PARIS — Cartier, a wholly owned subsidiary of Swiss-based luxury goods holding entity Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, branded itself in New York with its spectacular Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street store, situated in a railroad tycoon’s former home, the Morton F. Plant Mansion. In 1984, it formed the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Jouy-en-Josas, not far from the Palace of Versailles (itself now a regular site for large contemporary sculpture). A highlight at Jouy-en-Josas was a 1990 reunion concert of the Velvet Underground, supplementing an Andy Warhol show. In 1994, the Fondation Cartier moved into its present airy glass and steel building on boulevard Raspail designed by Jean Nouvel (creator of the Institut du Monde Arabe and Musée du quai Branly buildings) on the former site of Chateaubriand’s residence and The American Center for Students and Artists.
The current exhibition there, Vivid Memories, highlights those thirty years by showing (albeit in a shifting manner) some works from its 1,300–piece collection. So it’s a step-back-and-see-the-big-picture moment. Which unnerved me some, as I first arrived in Paris in late-94 and subsequently have many fuzzy memories to compare to the vivid ones presented here.
The thing to grasp is that the Raspail building’s main floor is a huge glass box that tends to overwhelm moderately scaled art, thus pushing curatorial decisions towards transcendentalist spectacle. That may or may not be a regretful thing. It depends, perhaps, on just how spectacular you want things to be, and for how long.
I have seen some dull and moldy spectacles here, like Jean Paul Gaultier’s Pain Couture bread show, but also admirable, spectacular, sumptuous things that yielded rich intellectual aftermaths over the years, such as the Bill Viola (1990), Chuck Close (1994), Sarah Sze (1999), and John Maeda (2005) shows. My two favorites have been Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere and Vodun: African Voodoo (both 2011). Individual spectacular works that stand out in my mind are Chris Burden’s massive “Medusa’s Head” (1990) — an autocratic industrial planet covered completely by a web of miniature train tracks swallowed up into tunnels and loop over tiny aqueducts in an in-and-out automated playhouse made sententious. I also recall Nancy Rubins’s horridly fascinating “MoMA and Airplane Parts” (1995/2002), a massive catastrophic assemblage that projected a dark humor tied to a grueling work ethic. And I most definitely recall Tatsuo Miyajima’s installation “Time Go Round” (1996) which dealt with the abstract constitution of time in the digital age. It consisted of abundant LED signal-lights that flashed a countless bevy of over-excited circular digital numbers in a never-ending random order. There I discerned a mystifying data constellation in transit that was reminiscent of passages from William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Also very vivid in my mind rests “MASTER/SLAVE” (1999), an absolutely brilliant mobile installation of Rolf Fehlbaum‘s toy robot collection created by Diller + Scofidio. Circulating in and out of various views on automated rolling lanes (within a vast, multiple-forked video surveillance zone enclosed in transparent plastic) was Fehlbaum’s extensive accumulation of toy robots from the 1950s to the 1980s. It stirred in me a permanent metamorphosis, still rich in consequences. It was liberating because it gave me new ways of looking at myself through the narrative tensions that run somewhere between hide-and-seek private subjectivity and an objectified automated pawn.
Some of the same passive but mobile energy of “MASTER/SLAVE” is implicated in Vivid Memories, as it is formed as a procession of spectacular works (James Lee Byars, Panamarenko, Nan Goldin, David Lynch, Cai Guo Qiang, Raymond Hains, Richard Artschwager, Bodys Isek Kingelez, etc) that regularly changes over the five-month period. The ground floor has a large LED-screen that presents an extensive rotating selection of films in daylight.
So just replace Fehlbaum’s toy robots with artists and you get my point (even if it is less a matter of contemplation than an issue of amplification). This is a vision of a universalized eclectic global art in forward motion: a relational aesthetic that seems to hover over many exhibitions in France as a great correctness that cannot be questioned, only tampered with. I guess it is the relegation of all aspects of art to use value or exchange value that more or less sums up bourgeois society. It is what Paul Virilio, in his curatorial forays at the Fondation Cartier — La Vitesse (1991), Un monde réel (1999), The Desert (2000), and Unknown Quantity (2002) — refers to as the “market of the spectacle.” This global idea market is evident throughout the wide range of artistic expressions typically experienced at Fondation Cartier, and it is not a stretch to point out that the main ground floor gallery exhibits often resemble a chic universal department store lobby.
During this first installment of Vivid Memories, the work that offered me the most genuinely euphoric feeling was Dennis Oppenheim’s uncompromising multimedia work “Table Piece” (1975), centrally placed in the enclosed basement gallery near three strong wall works by David Hammons, and a very cool Mario Mertz, “Tartaruga” (1975). “Table Piece” has an ironic mimicry that verges on absurdity — and as such fed back to my heart many powerful memories (of his great loft parties and warm personality) and possibilities (as with many artists, Oppenheim provided me a bridge between land and body art that is continuously constructive).
There are two belligerent small marionettes seated at opposite ends of the table at microphones. One has a darker head and is formally dressed in a black coat with white tie. The other, in similar garb but with a white coat, has a silvery head. They are located far from each other at the opposite ends of a low 60-foot-long table made up of sections painted in a gradient between black and white. They seem to be engaging in verbal dialogue. The sound of their verbal Beckett-esque exchange is loudly output to four speakers under the table. Their mouths move in perfect lip-sync to a wordy soundtrack that in fact activates the lower jaw of the marionettes. The four words used here — white, light, black, dark — are processed through a computer to create random sputtering phrasings. The words are elongated, repeated, echoed and shuffled and go like this:
Track 1: BL..BL..BL..WH..DA..DA..DA..LI..BL..BL..BLACK..WHITE..WH..DA..DA..LIGHT..DARK..LIGHT..LIGHT..WHITE..WHITE..LIGHT..LIGHT..WHITE..DA..DA..DARK..LIGHT..LI..LI..LIGHT..WH..HW..WHITE..LIGHT..LI..LI..WHITE
Track 2: BLACK..DARK..BL..BL..WH..WH..DA..DA..LI..LI..BLACK..BLACK..DARK..DARK..BL..BL..BLACK..BL..BL..BLACK..BL..BL..BLACK..
This studded access into dark-light polarity wholly engaged me. It should be a conclusive blow to the frayed tradition of the dialectical, but I must also be prepared to admit that that notion is not the sole privilege of art. It is a kind of dream language that travels the conveyer belt between dark imagination and light desire — between the darkness of the intimate body and its liberation from reality.
A peripatetic mind is clearly sensed behind “Table Piece” — even while I sensed an overall conveyance of longing. If I may presume to decode it, I would say that “Table Piece” is attempting to give me an artistic shrewdness that tests the limits of form and stretches the bounds of meaning by recasting my polar experiences into wildly disjunctive mental transitions. The aim of “Table Piece” is to develop an ambiguous and problematic sign system that compels me to question myself about the absolute instability of the universe around (and in) me.
Vivid Memories continues at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (261 boulevard Raspail 14e, Paris) through September 21. Dennis Oppenheim’s “Table Piece” (1975) will be taken down next week; check the exhibition website for scheduling details on individual works as the exhibition cycles through the collection.