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Sky's the Limit? L'état du ciel at Palais de Tokyo

(Paris.) Previously on PdT: In February, the Palais de Tokyo presented the first instalment of its exhibition series L’état du ciel (The State of the Sky).

Each part comprises a set of simultaneous shows, and this first chapter did not reveal much of the storyline. Luckily, the suite has already been programmed, independently from the ratings (make that attendance figures). The title sounds promising, and suits well an instutution known for its state of the art shows full of experimenting talent, an industrial-styled playground for artists. Look up, and reach for the sky: avant-garde.

The February opening night still sticks to the mind, with Ann Veronica Janssens offering bicycles for the visitor to ride (till being stopped by a “No Bicycle” sign) while the dirty old man in us enjoyed a performance involving three Palais interns get stark naked and pretend to Wear the Building as a Cloth. Magnifique. Of course, the monk – and the thief – in us preferred Dora Garcia ‘s installation Steal this Book; “L’art relationnel” with a touch of criminal energy. And then, there was also a very (no: very) abstract show of David Douard with the word “Need” for a recurring element, yet leaving the spectator’s need for understanding deeply unsatisfied

But L’état du ciel partie I’s main part, and still on view, has the famous French critic Georges Didi-Huberman failing as an artist (assisted by Arno Gisinger):

Nouvelles histoires de fantômes (New Ghost Stories) follows in the steps of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne-Atlas from 1927, a metawork collecting scenes under themes. The original work united texts and images from various sources – art as well as newspapers and other ordinary life documents -, to create an exhaustive representation of the state of affairs (or: “culture”). Largely surpassing the self-referential art world, it approached the collective unconscious. Georges Didi-Huberman on the other hand omits anything not highbrow. His Atlas contains artworks and extracts from critically acclaimed egghead movies, that only the tiniest fraction of society has ever heard of. His installation thus loses any claim to representativeness, and what’s left is a pretentious portrait of the critic’s peer group. If one were to be malicious, you could wonder, whether this were not a genuinely French aberration... (veuillez m’excuser, Monsieur, pour ces propos polémiques).

The form of presentation with numerous films projected onto the floor, to watch from a balcony or walking between them, pleases the eye on first look. But sometimes 1+1+...+n equals 0. “GD-H” decided to present Gestures of Lamentation in many variations, but by multiplication the gesture deteriorates to empty pose. An overdose of emotion leaves the spectator largely unimpressed. A work touching in itself like Bas Jan Adder’s I Am too Sad to Tell You (1971) draws much of its strength from the superindividuality of the personal example. The common emotion is picked from the exchangeable mass and shown as meaning the world to the individual experiencing it. Here, in midst innumerable more images of sorrow, all intimacy is destroyed and the example thrown back into common triviality.

But let bygone be bygone, it’s time for the sequel: L’état du ciel partie II (- The Return of the Artists?). Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Hirschhorn are here to show Monsieur ‘uberman how it’s done.

Hiroshi Sugimoto recently had a show at YSL/Bergé Foundation just around the corner from Palais de Tokyo. The topic was not only “God is dead”, but even more so: “Religion is bad”. Now, it’s the world. Sugimoto comes out a pessimist, who declares ruins the most beautiful works of human creation (so written in a side note, leaving unclear the nature of the underlying artistic gesture: building a house and leaving its destruction to “fate” – or the destructive act, violence itself?).

This is not only about the End of History (Francis Fukuyama), but much more pessimistic: “The world has died today” (alternative translation: “Today, the world is dead”), as is stated in numerous texts throughout the show.

It all starts with a written lesson: 'Fifty million years of life on earth led to decadence, and nothing will remain of human civilisation.' Reading something like this you should always keep in mind, there needs to be a sprinkle of hope left in the writer, otherwise he wouldn’t care to comment. You could also suppose every artist’s will for his work at least to survive.

Hiroshi Sugimoto clings on to the past, apparently all objects shown in this installation spanning over several rooms, belong to his personal collection. A collection that reveals him as a broadly interested man, not narrow-mindedly limited to intellectual eruptions. There are fossils, beehives, old posters, e-waste, meteorites, empty wine bottles, Japanese world war memorabilia, toy and sex dolls, a bomb on a stretcher, Lenin tapestry, magazines, reproductions of Piranesi’s ruins, and so on and so forth. Now that’s what Abby Warburg had in mind!

Though maybe it all focuses a tad too much on 20th Century history - should the world not have died today, but fifteen years ago (oh yeah, that Y2K bug...)?

At one point, a red thread spans from the rooftop down through the ceiling to vanish in a hole on the floor (all literally, at Palais de Tokyo artists may play with the architecture). In theory it could lead upwards, Ariadne’s helping hand out of the labyrinth, but in the context of this show there’s only one way, and that’s down.

Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn – best known for his moralizing photo collages of war victims and fashion adverts - offers the more optimistic view at the skies.

Hirschhorn created a labyrinth with walls of old tyres (petrol as a symbol of the 20th Century past, menacing and omnipresent?). Inside we find sofas, coffee tables, book shelves and computers, all covered with brown duct tape and free to use: Unwrap the future.

Unfinished slogans on cardboards invite us to remember, or to change, politics and attitudes. The Eternal Flame exists in several versions, actual campfires are burning on the floor (don't bring marshmallows, though). At each flame, there is a stage with somebody talking or reading from a book. But this is not Speaker’s Corner (nor the marketplace in Life of Brian), the line-up of artists and more or less innovative thinkers has been fixed in advance.

A burning flame carries on the spirit, but may also mourn the past (e.g. under the Arc de Triomphe). All in here screams the future is open, and has to be built in dialogue. A dialogue between the acting persons, but also with the absent – locally: by internet, and temporarily: by books.

Finally one word about today’s absurdities. Palais de Tokyo in all its bunker style tries hard to create this alternative hipster vibe. Yet, everything is well organized and under close surveillance. In the Palais’ bowels we find two installations that are (probably) not part of L’état du ciel. Thomas Teurlai‘s Gong consists of a large glass plate hanging in the middle of a room. From time to time the metal suspension starts to vibrate, and spectators fear for the long cracks in the glass to extend and ultimately explode the plate. In the next room, Vivien Roubaud’s saw blade attached to a motor on the ceiling slashes a mattress on the floor (Lame de scie à ruban). The public is shielded of by steel barriers. Then you remember the security guards watching closely over each flame of Hirschhorn’s, and you understand: there’s is no way that glass could break. Too dangerous.

L’état du ciel, Palais de Tokyo, with

Georges-Didi-Huberman and Arno Gisinger - Nouvelles histoires de fanômes:

14 February-07 September;

Hiroshi Sugimoto – Aujourd’hui, le monde est mort: 25 April-07 September;

Thomas Hischhorn – Flamme éternelle: 24 April-23 June 2014



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