October 2013 marked the 15th anniversary of the Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard’s Prix Ricard, one of the first contemporary art prizes launched in France. I suppose these days one can be cynical about such awards, but I always look forward to the annual exhibition showcasing the nominees, who are selected by a guest curator – this year curator and critic Yann Chateigné. The prize jury is made up of some 100 people, including collectors sourced from the ‘friends’ schemes of major Parisian museums and the previous curators of Prix Ricard exhibitions. The winner – this year Lili Reynaud Dewar, with her installation I’m Intact and I Don’t Care (2013) – sees his or her work enter the collection of the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou, where it is also displayed.
The premise of the Prix Ricard exhibition is clear: to introduce an audience to a more-or-less subjective overview of work by French or French-connected emerging artists (in theory, under the age of 40) that merit such institutional recognition. Four of the eight artists Chateigné selected – Jonathan Binet, Alex Cecchetti, Reynaud Dewar and Alexandre Singh – have had important solo exhibitions over the past few years, while the others – Stéphane Barbier Bouvet, Caroline Mesquita, Chloé Quenum and Benjamin Valenza – may be less visible on the international stage, but also exhibit and work as curators, designers or in artist-run spaces. This has been one of the most notable features of the Ricard initiative: guest curators often invite artists with different career trajectories, levels of experience and critical acclaim, which somehow symbolically levels the playing field and usually provides an element of surprise or discovery.
If there is a straightforward premise, the parameters of the exhibition are entirely open to curatorial interpretation. In conceptualizing his show, Chateigné called up a whole slew of intellectual and artistic heavyweights (John Cassavetes, Gilles Deleuze, Miles Davis, Carlo Ginzburg, Fredric Jameson), who are referenced in the catalogue, but it is Marguerite Duras, specifically her 1987 collection of texts La Vie matérielle (translated as Practicalities into English), who served as inspiration. This book, perceived as an anomaly in Duras’ corpus because of its ‘anti-literary’ qualities, consists of the conversations she had with writer Jérôme Beaujour, edited for print. As an extension of ‘La vie matérielle’, Chateigné writes of his ‘desire to design a more physical, more literal and in a sense more abstract exhibition […] a project founded on almost primary gestures, tending towards a degree zero […] an exhibition with no subject or object.’ Although the catalogue is thoughtfully composed and an instructive read, I was not quite sure how to square that sort of discourse with the works presented and have no idea what ‘an exhibition with no subject or object’ could possibly look like. When curators make claims like these, the burden of proof becomes all the more burdensome.
Fortunately, there were objects for this subject to encounter, and some of the juxtapositions were wonderful: Singh’s uptight row of scrunched and grimacing bronze busts (Bullen, Frau, Duchess, Dandy, Macaire, Bertrand, 2013), based on masks he created for his recent play, The Humans, haughtily faced-off against Reynaud Dewar’s I’m Intact and I Don’t Care, which consisted of a white mattress on a bright floral-print platform from which a gurgling inky-black fountain erupted, staining the covers, and several panels of floral fabric leaning vertically against the walls. Reynaud Dewar has decided to only produce bedrooms this year, and interpretive flights of fancy got me thinking those constipated masks really disapprove.
Mesquita’s Casquette Verte (Green Cap, 2013) elegantly broke this stalemate. Her thin steel rail meandered throughout the first space, butting against walls or sliding beneath them, until a coffin-shaped box and a green cap interrupted the flow of this line and put a quick halt to its dynamic. Cecchetti’s Story Line: Marie & William (2013) revealed traces of a previous performance, marked on the wall with peaches and blackberries. I’ve had the pleasure of viewing Cecchetti’s performances before, and this intervention, particularly when compared with Binet’s untitled rough-and-ready wall painting, which stutteringly migrated across the entire back wall of the first exhibition space, did no real justice to his work. In the second room, Quenum’s Structures pour ombres (Structure for Shadows, 2013) – screens of glass, steel and wood, with appendages – stoically recalled hacked domestic objects or architectural elements, and could have used a bit more breathing room, since the performance footage playing in Valenza’s installation of platforms and objects (Circa, Circa: Canteen Abbuffata, 2011) clamoured for my attention. Barbier Bouvet’s mylar mirror (Circulation, 2013) closed the exhibition and provided an imperfect glimpse of it, as if in hindsight, already only a memory. And from that same perspective, I am tempted to conclude that ‘La vie matérielle’ succeeded as an exhibition precisely because it could not possibly live up to the discursive framework Chateigné invented for it.