Identifying Perspectives

A new presentation of the contemporary collections of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, provides a comprehensive overview of art since the 1980s.

When Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis took on the mammoth task of rehanging the permanent collection in 2013, she approached it in a very traditional manner: the redesign was chronological but managed to avoid being conservative or didactic. Art critic Richard Dorment said, “she transformed the dowdiest gallery in Europe into one of the most splendid” – and she did. It was the first rehang since Tate’s division with Tate Modern in 2000, and the permutations and options of how to approach the task are, and were, endless. Curtis succeeded (though perhaps not in later critically received curatorial decisions), but it is important to remember how difficult a task re-displaying the artworks for such an institution is. When the Courtauld took it on in 2003, the International Herald Tribune praised the “beautifully simple and effective” hang. Others, such as Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, criticised its didactic approach, calling instead for “boring old galleries that categorise collections by school, period and style”, rather than the popular thematic approach, which necessarily imparts a specific reading and meaning to the viewer.

The Centre Pompidou, Paris, is slightly more active in its rehang policy in that it has a partial reordering of works at least once a year. Last year’s reorganisation is ready for a face lift; the show is curated by Christine Macel and entitled A History. Art, architecture, design from the 1980s until today.

Macel has brought together almost 400 works – paintings, installations, videos, films, drawings, photographs, architecture and design – in a thematically organised display. Strictly avoiding the chronological, and instead focusing on a specific period (the 1980s until today), the presentation is divided into a number of quite specific themes: artist as historian; artist as archivist; artist as producer; artist as documentarian, etc. In addition, the Pompidou has commissioned a new type of seating for the rooms from the Jakob + MacFarlane agency. Based on the design of the geometrical form of the building (by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers), the contemporary seating is not just innovative but, commendably, 100 per cent recyclable.

This thematic presentation is an overview of the last 30 years or so, a period rich in political, social, and geographical history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the shocking events of Tiananmen Square, and the Serbian/Bosnian War, for example, were followed by an opening up of these regions to the international art scene. The greater democratisation of the art world, and the rising role of the curator and mega- galleries, have created a consumer-based art market.

In addition, with the development of virtual technology and the growth of the internet, there are new areas of production which are relatively unknown and researched that are quickly being scooped up by institutions and museums. Thus, different approaches to our contemporary art history are demanded, and the Pompidou has always led the field in the thematic collecting and staging of exhibitions: Jean- François Lyotard’s ground-breaking exhibition of 1985, Les Immateriaux, being one of the first to include “personal” computers, a literary soundtrack, and electronic music. This exhibition was a celebration of “technoscience” and included Rolf Gehlhaar’s Sound=Space, an interactive environment where the audience’s movement within the space triggered electronically generated music. It was commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture, and the audience became the performers, all active in the realisation of the work.

Centre Pompidou’s track record in the practice of performance is demonstrated through two performances in Macel’s new presentation: Crowd by Roman Ondák and Avalancha by Wilfredo Prieto. Slovakian artist Ondák exhibits people: in Teaching to Walk (2002) a young mother and her child takes over the gallery space for half-an-hour, time where she teaches her child to take its first steps; in Good Feelings in Good Times (2003) he stages an artificial queue; and with Crowd, a “fake” audience, interrupt the opening of the exhibition. Originally performed at the Kölnischer Kunstverein (Cologne) in 2004, this work highlights the social scene of the vernissage: a public but staged event.

Like Ondák, Prieto demands active participation. With Avalancha (2003), he encourages a reading based on shapes; round objects of various sizes are placed next to one another in a linear fashion. The “avalanche” of objects – from one tiny ballpoint of a pen to a globe with a diameter of 2.5 metres – is completed by an orange-shaped mobile bar serving drinks (orange juice, with or without vodka). Linked to relational aesthetics, a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, Prieto’s work incorporates sculpture with social interaction.

The emphasis on relational aesthetics is taken one step further, with Macel’s selection of Bourriaud’s seminal 1996 exhibition Traffic. Staged at the Bordeaux CAPC, Traffic included the work of artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jens Haaning, Philippe Parreno, Gillian Wearing and Andrea Zittel. It marked a turning point for contemporary art practice; it was based on the relationships between people. Indeed, Bourriaud published his book Relational Aesthetics the following year and Macel uses the phrase: The artist as producer: The “Traffic” generation. It is rare indeed to see a previous exhibition become so central to the rehang of a permanent collection. Bourriaud’s exhibition was seminal – that is without dispute – but as Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones argues: “The problem with any display set up according to an agenda is that it predetermines how a work of art will be seen. […] The meanings of the works are prejudged and prestated. It is actually very difficult to see them outside the context stated by the thematic display.” Macel is putting these artists into a very specific category, and by doing so discourages the audience from performing an active analysis of each artwork; it is an overprescribed viewpoint. The intent and focus are almost too clear and presume a certain lingua franca with the viewer. The neutrality of Curtis’s rehang allowed freedom of both interpretation and re-interpretation; Macel’s presentation is a volte-face to this approach.

Saying this, it is difficult to criticise, as the Pompidou collection incorporates many mediums, movements and artists; trying to fit 30 years of work into one floor is impossible in many ways. Macel succeeds with her careful selection of works that illustrate the changing use of materials by artists and with performance and body art. New fields of research and enquiry require new materials to present these lines of analysis; Mircea Cantor’s Tasca che punge (2007) incorporates live plants, injurious to the touch, whereas Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Last light) (1993) utilises a set of 24 lightbulbs on an extension cord. Gonzalez-Torres lost his life-partner, Ross, to an AIDS-related illness in 1991, and many of his works reference this passing, if not outright, then in a subtle nod to mortality. This is perhaps the only work in the exhibition that directly examines the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s; it had a profound and lasting impact. Similarly to Tony Oursler, with 9/11 (2001), Gonzalez-Torres takes a harrowing event and makes it a part of his work, merging his own history with his art practice. It is difficult to lose such a work as this, even in a large-scale exhibition.

In the work of Polish artist Pawel Althamer, the artist’s upbringing under Communist rule in Poland takes centre stage. Tecza (Rainbow) (2004), for instance, is included in The artist as historian. Althamer’s experimental models and sculptural installations are as complex as the social and political models he is describing, and many of his works exist on the extreme: for So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003-2004), Althamer (in collaboration with Artur Żmijewski) ingested various drugs to explore their mind-altering affects. Tecza (Rainbow) has a personal approach: taking a common object of the markets of Warsaw, a clothes-dryer on wheels, the artist has represented it within a fine-art context. In the market, this hybrid form is used to hold and sell shoelaces and shoe soles. Therefore, Althamer is commenting on the poverty of the sellers compared with the commercial market value of the shoes outside of Poland: and against the American obsession with colourful sneakers.

There is a gloss, a professional sheen, to some of the works in the collection. This is interrupted on occasion by an anomaly – the work of artist Michel François, for example. The Belgian conceptual artist represented Belgium in 1999 at the Venice Biennale (with Ann Veronica Janssens), but he is still not a household name. His work bridges several mediums – video, photographs, works on paper, sculptures – but they are never complicated or excessive, in the way that sometimes those by Isa Genzken or Jason Rhodes are. Instead, as with Affiche S. aux boules (1999), there is a timeless classic quality, reminiscent of early black and white photographs by William Eggleston and others. The placement of François’s work within The artist and the object: the reinvention of the everyday makes sense, and is also a striking contrast to other artists included in the thematic section, such as Andreas Gursky, Damian Ortega, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Gabriel Orozco.

Most evident in this rehang is a gender divide. Of the listed artists included in The artist as producer: the “Traffic” generation, one of the 16 is female; in Design: Environment, Research and experimentation in the 1990s and 2000s, one of the 10 is female; in Body art: the body performed, of the 15, four are women. The latter is one of the strongest categories for female representation, which in itself is quite telling. While needing to tackle many issues, the misrepresentation of gender in the collection is an issue that should be at the forefront of her mind, even though the works that are most apt at illustrating a movement or idea often take precedence.

This rehang can be analysed at length, it can be ripped apart, and it can be lauded – as any exhibition can. Macel’s curated presentation should be lauded: it picks up on key movements and artists crucial to understanding turning points of the 30-year period depicted. A purely chronological or geographical presentation would have failed to do this, as the accompanying critical discourse is integral to the achievement of any true level of understanding. The next version of this redisplay is planned for 2016, an event to look forward to if Macel continues on this same trajectory.

Niamh Coghlan

Until 7 March 2016