'Corps Social' and 'ZAC 99' are - in appearance at least - two extreme examples of what the contemporary French art scene can offer. The first was a classic theme show about the philosophical and political notion of the 'social body', while 'ZAC 99' described itself as an 'event in progress', gathering together people involved with music, art, design, fashion, architecture and graphic design. 'Corps Social' wanted to believe in the durability of the art object, while 'ZAC 99' found meaning in a process of dissemination and exchange. But for all their divergence, both shows seemed to claim essentially the same thing: that contemporary art is an important and meaningful aspect of society, and that - along with other contemporary cultural practices - its concerns are inscribed within an economic and political framework.
'Corps Social' explored this idea through images of people and places: Yves Belorgey's paintings of council housing; Tina Barney's photographic studies of Rhode Island summer rituals; Djamel Tatah's paintings of life-size figures arrested in motion; Valerie Eglès's anonymous metro travellers and Istvan Balogh's shots of university campuses. All these portray the artist as mediator, concerned with personal research while responding to the stimulus of social reality. And yet this overflow of images of people in motion created a lethargic atmosphere throughout the gallery, a paradoxical effect given the curator's stated desire to develop the poetics/politics discussion generated by the last Documenta. The show's premise sounded exciting, but the result unfortunately resembled an Open University handbook about Modern life and Modernity. Barney's Rhode Island Summer (1997), like Eglès' Paris, Ligne 4 (1997-99) or Balogh's Work in Progress (1998) seem to be included as contemporary versions of Manet's images of the bourgeoisie or Degas' laundresses; to illustrate a standard discourse about the fragmentary perception of contemporary life and the alienating effects of industrialisation.
The claustrophobic installation and the seriousness or banality of these works' subject matter lent the show a solemn and stifling quality. However, Jouve's Smokers (1998-99), Ghada Amer's Private Rooms (1998-99) and pieces such as Agnes Thurnauer's paintings Les Animaux les hommes, celle qui n'a pas de nom (Animals, Men, That which has no name, 1999) and Kelly Lamb's videos (Jumprope and Caught Inside , both 1998) have an immediacy and freshness that allowed them to fend off the all-pervasive seriousness of the show.
Freshness seemed to be the main concern of the organisers of 'ZAC 99'. They seemed to believe that you can't illustrate the concept of a 'social body', but only make it evident by attracting crowds of trendy-looking youths to a three-week multi-activity workshop. The more or less commercially oriented groups in the show included Radi Designers, Bless (fashion), Büro (music), Périphériques (architecture) and Labomatic (graphic design), all of whom took the opportunity to use the museum as a platform for publicising their work - samples of products and architectural models were displayed as art.
For the 'real' art included in the show, the concept proved far more tricky. The exhibition's opening triggered the expected polemics around the question of state funding. One artist-run group called Public, refused to participate at the last minute and explained why in a weekly magazine that reproduced a photograph of its members looking as moody and determined as Jackson Pollock among the irascible Abstract Expressionists in the famous Life magazine photo of 1950. For those who decided to take part, the question was more about whether to be included as artists showing art, or as participants of an event in progress. The veteran artist-run space Glassbox decided to respond, somewhat uneasily, by being at once playful and subversive. Thus, the two giant mushrooms they chose to represent them, reminiscent of quiz-show buzzers, enabled visitors to vote either pro-ZAC or anti-ZAC. Similarly, solar panels which absorbed energy from the museum's ceiling spotlight fed a tiny neon tube placed inside a plywood hut (perhaps a metaphor of the institution feeding the precarious artist-run space). It was not supposed to be read as an 'art' installation, but as an ironic commentary on the shaky conceptual premise of the exhibition.
Like 'Corps Social', 'ZAC 99' resisted going as far as it could go. By integrating workshops into a visual setting (provided by 'real' artist Olivier Bardin) - which the viewer was unsure to approach as art or not - it tried to be an exhibition while wanting to reject that format in order to be a more accurate witness of current cultural exchange. At the other end of the spectrum (and since all art is politically significant), 'Corps Social' could have done better than its didactic illustrations.