Exhibition of the month #4: Eileen Gray at the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Just managed to catch this show the day before it closed, last weekend. And so glad I did.
Eileen Gray was born in Wicklow, studied art at the Slade in London, and lived most of her life in France. She was a pioneer of the Modernist movement, designing furniture and architecture. She opened a design boutique in Paris and had affairs with men and women. She also had a bit of a feud with Le Corbusier, who painted murals all over the walls of the house she designed in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (without asking. Bastard.)
There is a clip of her being interviewed at the age of 96 (“or maybe 97. I can’t remember”), where she talks about how lovely the local craftsmen were when she was a girl studying in Soho, and the difficulties of importing lacquer from Tokyo (“it takes AGES”). She sounds exactly like my Nana’s old neighbour Mrs Atcheson in Kildare, when I was about six or seven. It made me hope the little girls being taken round the exhibition by their mamas and papas on Sunday afternoon grow up to have adventures and make beautiful things, like the marvelous Mademoiselle Gray.
Yaacov Agam, kinetic interior for the Élysée Palace, Paris. Commissioned by President Georges Pompidou, installed between 1972 and 1974. Dismantled on Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s accession to the presidency and presented to the Centre Pompidou in 2000.
Exhibition of the month #3: David Bowie Is at the V+A, London
Tickets for David Bowie Is are sold out online till the end of time – sorry, till the end of the exhibition’s six-month run in August. Therefore I feel exceptionally blessed for having managed to actually get in last weekend (the V+A is aware that people are coming from all over the world to see this show, and keeps a few tickets for day sales.) I also feel exceptionally guilty for not being able to share the general outpourings of rapture of the reviewers. Yes, it is great. But, as Peter Conrad at The Observer pointed out, “What’s happening at the V&A is, quite literally, a canonisation.” Sarah Crompton in The Telegraph wrote: “The V&A exhibition feels full of love. Its exhibits are displayed with great verve and a kind of passion, as if everyone involved didn’t want to let their elusive subject down… The sheer grandeur brought tears to my eyes.”
For a less hysterical but still entirely positive review, I recommend Simon Price’s in The Quietus.
The show is great, but I don’t quite believe that it was planned before anyone knew that Bowie would be bringing out a new album this spring. If there was no new music the exhibition would be overshadowed by a sense of sadness, as retrospectives of the still-living often are. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is currently on loop in my head and my Spotify playlist, and the video exemplifies why Bowie – well, why David Bowie just IS. The collaboration with interesting people (Italian-Canadian director Floria Sigismondi, models of the moment Andrej Pejic, Saskia De Brauw and Iselin Steiro, plus, of course, Tilda); the arty styling; the sinister storyline that still has a sense of humor. And, of course, a top tune. Seeing all the Bowie memorabilia at the V+A is interesting, but the evidence that Bowie is alive, well, and creative as ever, is what really matters.
Everyone has their own personal David Bowie moment. Mine was when I got my first hearing aid in my twenties, after a lifetime of undiagnosed hearing loss. I went home and played all my favourite records, one by one, to discover how much better they sounded. The only album that has stayed in my memory from that evening is ChangesTwoBowie. I can remember the audio revelation of hearing “Starman” as if for the first time, with (oh, alright, I admit it) tears in my eyes.
From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction. He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study has no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.
Exhibition of the month #2: L’Ange de l’Histoire at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris
More Jules de Balincourt on Sunday, and another group exhibition, this time at the Ecole Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts on quai Malaquais.
This is the inaugural exhibition in the newly revamped – and renamed – gallery of the Beaux-Arts (ENSBA). The building was redesigned to host a new program “reflecting the school’s identity by confronting ancient and contemporary artworks, emerging artists and the rereading of recent art history.” Architects Neufville-Gayet, set designer Alexis Bertrand and lighting designer Virginie Nicolas undertook the renovation of the 19th-century building, and the result is a clever and beautifully-lit space, where the original walls – and classical paintings hung on them – peer over and around modern white displays. The interaction with the new exhibition is fun and thought-provoking, although IMO the jury is out on whether all the new art works equally well in the environment. One artist whose works do play nicely here is David Noonan: juxtaposed against glimpses of 19th-century faded grandeur, his screen prints take on another life.
L’Ange de l’Histoire “explores the themes of ruins and debris in art. It is based on a famous text by Walter Benjamin, inspired by a watercolor by Paul Klee, the portrait of The Angel of History, ‘which faces backwards as it is blown towards the future’, and likens the historical process to a field of ruins… The exhibition draws together the works of a generation of artists who seem to be surveying the ruins of history, and who could be described as ‘digital-age primitives’ because of their relationship with the archives of the web, or their interest for fragments of the past and cultural scraps. Here, these change their status as readymades to become incriminating evidence…”
Jules de Balincourt has three pieces in the exhibition: Bang Big (2011), at the entrance to the gallery, More Fetish Objects to Haunt Us (2008) and Island Hopper (2006).
L’Ange de l’Histoire, Palais des Beaux-Arts, until July 7
Exhibition of the month #1: Disaster/The End of Days at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Pantin, Paris
My new favourite gallery in Paris might just be the space opened in October last year by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac – certainly on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon when one can face the schlep out beyond the Périphérique to Pantin. The light was beautiful yesterday, almost blinding at times in the snowy gallery space, and adding its own touch of surreality to the current group show, Disaster/The End of Days.
Twenty-eight artists are represented in the show, and they cover a huge variety of interpretations of the theme.
I had gone specifically to see Jules de Balincourt’s Unknown, a beautiful painting of a harbour (Sydney? Hong Kong?) with lines of fire arcing gracefully across the water, buildings aflame below, and small groups of people sitting, strolling, or observing the scene. It has the prettiness and charm of Watteau’s Return from Cythera – but with mortar fire.
Another classical reference: one of the most memorable and genuinely beautiful works in the exhibition is the late Philippe Bradshaw’s Raft of the Medusa, based on Géricault. (Scroll on through the blog for pictures of all the pieces I mention here). The huge piece is made of chains and from a distance it has the effect of a wall-sized screen print. Up close the chains themselves are shiny and mesmerising, evoking impressions of fashion and/or violence, depending on your own predilections.
One fascinating thing about this exhibition is the sheer amount of physical work – craft, in some cases – that has gone into so many of the pieces. When I worked in the contemporary art business, there was a particular type of conceptual artwork that we used to refer to as “shit on the floor,” because it basically looked like someone had dropped some old rubbish on the gallery floor and called it art. Well, there aint no shit on the floor in this place. The bulk of the work is figurative, and must have involved a daunting number of artist-hours (or artist-assistant hours). Take Zhang Huan’s Ash Banquet. It’s huge. It is not a painting with ash scattered over it afterwards – it is actually made with different tones of ash. Or Liza Lou’s The Damned (2004) – two larger than life resin and steel figures entirely covered with gold bugle beads. Mind you, even Liza Lou’s efforts pale beside Farhad Moshri’s enormous Crowd Control Vanity Case. The beading on this three- by four-metre piece forms the image, and the beads are actually SEWN together. The mind boggles.
One has to ask, what, exactly, is the point? I mean, the workmanship is impressive, and, sure, artists, from Hieronymous Bosch to Jake and Dinos Chapman, have always put a lot of effort into painstakingly detailed accounts of pandemonium. Maybe its a way to take the sting out of death, to own it by surveying it in all the depth and infinite detail which a human being can manage. Robert Longo’s All You Zombies sculpture does just this, and I still can’t decide if the end result is pure nightmare or pure cartoon.
Disaster/The End of Days, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Pantin, Paris, until June 29.