PARIS — In Carambolages, currently at the Grand Palais, we are plunged into the big, fuzzy, ahistorical world of anti-categories typical of the networked global economic order. Here, distance and difference appear irrelevant.
Jean-Hubert Martin, the curator of Carambolages, was an early practitioner of this type of cross-cultural assemblage, beginning with his 1989 Magiciens de la Terre show at the Centre Pompidou. He and many others have continued to curate heterogeneous exhibitions where art and objects of all sorts are linked together by visual association, torn free from any coherent category or logical chronology. With Carambolages — whose title is the French term for a double ricochet in billiards and colloquially used to describe multiple vehicle collisions — Martin presents another omnivorous show that aims to break down the once-traditional approach to art so as to transcend the borders of genres, eras, and distinct cultures. Though supposedly context-free, the works are tied together by the institutional walls in which they rest — and Martin’s curatorial power and good taste.
The exhibition is less glutinously overstuffed than his previous effort, Théâtre du Monde at La Maison Rouge, with only 184 works from across all eras and cultures. Everything is sleekly aligned according to formal similarities or conceptual affinities. Discrete electronic panels inform visitors of what they are seeing as they weave their way through two floors of the Grand Palais.
The works are arranged like a narrative film in a continuous sequence against various shades of gray, where each thing brushes up against the previous and following one in a progression of visual, semantic thinking. The eye takes in everything in a long sequence: from an Indonesian decorated skull, to a multi-breasted Roman “Artémis of Ephesus” marble sculpture from 550 BCE, to a gnarly 17th century Swiss reliquary casket from Gnadenthal, to Hyacinthe Rigaud’s fanciful painting “Study of Hands” (1715–23), to Francois Boucher’s cheeky “La Raised Skirt” (1742), to Albrecht Dürer’s consummate aquarelle drawing “Deer’s Head Pierced with an Arrow” (1504), to a twice slashed pink Lucio Fontana canvas “T.104” (1958), to the super slinky Alberto Giacometti “Cat” (1951), to Gilles Barbier’s remarkably creepy “Anatomie Trans-Schizophrene” (1999), to the adorably cute St. Adalhard foot reliquary from 14th century Italy. This often-delightful hodgepodge evokes André Breton’s personal collection, which mixed works by Francis Picabia, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, and Roberto Matta with Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and North American dolls, masks, and objects (as well as miscellaneous found objects, stones, and stuffed birds), and which was recently on view in the Centre Pompidou’s New Presentation show. Martin’s installation also recalls Daniel Spoerri’s Musées Sentimentaux exhibitions (first presented at the Pompidou in 1977), Marcel Broodthaers’s sprawling “Musée d’art Moderne – Département des Aigles” (1968–1972), and art’s general post-media malaise. Objects of all sorts are brought together for their capacity of aesthetic evocation, freed from art history and its chronology.
Though Martin claims the curatorial leveling at work here is a “unique (…) innovative concept,” the show slides firmly into the well established context of sampling and remix culture, which must also be traced back to the musique concrète recording experiments of Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s method of audio collage and compositional creation reached something of a zenith in the 1980s with the amazing assembly work of Negativland and John Oswald’s plunderphonics. When their type of free flow assemblage works for Martin, it can feel divine, such as with the sequence that starts with the milky “Artémis of Ephesus,” stutters through two tribal phallic forms and a small drawing, and closes on Johan Tobias Sergel’s marble “Nymphe au Bain” (1767–78). This marble-to-marble progression, set off by the light gray background, suggestively delights in the way a great piece of musique concrète does — where sounds, strange to each other, feel right together. When the arrangement is too obvious in its attempt to shock aesthetic tastes — such as when Bertrand Lavier’s post-moderm “Black & Decker” (1998) is placed next to an ancient sword from the Kiribati islands of Micronesia — the combinatory music stops with a dull thud.
Like his audio artist precursors, Martin foregoes spatial-temporal order in favor of visual or thematic echoes. Carambolages can boast of being free from the principle of a coherent thesis, covering many and any kind of subject matter as linked through an associative logic typical of magical thinking that recalls to mind The Museum of Everything and The Encyclopedic Palace, Massimiliano Gioni’s central exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale. All these shows are intensely postmodern cabinets of curiosities that swerve far from periodic categories once typical of the museum. As this type of slick, ahistorical, and acontextual show becomes ever more common, one wonders what kind of criticality could possibly overthrow their smooth denial of context. The fruits of strange synchronicity seem here to stay, so we may as well enjoy them for what they are: the free associative pleasures of globalizing spectacle.