Dreaming of a New Dynasty
A New Generation of French Art

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

This summer, two museums in Paris will host a major retrospective of a new generation of French artists (born after 1975), who have now spread their wings around the globe. Two insiders have been asked to give their opinions of the current French art scene and the developments it is undergoing. Dorothée Dupuis takes a look at the artists, and Chris Sharp at the institutes.

Brighter Than it Appears

By Dorothée Dupuis

After Notre Histoire (Palais de Tokyo, 2006) and La Force de l’Art 1 & 2 (Grand Palais 2006, 2009), we now have Dynasty, at the Palais de Tokyo and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, to exercise the absurd format of the national exhibition in France. What matters is not so much the issue of whether such a thing as a French ‘scene’ exists, an obsession which, depending on the degree of sympathy you want to invest in it, can be considered either anecdotal or tragic. What is more important is that it allows us to explore the schizophrenic relationship between artists and the isolationist French system, measured against the recent history of contemporary art in France over the last 30 years.

The 1980s began with a period of euphoria, in which artists were in a way relieved of international obligations, thanks to the left-wing introduction of an efficient administrative system to support national art. This autarkic system was unhappily reinforced by the fact that French intellectuals seem to have ignored the role that ‘French Theory’ meanwhile played in the art discourse elsewhere in the world.1 Influences from elsewhere, such as translations of important texts written in English, seldom filtered through to introduce questions about one's own comfortable and structuralist concept of art. Thanks to regional subsidy channels, such as the regional foundations for contemporary art (FRAC) and contemporary art centres (CRAC) that were established in Paris and throughout France, an entire generation of artists was able to continue living out its formalistic ideas, even though, according to some, they bore evidence of a naive presumptuousness.

As dominant as these artists were in France, they lacked visibility abroad, and there was no one to regret this in the affluent 1980s of dough and dope, where the baby boomers were able to maintain a lucrative internal market: it would have been crazy to open that fertile ground to those who were seen as intruders, American and other upwardly promoted do-gooders. On the other hand, a small group of artists, often in the form of a collective or under fictitious names, were creating engaged and often sharply ironic art, which fiercely sliced into this self-satisfied system. They were inspired by business and the world of advertising (IFP, Paul Devautour, Présence Panchounette, Philippe Thomas and Les Ready Made appartiennent à tout le monde...). These artists were more connected to the international art scene, with which they felt closely aligned, artists’ organizations like Art & Language and General Idea, for example.

In the 1990s, the accent shifted from painting to sculpture, with ‘sculpture nantaise’, (from the city of Nantes), which was launched by the Zoo Gallery and subsequently embraced by an entire generation of students (and faculty!), soon getting a much wider, national audience. The French preoccupation with form is also evident in the internationally better-known work of Mathieu Mercier or Delphine Coindet. Their work found itself diametrically opposed to a group of ‘relational’ artists (Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Pierre Joseph and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), whom Nicolas Bourriaud linked in the mid-90s to an international generation (Liam Gillick, Angela Bulloch, Carsten Höller, Rirkrit Tiravanija). Having enjoyed international success for many years, first intellectually, then institutionally and finally commercially, they determined the image of French art in other countries.

Only in this century has France been able to eliminate its accumulated theoretical lag, and has now been flooded with all kinds of texts in the fields of postcolonial and cultural studies. A few artists have linked their work with these areas (Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Raphael Zarka, Bad Beuys Entertainment, Bettina Samson and Sophie Bueno-Boutellier). For them, such conceptual instruments offer justification for their formalistic ambitions, which now have received a place in a much broader history of form, of cyborg theories on origins, of mechanisms such as repetition and replication and interdisciplinary scientific fields, including anthropology, social sciences, micro-history, physics and mathematics. Their approach is in contrast to artists whose work is based on the dematerialized forms of relational aesthetics, but in such a way that it promotes a rather remarkable persistence of literary philosophical thinking ‘à la française’, and thereby literally combines signs with a structuralist vision aiming to refer back to an earlier, engaged conceptual art.

From the image of a France in the grip of coalition cabinets, the great ailment of the Fifth Republic, we are able to conclude that over the last 30 years in France, two movements have continued together in paradoxical fashion: the tendency towards a naive, imperialist isolationism on the one hand, and on the other, a great capacity to absorb foreign and diverse directions of thought into one's own thinking, which again connects back to the French tradition of intellectual hospitality from the Age of Enlightenment. These two tendencies have in our century been playing an ideological game of hide and seek, oscillating between its formalistic and conceptual occurrences, and to which – rightly or wrongly – political and intellectual opportunism could be ascribed (Cyprien Gaillard, Kader Attia, Loris Gréaud, Olivier Babin, Benoit Maire, Latifa Echakhch).

Through these debates, it seems as though the French scene has in the last five years to some degree made itself present in the international art world, with a Paris that once again speaks to the imagination and where artists and intellectuals from all countries want to live or at least have a pied-à-terre. This city breathes a refreshing, anonymous atmosphere as a result of an artistic milieu that is by no means saturated, where, alone or with others, artists are engaged in countless initiatives (Le Commissariat, Bétonsalon, La Maison Rouge, Kadist Art Foundation) in collaboration with what are still highly respected institutes that have continued to stay young thanks to the arrival of a generation of state curators with ambition and wide contacts (Christine Macel, Laurent Lebon).

Through all these stimuli, the initially still isolationist-inclined Paris art scene is becoming ever more global and is also involving the fast-developing nations. Recently, France even dares, in an effective way, to take a look at its own colonial history. An international market of collectors and foreign professionals who left Paris in the 1990s has now returned to the city to discover new developments at recently opened galleries in the alternative Belleville neighbourhood (Gaudel de Stampa, Marcelle Alix, Jocelyn Wolff, Balice Hartling) and is at the very least impressed by the increasingly higher quality standards at the FIAC, now that this art fair is back in the heart of Paris. There is always an excellent reason to combine business and pleasure.

Despite the general tendency of less and less money being publicly available, there is still considerable activity outside of Paris at the regional foundations and institutes for contemporary art, thanks to young directors and all manner of events with an international character (the Biennale de Lyon, the Evento in Bordeaux, the Ateliers de Rennes and the Biennale de l'Estuaire in Nantes). All these events are self-supported by the cultural departments of cities and regions that, in this time of crisis, want to prove that they are doing well and are still attractive. The associations are not to be left behind. There are countless artists’ organizations that offer programmes every bit as ambitious, and sometimes even more so, than their institutional compatriots (40m3, Triangle France, Zebra 3, La Salle de Bains).

For a non-French audience, Dynasty is then first and foremost a good reason to go to Paris in early summer, to make an acquaintance with the spectacular installations by Vincent Ganivet and Dewar & Gicquel, the hybrid sculptures by Laurent Le Deunff, Stéphanie Cherpin, Bettina Samson and Jorge Pedro Nunez, the incisive satire of Benoît Maire and Nicolas Milhé, so familiar to the residents of Bordeaux, the obsessive paintings of Jean-Xavier Renaud and Farah Attassi, and the surrealistic films by Della Negra & Kaori Kinoshita, or Florian Pugnaire & David Raffini.

And most of all, it is a good reason to discover how much the art scene in Paris has again taken on an intellectual dynamic in the context of a French political climate that has grown increasingly harder and that offers an ideal ideological framework in which certain necessary critical theories can be developed. Then too, having a discussion about it all while enjoying a beer on the terrace of Café Le Progrès in the sunshine is not such a bad idea either.

Dorothée Dupuis is curator, currently working for Triangle France, Marseille.

translated from French by Mart Grisel; translated to English by Mari Shields

This article was published in METROPOLIS M, No 3.

Alternative Curating

By Chris Sharp

Two perspectives come to mind when considering recent developments in French curating. On the one hand, you can say that circumstances such as high rents and a preponderance of heavy, slow-moving bureaucratic institutional machinery have enforced creative or alternative solutions to exhibition making. And on the other, you can attribute innovative curatorial methodologies in France to a national proclivity (policy?) to accompany almost all cultural production with a theory of that production – or in other words, to a general disdain for straight shooting (so much for just shooting blindly into a crowd à la André Breton; why, and perhaps more importantly how one shoots into a crowd must be rigorously considered).

In the end, however, it's probably a combination of the two – as well as other factors that vary from individual to individual – that have helped contribute to some of the most compelling and innovative developments in curating in France's recent memory. If any one thing could be said to characterize such ‘alternative curating’, it would be the humbleness of its means, which it embraces rather than resigns itself to, and which has nothing to do with the scope of its ambition.

By virtue of its visibility, a provisional starting point here could be Jiri Kovanda vs Reste du Monde (Tentatives de rapprochement) which was hosted in the fall of 2006 at gb agency. Curated by Work Method (François Piron and Guilluame Desanges) with Marie Cantos, this exhibition consisted almost exclusively of photocopies. The curators perceived innumerable, serendipitous parallels between the work of the then little-known Czech artist Jiri Kovanda and the conceptualism of the Western art of the same period. Seeking to illustrate this phenomenon, the curators grouped photocopies of certain works of Kovanda with likeminded examples from his Western counterparts. Kovanda's slight, quasi-imperceptible interventions were contrasted with works by the likes of Duchamp, Vito Acconci, Fischli & Weiss and lesser-known conceptualists like the San Francisco artist Paul Kos.

What is interesting about this show is that its form was the by-product of an internal necessity, as it would have been virtually impossible in any other way – which is to say, to actually organize all the work referenced in the photocopies would require Documenta-scale funding, administration and space. Another alternative could have been a book, but relegating this collection of images to the turned page would have forfeited the all-at-onceness which accounted for a large part of the exhibition's charm and element of surprise, not to mention its chutzpah. This show, which then went on to travel around Europe, was ground-breaking for a number of reasons but in particular because it seized the means of cultural production, defining its own parameters as opposed to submitting to those of the institution, while critically accomplishing what it set out to do: according the little known Czech artist a more visible and relevant place in art history.

Both of the curators of this project have gone on to continue to develop other projects and their own individual practices, which are nevertheless predicated on similarly unorthodox methodologies. An integral part of Desanges’s curatorial practice for instance are what he calls his ‘living exhibitions’ or lectures, such as ‘A History of Performance in 20 Minutes’ (which he actually started doing in 2004). It consists of a brief presentation regarding the non-linguistic and immaterial nature of performance and is accompanied by abbreviated re-enactments of iconic performances (Robert Morris, Nauman, Acconci, etc) carried out by an assistant. In speaking of the project, Desanges has referred to it as ‘an exhibition that is almost ready to be installed at any given instant by myself or someone else.… Devoid of transport costs, insurance, loan agreements, and even an exhibition space, it is a relatively ecological form of curating’. Thus, in Desanges's practice, can curating be perceived and actively engaged in as an ethical activity on more than one level.

In addition to developing his own projects, François Piron, the other half of Work Method, was integrated into another, perhaps less formal curatorial collective: the publishing house (Paraguay Press), curated book store (Section 7 books), and event and office space known as Castillo/Corrales. Initiated in 2007, Castillo/Corrales is comprised of the artist Oscar Tuazon, curators Thomas Boutoux and François Piron, critic Benjamin Thorel and academic Boris Gobille. Given the multiplicity of the space's activities, you would never expect it to be located in a small, storefront space in the northeast of Paris.

Since its inauguration it has hosted more than 20 talks, books launches, performances, and exhibitions featuring artists ranging from Alex Hubbard, Zbynek Baladran, Ayreen Anastas + Rene Gabri and Isidoro Valcarcel Medina to Joe Scanlan. Aside from a great deal of energy and a DIY attitude, C/C's approach is marked by a cavalier disregard for many of the more staid protocols known to govern French art (chief among them the propensity for nationalism). For despite the decidedly reduced scale of space and means, it manages to maintain a more international perspective than most French institutions.

Meanwhile if Castillo/Corrales established a more heterodox, outward channel to the art world at large, Yoann Gourmel and Elodie Royer's project 220 jours, inaugurated in the fall of 2007, did just the opposite, gracefully labouring to identify a new generation of French artists. Hosted in the gb agency's small project space, Royer and Gourmel invited four emerging Paris-based, French artists – Isabelle Cornaro, Mark Geffriaud, Benoît Maire, and Raphaël Zarka – to participate in an evolving, multipart exhibition that would take place over the course of 220 days. The carefully crafted exhibitions, which revolved around a series of poetic themes, wielded the double value of comprehensively presenting the practices of several artists while also non-aggressively defining a particular post-conceptual sensibility that united them.

As the cycle progressed, a number of other local artists came to be involved, such as Julien Crépieux, Collectif 1.0.3, Aurélien Froment, Cyrille Maillot, Benoît-Marie Moriceau and Bruno Persat, while the core group remained the same. By the time the 220 jours were up, a new generation of artists was undeniably afoot, and Royer and Gourmel had established a highly poetic style of curating, in which the sensibility of the curators was indistinguishable from that of the artists with whom they worked, making it such that their approach felt less self-consciously radical than part of a more natural course of events.

One of the curatorial highlights of 2008 was Pierre Léguillon's Diane Arbus: A Printed Retrospective, which took place at the Kadist Art Foundation. Preoccupied with the after-life of images, which is to say, issues of appropriation and circulation, the practice of French, Paris-based artist Pierre Léguillon often treads on traditionally curatorial ground. In this case, it's hard to say whether or not this was an exhibition or a work of art – when, in fact, it is both. For this project, Léguillon researched and collected all of Diane Arbus's photos which were originally published in magazines, collecting and presenting the magazine pages themselves. By deploying a manifestly curatorial methodology, Léguillon foregrounded and put under pressure a number of issues, ranging from questions of authority to the investigation of the original site of Arbus's oeuvre. The poverty of the exhibition’s means cannot be separated from its overall strategy.

Paris, or at least the Parisian scene, is heavily curatorial, and as such, inevitably encourages different approaches to the art. Boasting of two curatorial residencies – La galerie (open call) in Noisy-Le-Sec and Kadist Art Foundation (invitation only) in Montmartre – with a handful of galleries with strong curatorial programs such as gb agency, Air de Paris and Carlos Cardenas, while local art centres such as Béton Salon in the 13th arrondissement and La Maison Populaire in Montreuil are often willing to work with emerging curators and develop non-traditional programmes that explore the borders between science and art. For all the accusations of cultural conservatism often levelled at the city of light, it is also thanks to such initiatives that Paris continues to maintain and develop its experimental, curatorial edge.

Chris Sharp is a writer and independent curator, based in Paris.

Dynasty, Palais de Tokyo and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 June - 5 September 2010

This article was published in METROPOLIS M, No 3.
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019