in Reviews | 01 JAN 08
Featured in
Issue 120

The Consistency of the Visible

Fondation d'entreprise Ricard, Paris, France

in Reviews | 01 JAN 08

Raphaël Zarka (2008)

Every year the French wines and spirits outfit Pernod Ricard, best known for its anise-flavoured beverage pastis, synonymous with sunny café terraces and dusty games of pétanque, sponsors an annual competition for young French artists known as the Prix Ricard. To coincide with the FIAC art fair, the Ricard Foundation mounts a guest-curated group show of the nominees in its very active exhibition space. Once the votes are cast, the Foundation purchases a work by the laureate and offers it to the Pompidou Centre.

For the award’s tenth anniversary in 2008, former Palais de Tokyo director Nicolas Bourriaud curated the selection of works by the short-listed artists Julien Discrit, Cyprien Gaillard, Camille Henrot, Emmanuelle Lainé, Gyan Panchal, Abraham Poincheval & Laurent Tixador, Lili Reynaud-Dewar and the winner Raphaël Zarka.

Titled ‘The Consistency of the Visible’ – after an opaque citation by the late critic Bernard Lamarche-Vadel, to whom Bourriaud pays homage here – the exhibition opens with Bourriaud’s ‘Preamble’, a large entry space set with French art of the past four decades. Before encountering the younger generation, the viewer is invited to ponder the potentially revelatory significance of such works as Daniel Buren’s striped Photo-souvenir: Peinture aux formes variables (Photo-souvenir: Painting of Variable Forms, 1966); Erik Dietman’s play on the memento mori, La Sainte Famille à poil, nature morte pour Carême (The Naked Holy Family, Still-Life for Lent, 1989–95); Raymond Hains’ oversized matchbook Seita (1970); and Bertrand Lavier’s bronze replica of an African sculpture, Ibo (2008).

Through this arrangement of objects (called ‘fetishes’ in the exhibition pamphlet), Bourriaud unpacks the issue of what he designates as ‘inaugural gestures’ in contemporary art practices since the 1960s. Only Agnès Varda’s endearing photographs of withered heart-shaped potatoes tufted with sprouts (Patates Coeurs, #10, undated), and Edouard Levé’s chilling photograph of a road sign indicating arrival at the French town of Angoisse, (Angoisse de nuit, Night Anxiety, 2001), resist neat integration into this history lesson. Perhaps they manage to do this just because of their overt appeal to emotion, and that response feels unexpected and almost welcome in this thoughtfully restrained display.

Crossing the threshold into the Prix Ricard section, the atmosphere loosens up a bit in Reynaud-Dewar’s quirky installation (The Invisible, 2007). This is comprised of a poised fabric-wrapped walking stick leaning against a wood and glass partition that has rudimentary geometric faces cut out of two panels, and is draped with shimmering lamé garments. The partition stands totem-like while upturned glazed black ceramic bowls sit at its base like offerings. To this installation’s credit, it appears more like the remnant of a mysterious ritual involving Russian constructivist children who have time-travelled to a 1980s’ disco for a play-date, than elements from the artist’s performance Love: UFO (2008) screened just behind.

Further along, Lainé’s real and artificial leather sculptures, which are apparently based on the shape of a worm, tone things down a notch. Her organic and mechanical hybrids recall flaccid bellows, handcrafted sea buoys, or gigantic fishing lures. They beg to be held and manipulated but unfortunately seem washed up and inert atop their white pedestal. Gaillard’s Geographical Analogies (2006–7), ethnographic-style display cases containing collections of Polaroids arranged to juxtapose natural and man-made sites, are shown together with his oil painting The New Picturesque (2008), a typical 18th-century landscape whose narrative bits are brushed out with white oil paint. Gaillard’s work, which consistently explores the age-old problem of man versus nature and looks keenly at the built environment, is cohering into an increasingly sensitive meditation on representations of land, its uses and misuses.

Winner Raphaël Zarka crystallizes unexpected, anachronistic traces of urban topographies and skate-parks in his elegant, lacquered, plywood sculpture Padova (Réplique no. 4) (Padua, Replica No. 4, 2008), a narrow inclined plane with a white marble-lined slot running from top to bottom. A loose replica of an 18th-century object used for physics experiments around accelerating bodies and gravitational pull, it fits in with Zarka’s ongoing investigations into skateboarding as cultural practice (about which he has published two books), public space and modernist sculpture. In his exhibition essay Bourriaud suggests he is working through key questions about artistic genealogies and demarcations of aesthetic territories.

Yet after walking through the entire show I was left perplexed by his ‘Preamble’. Rather than creating some kind of productive tension around, say, competing notions of contemporaneity within the two sections, his curatorial strategy seemed to suggest that this entirely French preamble (why only French?) should be read as referential pre-history to, or simply as fodder for comparison with, the work of the Prix Ricard nominees. I didn’t get the connection, though, for much of what follows stands up quite well on its own.