than that they all per­tain to cul­tu­ral re­fe­rences, is their consis­ten­cy: they are sym­bols, they are props for anec­dotes, so­me­times bor­de­ring on the in­si­pid.(9) This al­so ex­plains why Huy­ghe’s re­tros­pec­tive at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­ter of­fe­red frag­ments of ex­hi­bi­tions (his own) in the re­mains of an ex­hi­bi­tion (by Mike Kel­ley). And why all the signs in­ha­bi­ting this space were in turn snat­ched up by this overw­hel­ming re­fe­rence (the ex­hi­bi­tion as re­mains). As for Par­re­no and his ex­hi­bi­tion Anyw­here, Anyw­here Out of the World at the Pa­lais de To­kyo, sub­trac­tive poe­tics gave way to a dia­lec­tic of pre­sence and ab­sence sys­te­ma­ti­zed in­to a thea­ter of ap­pea­rance and di­sap­pea­rance that is re­sol­ved in the in­vo­ca­tion of “ghosts” for the great ma­jo­ri­ty of his pro­po­sals, es­pe­cial­ly spec­ta­cu­lar ones. But that’s not all, be­cause the in­ter­lin­king of these signs no lon­ger pro­duces a nar­ra­tive: spea­king of his la­test show, or ins­tead of one, Huy­ghe pro­claims the idea of an in­dif­ferent na­ture,(10) while Par­re­no is flir­ting with the Ge­samt­kunst­werk. Thus, the dan­ger for “for­ma­tism” is not so much for­ma­lism as a man­ne­rism whose coor­di­nates are three kinds of da­ta: signs that lose their mea­ning due to their co­exis­tence (the jux­ta­po­si­tion of Hal­lo­ween and the re­make of a trial of French anar­chists in a Huy­ghe film, The Host and the Cloud); ob­jects whose pre­sence (this is the dis­tin­gui­shing si­gn of this ex­hi­bi­tion) is sup­po­sed to si­gni­fy an ab­sence (pe­rhaps to them­selves); and the theme of ves­tiges and ghosts (re­pla­cing sub­trac­tive poe­tics). So what’s left? Emo­tions? Real­ly just at­trac­tions and an am­biance: a screa­mer, a man with a don­key head, an ice ska­ter, a dog with pink paws; a song by Kate Bush, music by Brian Eno, a mo­ving dis­play wall, lights syn­chro­ni­zed to the rhythm of player pia­nos, a ro­ta­ting book­case, a lit­tle girl who asks you ques­tions… What kind of en­chant­ment is this, what kind of fair­ground or pa­ra­dox? Ha­ving set them­selves on doing away with one cul­tu­ral norm, they have en­ded up with ano­ther one: the fun­fair and its at­trac­tions and ar­ti­fices. In a new at­tempt to im­pose a vo­ca­bu­la­ry, Huy­ghe no lon­ger wants to talk about sce­na­rios but ra­ther “in­de­ter­mi­na­tion,” not about the ex­hi­bi­tion but “a li­ving si­tua­tion” and not about vi­si­tors but “wit­nesses.”(11). Even at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­ter? one might be temp­ted to ask. Ob­vious­ly the spec­ter of De­bord conti­nues to haunt the conscious­ness of this generation of ar­tists. But that’s when the pa­ra­dox sud­den­ly clears up: Huy­ghe’s ter­mi­no­lo­gy would be equal­ly ap­pro­priate for des­cri­bing the ex­pe­rience of vi­si­ting na­tu­ral parks, which long ago be­came at­trac­tion parks.

Trans­la­tion, L-S Tor­goff

(1) For this ar­ticle I re­vie­wed a set of texts and in­ter­views pu­bli­shed in art­press over the last do­zen years, from no. 264 (Ja­nua­ry 2001) through no. 405 (November 2013). (2) In “Pos­sible Spaces,” a conver­sa­tion bet­ween Jacques Ran­cière and Do­mi­nique Gon­za­lez-Foers­ter, art­press no. 327 (Oc­to­ber 2006). ( 3) “A Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney,” Pierre Huy­ghe in­ter­vie­wed by Ri­chard Ley­dier, art­press no. 322 (April 2006). (4) Phi­lippe Par­re­no, “Representation in Ques­tion,” in­ter­view by Phi­lippe Vergne, art­press no. 264 (Ja­nua­ry 2001). (5) Pierre Huy­ghe, “A Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney,” loc. cit. (6) Pierre Huy­ghe, spea­king about the As­so­cia­tion des temps li­bé­rés, op. cit. (7) Phi­lippe Par­re­no, “Representation in Ques­tion,” loc. cit. (8) A per­fect example of this is what Phi­lippe Par­re­no said to Anaël Pi­geat in a recent in­ter­view in art­press no. 405 (November 2013, “A ghost is a for­got­ten book that we reinvent”). Through the course of a se­ries of ques­tions, the ar­tist draws up a long list of re­fe­rences and pro­per nouns. (9) These anec­dotes are re­coun­ted in the pam­phlets han­ded over to vi­si­tors when they en­ter the Pierre Huy­ghe ex­hi­bi­tion. Each of the art­works is ba­si­cal­ly a prop for one or ano­ther of these sto­ries. Par­re­no has wall signs to tell his sto­ries, in ad­di­tion to the book­let gi­ven out at the door. (10) See the in­ter­view with Pierre Huy­ghe by Ro­bert Storr, “Sin­gu­lar Wri­tings,” art­press 404, Oc­to­ber 2013. The cul­tu­ral clo­thing has been chan­ged. Whe­reas yes­ter­day it was bor­ro­wed from Jacques Ran­cière and Bru­no La­tour, now it’s from Quen­tin Meillas­soux. And Huy­ghe’s ho­mage to Ro­bert Smith­son seems un­foun­ded, be­cause the lat­ter’s work as­pi­red to a de­hu­ma­ni­za­tion and was un­tou­ched by the sligh­test ro­man­ti­cism. (11) Ibid. In this context it should go wi­thout saying that these bi­na­ries don’t hold up: all in­de­ter­mi­na­cy is a construc­tion, so­me­thing pro­du­ced by spe­ci­fic condi­tions; all ex­hi­bi­tions of­fer a si­tua­tion or an ex­pe­rience; eve­ry eye­wit­ness is al­so a vie­wer.

Christophe Kihm is a pro­fes­sor at the HEAD in Ge­ne­va. He is the au­thor of L’Épreuve de l’image. Tech­niques et com­pé­tences des corps (Bayard, 2013), and, with Va­lé­rie Ma­vri­do­ra­kis, edi­ted the for­th­co­ming Trans­mettre l’art (Les Presses du Réel, 2014).

Page de gauche / page left: Phi­lippe Par­re­no. Vue de l'ex­po­si­tion « Anyw­here, Anyw­here, Out of The World », Pa­lais de To­kyo, 2013. « How Can We Know the Dan­cer from the Dance? ». 2012. (Court. Es­ther Schip­per Gal­le­ry ; Ph. A. Mole) Ci-contre / op­po­site: Pierre Huy­ghe. « L’ex­pé­di­tion scin­tillante ». 2002. Pa­ti­noire. Vue de l’ex­po­si­tion au Centre Pom­pi­dou. 2013. (Ph. P. Mi­geat)

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