Walter Benjamin asserted in The Arcades Project (1927–40) that ‘few things in the history of humanity are as well known to us as the history of Paris.’ Since then, the story goes, the city that spawned social and cultural revolutions, fed entire artistic and intellectual movements and inspired countless musical, literary and visual representations has lost its hold on the collective imagination.
For this reason one hoped that ‘Airs de Paris’, co-curated by the Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel and Daniel Birnbaum from Portikus in Frankfurt, might shake off the mantle of the mythic past and prove that the City of Light is a thriving urban outpost. With its tantalizing roster of participants the exhibition set out to commemorate the Pompidou’s 30th anniversary, testify to the vitality of the contemporary Parisian art scene, ‘open up to [a] multicultural future’ and embrace new technologies (through an uneven online forum and specially commissioned Podcasts). Doing one of those things well would already be a considerable achievement. Overburdened by its ambitions, ‘Airs de Paris’ displayed some momentum but ultimately stalled at this temporal crossroads of past, present and future.
The show’s title paid homage to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Air de Paris (1919), a glass ampoule emptied of its liquid and ‘filled’ with Paris air, which the artist sent to friends in the US. A 1964 replica of the original, encased in a Perspex box, was the centrepiece of the introduction to the exhibition. It was accompanied by works by Richard Fauguet and Michel Blazy, both of which cited Duchamp’s piece, an On Kawara date painting (Apr. 28, 1977, from the ‘Today’ series, begun in 1964) and Olivier Babin’s red and white Kawara copy marked with the end-date of the present show (The Day After, 2007). The fact that retrospectives of Duchamp and On Kawara inaugurated the Pompidou in 1977 justified this selection much more than Macel’s debatable claim that Air de Paris symbolizes ‘trans-national social space’ and anticipates globalization.
The curators employed the conceit of using more recent art to update or ‘remix’ works from the past, most notably in the area devoted to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975). Matta-Clark’s film, documenting the massive hole he cut through two buildings neighbouring the Pompidou construction site, inspired Pierre Huyghe to re-enact the work via a projected image (Light Conical Intersect, Anti-événement, 1996). Carsten Höller cut a slice out of the exhibition architecture (La Coupe, The Cut, 2007), and one could watch Huyghe and Rirkrit Tiravanija gleefully munch on a cake shaped like Matta-Clark’s split-house (Splitting, 1974) in their film In the Belly of an Anarchitect (2004–6).
I’m not convinced anyone benefits from such literally staged encounters. The confrontation of different historical moments and their representations was more effectively crystallized in Chris Marker’s Zapping Zone (1990–94), a multi-screen installation (with Apple II GS computers, mismatched television screens and slides), first shown at the Pompidou in 1990. Zapping Zone felt like a moving-image version of art historian Aby Warburg’s Bildatlas Mnemosyne (Mnemosyne Atlas). Like the reproductions on the black panels of Warburg’s atlas, Marker’s juxtapositions of archival news footage, film scenes, cats dozing, computer-generated signs, cityscapes and their inhabitants seemed to float against the darkness, provoking renewed reflection about the potential affinities, as well as the temporal and spatial intervals, between the images.
This ‘pluri-disciplinary’ exhibition paid much lip-service to questions of urban public space and its users, but it was strictly divided into a thematically organized ‘Art’ section and a less consequential ‘Landscape, Architecture, Design’ section. The city provided the exhibition context, but the curators insisted that the participants did not have to live, work or make reference to Paris to be included in the show. Nevertheless, I felt drawn to those works that engaged directly with the city and raised some of its most poignant contradictions, such as Alain Bublex’s photomontage series Le plan voisin-V2 Circulaire secteur 6 (2004). A former automobile designer, Bublex offered a contemporary vision of Le Corbusier’s 1925 plan to invert the centre and periphery: dystopian miles of gloomy ring-road dotted with neon signs of the most emblematic of Parisian shops. Jean-Luc Moulène’s installation Documents/Le Tunnel (1998–2005) consisted of photographs and crates of newsprint publications documenting graffiti near the Charenton psychiatric hospital, where the Marquis de Sade was famously incarcerated. The frequently incoherent or violent phrases scraped or chalked onto surfaces contrasted sharply with dreamier photographs such as Sophie Calle’s Chambre avec vue (Room with a View, 2003), which portrays the artist dressed in an elegant nightgown, leaning against a pillow on a platform of the Eiffel Tower, the city spread out like scattered jewels beneath her. Together these two works revealed the multifaceted phantasmagoria that Paris remains.