Jean Genet’s public life was more than a little schizophrenic: a thief, a beggar and a homosexual prostitute, who wrote his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), whilst in and out of prison (Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre eventually petitioned for his pardon from a life sentence), he then spent his nomadic later years as a civil rights activist. The exhibition devoted to him at Nottingham Contemporary took these dramatically different sides into account, and was aptly divided into two parts. ‘Act 1’ was a major new installation by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, incorporating a number of sculptures and drawings by Alberto Giacometti alongside works by Tariq Alvi, Lukas Duwenhögger, Mathilde Rachet and Wolfgang Tillmans. ‘Act 2’, curated by Nottingham Contemporary director Alex Farquharson, looked at Genet’s last 15 years – during which time he made extensive trips to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and acted as a spokesman for the Black Panthers – and included works and new commissions by Akram Zaatari, The Otolith Group and Latifa Echakhch.
Chaimowicz romanticized aspects of Genet’s early life within a series of fictional spaces to create a loose portrait, which was a follow-up of sorts to the artist’s 2004 Norwich Gallery exhibition about Cocteau. One gallery housed a small room labelled ‘Props and Wardrobe’: part props cupboard, part theatre set waiting for action, it contained a rail of clothes (lacy dresses, bras and blouses emblematic of a certain kind of gaudy female sexuality), bookcases (collaged with newspaper) and other knick-knacks (coloured glass vases, a Hawaiian mermaid figurine, trashy fake pearls, plastic flowers), forming an imaginary dressing room for the women in Genet’s one-act play The Maids (1947). In his introduction to The Maids, Sartre wrote: ‘Appearance […] must constantly reveal its profound unreality. Everything must be so false that it sets our teeth on edge.’ This could equally apply to Chaimowicz’s entire project as an artist, an ongoing investigation into staging reality, where real, false and imaginary worlds ambiguously co-exist.
Next to this, a beautifully shot video, The Casting for “The Maids” First Cut (2010), was screened in front of Chaimowicz’s trademark wooden chairs, depicting three young women in a farmhouse. They display the vulnerability of amateurs, as they sit on a bed and read lines in French, arrange their hair in the mirror, or stand in a darkened room, pouting and smoking – an interesting touch, given that Genet’s play was constructed from a series of role-plays within the play, as an amateur theatre within a theatre. (As Sartre noted: ‘His maids are fake women […] Genet is trying to present us femininity without women.’) Yet though they perform all the tropes of a coquettish kind of female sexiness, Chaimowicz’s maids exude a gentle, childlike innocence. This – coupled with the fact that The Maids is a series of sadomasochistic power games, and was based upon the true story of the Papin sisters, who brutally murdered their employee and her daughter – left Chaimowicz’s version feeling oddly polite. But his vocabulary of plywood plinths, screens, carpets, clothes and wallpapered façades was brought to life by the inclusion of a number of sculptures by Genet’s close friend Giacometti and furniture owned by the Giacometti brothers. The installation was also inhabited by Giacometti’s scratchy, ghost-like portraits of Genet (c.1955) and Sartre (1949) alongside a series of works that allude to the various lovers in Genet’s life. For example Wolfgang Tillmans’ Mark, studio (2011), a huge photograph of a pale, skinny man with a scar in the middle of his chest, and Lukas Duwenhögger’s The End of the Season, (2007–8), a gaudy painting of a slim, young Mediterranean man reclining in purple and yellow swimming shorts next to a sleeping Labrador by the sea.
By contrast, ‘Act 2’ contained a number of overtly political contemporary works such as Mona Hatoum’s ‘Still Life’ (2008–9), a series of coloured ceramic hand grenades and Glenn Ligon’s Excerpt (2008), a response to Prisoner of Love (1986), Genet’s memoir about his years with the Palestinians and the Black Panthers. Commissioned especially for the exhibition, Lili Reynaud Dewar’s sculpture – four walls created from blankets from which excerpts from Prisoner of Love and The Declared Enemy (a posthumously published collection of Genet‘s essays from 2004) emanated, also housing casts of raised fists – sat aside reconstructed murals by Emory Douglas (the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture), forming an odd couple. The murals exuded a macho sense of power through a palette of primary colours and strong graphic identity, whereas the sculpture, although heavy with political references, seemed fragile, uncertain of its identity or role. In the midst of this all was an alcove of stage maquettes and costume drawings from Genet’s plays (even more randomly hung on Chaimowicz’s wallpaper), alongside a series of brooding images of Genet in action (which seemed highly staged), further blurring the line between historical fact and art work.
Although ambiguity and artifice were pitted against deeply serious political intent in the two ‘acts’, both reinforced Sartre’s interpretation of Genet as a creature obsessed with ‘the whirligigs of being and appearance, of the imaginary and the real’. As Genet created a world in which even reality was composed from a series of staged incidents – characterized by co-existing, but interchangeable, identities – in many ways, this exhibition reveals the level to which his life mirrored the concerns of his early writing.