Art

Mourning the Death of Art on the River Styx

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot Exposition au Palais de Tokyo " Aquaalta " 2015
Installation view of ‘Acquaalta’ at the Palais de Tokyo (all photos by Laurent Lecat, all images courtesy the artist and Galerie Xippas, Paris; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York & Galerie Mario Mazzoli, Berlin, © ADAGP, Paris 2015)

PARIS — If you already know that the wizard of entertainment has been swimming in the heart of art, a small boat excursion in the dark sounds more like summertime diversion than enlightening art. And indeed it is.

Presented during the summer season of the Palais de Tokyo called “Le bel aujourd’hui” (from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé), Acquaalta refers to the annual flood in the Venetian lagoon. In this exhibition, we enter a dark, damp corridor filled with a conduit of water that inescapably references the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who rowed dead souls across the river Styx, and Acheron, the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Metaphorically, the installation suggests to me an existential loneliness within an increasingly technological world, and the risks of constant entertainment as the condition of contemporary art. Is there any life after what could be the demise of entertainment-free art? How can it be that the climate crisis, the political refugee predicament, the biodiversity crisis, and the deepest financial crisis since 1930s Europe have done so little to undermine the supremacy of entertainment in art?

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot Exposition au Palais de Tokyo " Aquaalta " 2015
Installation view of ‘Acquaalta’ at the Palais de Tokyo

At the moment, on the other side of the esplanade of the Trocadero at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris is a year-long (ending May 15, 2016) presentation of “House of Horrors” (Le Train Fantôme) (2010), an American adaptation of this anti-intellectual spectacle by the recently deceased Elaine Sturtevant. The piece is a simulation of a funfair ghost train ride, replete with skeletons, bats, mournful organ music, Ku Klux Klan characters, and Frankenstein’s monster. Donated by the artist, who passed away in Paris at age 89, and her dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, the work has now been added to the permanent collection.

Acquaalta’s sham Venetian canal is another example of this art-as-fun-house stuff that depends on theatrical lighting — only this time of the small carnival variety. The French artist from Sète, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (who represents France at the 56th Venice Biennale with three mobile trees titled “revolutions” (2015)), has flooded the Palais de Tokyo with a mysterious extravaganza: a lake where visitors are invited to row black boats in the semi-darkness. The route on foot or by boat ends on an island at the end of the lake where a cluster of seats/sculptures are available for visitors to repose and watch the haunting, phantasmagoric scene and shimmering projections. Participants may (or may not) appear as fleeting, wobbly silhouettes on the walls.

I’m no gondolier, so I chose to merely take a lakeside promenade. Looking at Acquaalta reminded me of that lovely figure skater turning loops on a frozen slab as part of L’Expedition Scintillante – Acte 3: Untitled (Black Ice Stage) at Pierre Huyghe’s Centre Pompidou show last year. Though smaller in scale, the location of the Boursier-Mougenot show also evoked another generation X artist, Philippe Parreno and his enormous but thin exhibition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World, also at Palais de Tokyo last year (the year of Nicolas Bourriaud’s pinnacle of curatorial influence, before recently being fired from his head post at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts).

Acquaalta felt obscure, though engagingly half-dead, mostly because of the minimal drone accompaniment. Boursier-Mougenot is known for placing music in the middle of his work and Acquaalta appropriates the intensity of the downtown drone music scene that developed around La Monte Young. One hears hints of the drones of Pauline Oliveros, Sunn O))), Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock, and the younger J.-P. Caron. I say half-dead because Boursier-Mougenot’s version of dronology (zombidrone, as he calls it) lacks intensity and listening staying power.

CŽleste Boursier-Mougenot Exposition au Palais de Tokyo " Aquaalta " 2015
Installation view of ‘Acquaalta’ at the Palais de Tokyo

The participatory installation appears to emulate the ‘60s/’70s dream of the decline in the art object’s fetishistic standing. By using software to capture and project the contour lines of visitors, they “come to haunt the place” and are “inseparable from the work,” according to the artist. As such, Curator Daria de Beauvais has allowed Boursier-Mougenot to create a très chic black space that acts as a cliché for the empty, dark spaces of our subconscious minds. That is fine for joie de vivre summer play, like Disneyland’s ride “The Haunted Mansion.” But when the tide turns and the trendy relational art (the name of Nicolas Bourriaud’s art movement) inundation retreats, Boursier-Mougenot’s temporary, playful exhibition will most likely be washed away from the shores of art history, leaving hardly a ripple.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot: Acquaalta continues at Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris) through September 13. 

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