PARIS — Climats Artificiels (or “Artificial Climates”) at the Espace Fondation EDF is an impertinent and multigenerational group show of contemporary art — heavy on miniature biosphere mockups — that raises the question of the current value of ironic artificiality. Under inspection, via notions of “critical” parody, is the less-than-amusing impact modern humanity has had on the natural environment. Thus Climats Artificiels is a somewhat troubling consideration — or “poetic” evocation — of the Anthropocene within the context of increasingly imperceptible distinctions between the natural and the artificial. In other words, it features often-humdrum landscape art as slick and slippery illusionism.
A sense of either silly utopian joyfulness or damaged and doomed fretfulness dominates much of the exhibition’s thrust, with spectacular, immense nature reduced to an art model. Other terms to describe this more or less fuzzy fakeness might include nature as depthless “spectacle” or “simulacrum.” Both terms suggest the ideology of the artificial model at work here.
Even as an enormous admirer of the decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans novel À Rebours (1884) (translated as Against Nature) — in which the dandy Jean Des Esseintes (an eccentric, reclusive aesthete antihero who loathes bourgeois society) tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of simulacrum — I am no longer in uncritical agreement with the premise of this show: that the artificial fictitiousness is a priori poetic and thus beneficial. The nightmarish global recession would have been impossible without the artificial creation of subprime mortgages through computerized banking and investment transactions that then allowed the creation of fictitious “derivatives” and “credit default swaps.” I don’t equate fiction or models with poetry, as is done here, and that is the basic problem I have with this too-elegant show of tasteful and tiny mysteries.
The works collected here by curator Camille Morineau are based in much less severe forms of sham and simulacrum than those mentioned above — they mimic sublime natural phenomena on a small scale. Though the show’s opening was timed to coincided with the COP 21 conference, how the gathered works model nature to the extent that it relates to global climate change is not obvious. There are no models here of how humans caused CO2 emissions through (at least partially) an ideologically motivated refusal to recognize harm until it was too late. Regardless, one miniature biosphere that I rather enjoyed is the central installation by Japanese architect Tetsuo Kondo and the climate engineering firm Transsolar, entitled “Cloudscapes” (2012). It serves as a paradigm for an alternative (utopian) vision of climate change — one that smells a bit bad. Visitors enter the transparent structure of “Cloudscapes” so as to hang out with the artificial “clouds,” whose composition is identical to that of real clouds and conjured through the careful control of temperature and humidity.
Kondo’s installation goes very nicely with Yoko Ono’s elegant “Sky TV” (1966), which is installed nearby on the second floor, high up in a corner. “Sky TV” consists of a Sony Portapak camera placed on the outside wall or roof of the gallery, trained on the sky, transmitting live images of the sky to a television monitor in the gallery. This proto-webcam reflects Ono’s conceptual approach to art, in which spacey ideas become embedded in the contradictions of the work. That classic Minimalist video work, along with Hans Haacke’s small condensation-evaporation work “Condensation Cube” (1965), are a delight to study. In Haacke’s non-illusionist piece, water simply but beaufifully evaporates and condenses on the inside of a clear Plexiglas cube, cycling around presumably forever, thus demonstrating Haacke’s powerful interest in the biological, ecological, and cybernetic, which was inspired by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s book General Systems Theory (1968). The evidence for climate change given by scientists depends on things done with sophisticated devices, like measuring CO2 levels, assembling data about climates worldwide and through time, creating statistical modeling of various scenarios for the future on the basis of that massive data bank, and so on. The conceptual basis behind “Condensation Cube” indirectly points to this cascade of statistical modeling.
Downward transformations of spectacular nature into art is accomplished in the best piece in the show, “Sillage” (2012–15), a seismic wave sculpture by Cécile Beau and Nicolas Montgermont that reproduces the sounds and telluric waves of an earthquake. A basin has been filled with a deep, black, shinny ink on which is reflected a jazzy topographic white map. Every so often, deep rumbling sounds (recorded during an earthquake in Chile in 2008) vibrate the room and produce waves that deform and wobble the reflected topographic map. Then everything becomes quiet again.
I also vehemently admired Laurent Grasso’s film “Sun Double” (2014). The two suns shining over the plaza in the film suggest that some sort of natural disaster or phenomena is occurring, as we know it is. I first saw “Sun Double” at Galerie Perrotin in 2014 (it was also shown at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York that year) and studied with glee the proposed phenomenon of the earth rotating around two suns. Grasso filmed “Sun Double” in EUR, a district of Rome originally developed in the 1930s. EUR was intended as a homage to the 20th anniversary of Italian fascism and built to host the 1942 World’s Fair, which never took place. This site adds a stark, ominous, and foreboding tone to the film that is most effective.
Also somewhat ominous is German photographer Sonja Braas’s “Forces #13” (2003), which subtly mixes a picture taken in real conditions from an unexpected viewpoint (making it difficult to apprehend scale) with “truthy” illusionist models, also by the artist. Far from holding up the mirror to nature, here photography is seen as a decoy, a mystification of reality, exploiting and misleading the viewer. In “Panorama” (2009–13), the apparently cloudy mountains photographed by Julien Charrière take part in the tradition of the Romantic sublime, yet they appear to be piles of sand covered with flour and cotton.
Not so sublime is a work by a key figure of the Tokyo Anti-art movement, Tetsumi Kudo, who began his career in the mid 1950s making heavily impastoed paintings à la Gutai and Art Informel, here represented by a flower-penis post-nuclear mutation installation title “Pollution – Cultivation – New Ecology” (1971). The forcefulness of Kudo’s expression left me unimpressed, but putting my head through the holes beneath and up into Vaughn Bell’s low-hanging, planter-like sculptures, “Village Green” (2008), was good and silly illusionist fun, for sure. The least interesting piece in the show is Marina Abramović’s “Cloud With Its Shadow” (1971–2015), which consists of an unshelled peanut on a pin illuminated by a spotlight, casting a tiny shadow on the wall roughly the shape of a cumulus cloud (or human lips).
“La Mer” (“The Sea”) (1991) is a powerfully evocative silent video by a major figure of French video art, Ange Leccia, which shows what the surf looks like filmed from above, thus challenging our habitual perspective of the seashore. This stunning and slowly moving piece creates an illusion of space that intrigues, haunts, and delights. As a conceptual piece it makes art from the natural world, but it also conforms to the repetitive cycles typical of minimalist aesthetic experience. I also found evocatively strong Hicham Berrada’s dark room full of beautiful, calm, small, and dim works that plunge the eye into troubled space, like “Présage” (2013). These tiny tanks seem to hold an odd ecosystem, like a fucked-up fish tank where things evolve through what seem to be creepy chemical metamorphoses.
As a holding tank of its own, Climats Artificiels contains a rather pleasurable pantomime sensibility based on manipulations of the miniaturization of landscape. However, as such, it lacks strong affect. I was distanced and cooled by the clever works here, which offer little in the way of visceral aesthetic experience — besides “Sillage,” which really jolts. Global climate change is not being caused by a lack of imitative thinking or miniaturized, meditative art, yet most of the works seem pleased with themselves for nodding in the direction of our spectacle society.