• Christian Hain

The Possibility of a Palais. Michel Houellebecq goes art


(Paris.) Palais de Tokyo is always worth a visit, and this summer even more so if you’re a tourist stressed out from running around Paris all day: They have new sofas in the entrance area, with large leather cushions, large enough to take a nap. Oh, lest I forget: some of the art is refreshing too.

You all know how the average guy thinks: "Contemporary art means money for nothing. All you need to do is claim you’re an artist, and find some rich retard who believes in you” (the latter part would be a gallery’s mission). The average guy further believes, photography were the easiest branch of that easy money industry; this is (part of) Instagram’s business model. - No, scrap that, let’s start again:

Among professional sportsmen, “I am seeking a new challenge” is code for “that franchise offered me a better contract”. ... No, that’s not like it either. Please forget everything I just said. Here we go:

Imagine an aging writer with too much money to fill the time. Seeking a new challenge, he decides to create contemporary art, photography mostly. That's what Michel Houellebecq has been up to lately. The biggest surprise with regards to this career change is how for now he’s only made it to mid-size gallery Air de Paris (visit their website for some authentic mid-nineties web design!). You should think, the Parisian greats from Perottin to Mennour and Ropac would happily embrace the trademark “Houellebecq”! Institutions do, with Manifesta and Palais de Tokyo leading the way. M.H., the personified midlife crisis, is said to be the most translated French author alive, would that not make him eligible even for the artists’ Olympus, the Gago/Goodman sphere?

Michel Houellebecq’s first ever solo show at Palais de Tokyo is titled Rester Vivant, in English: Staying Alive (“Ah-ha-ha-ha”), or more correctly: “to stay alive”. It starts in the dark, loudspeakers play airport/hospital noise – “please remember that smoking is not allowed on the premises” - while we watch sparsely illuminated photos and videos. Some are heavily photoshopped, other just monochrome; photos of nature, apartment blocks, deserts of concrete or beach, a train station? or toll station? oh, it’s Calais, the harbour and the migrants’ camping, well secured. A Madonna at “Pole Prière/Annonce de la foi/Charité” – Prayer/Annunciation/Charity pole (i.e. terminal) – a pun on “Pole Emploi”, the French dole office. We liked a collage with rocks, a tree trunk’s roots and a lizard. Occasionally, words are written over the picture: “I did not have any true reason to kill myself, no more than the majority of these people”. Occasionally whole poems, well that’s his metier (if it was indeed Michel Houellebecq who wrote them, and it’s not another appropriation, we will come to this shortly). They are arguably the best part of the show, if you do read French. The photo background is superfluous, though.

“The Dead are dressed in blue / The Blue are dressed as dead.”

Videos are concrete in image but abstract in meaning: Lone men who are not the artist can be seen preparing something that might be a concert, an exhibition, or a scientific experiment/medical operation (fun fact: if a French person tells you “J’ai un ‘con-ser’” you never know, are you supposed to congratulate or to comfort them, as “cancer” and “concert” share the exact same pronunciation). It does not stay limited to two dimensionality, sculpture and installation soon join the party. Halfway through the show, there’s a sudden break, and from darkness we step into light to find beach photos and Caribbean postcards covering the floor. Rester Vivant then continues with more light but not necessarily brighter. The Possibility of an Island, a screen adaptation of his eponymous novel Houellebecq has directed himself, is shown in Spanish with French subtitles, another movie in French with Dutch subtitles. Why?

In the end it all comes down to a portrait of the author’s views on the world, with motives known from his writings from sex (there’s some pin up posters and a lesbian softporn) to immigration (those photos from Calais). A show supposed to mirror life, and there is no hope, no escape, you only ever try to cheer up momentarily with holidays, art and more. Autobiography seems mixed in but you never know with these writers - “I is another” - what identity they’re talking about. Love is a dead dog, his (really?) toys presented in a shrine/vitrine, but “Michel Houellebecq” also tells how he replaced him without much ceremony.

Rester Vivant is designed as a circuit, in the end you reach the start. Probably a metaphor (or Houellebecq likes Disney songs). Our main issue with Rester Vivant is how you never know what has been created by Michel Houellebecq and what has not. Palais de Tokyo calls him a “poet, essayist, novelist and film director (with) close ties to photography”, while the “sounds, photographs, installations and films” of the exhibitions were made by him and others. A few names are cited on their website, but without any associated works, and there are no clues given in the show itself. The chemical apparatus reminiscent of local hero Hicham Berrida that is actually “representing two novel characters”? Probably not. A gingerbread house of coke cans with a skull inside and the inscription “Michel Houellebecq 1958-2037”? Possibly. That recreated eighties pub with a jukebox and the smell of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, looking exactly how you’d imagine the cheap swinger resorts of Houellebecq’s early novels, with fat housewives dancing drunk-naked? Most certainly. There is even a room full of paintings – surrounding a cubicle filled with vinyl records - , and if not Houellebecq has painted them, was it Robert Combas or an imposter? (The press visuals’ copyright info later confirmed, it was indeed the doyen of French Pop art.)

Is Michel Houellebecq more than a curator for Rester Vivant, assisted by, or assisting, the show’s official curator (PdT’s president Jean de Loisy)?

Searching for the HashTag #ResterVivant, we realised, this was also the name of the 2015 tour of French singer Johnny Halliday (pronounced "Shonee Ali-Daei"). This is not cool. He may call himself the "French Elvis", but you better think "French Garth Brooks".

The day we visited we happened to find a performance in the Palais’ dungeons as part of the three day Camping festival.

See, we have a theory that if you look closely at art history and present, you realize the formula for a successful performance is not much different from a successful movie’s: it almost always involves nudity and violence. This one did only in parts. Violence was merely hinted at in the costumes, and the sole performer to get fully naked was largely overweight. It was more a freak/fashion show, the script limited to: “escaped inmates of a mental asylum plunder a Halloween costume rental. Run to and fro, change dress, repeat.” We dimly remember a scene from an Asteric comic strip where a grimacing theatre troupe abused the audience (found it: Asterix and the Cauldron, first published in 1968). We are certain, whoever has created this performance loves that comic strip.

Michel Houellebecq (and friends), Rester Vivant, 23 June-11 September 2016, Palais de Tokyo

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism




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