Featured in
Issue 166

Postcard from Paris

What a fashion designer can teach us about the display of contemporary art

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Critic's Guides | 23 SEP 14

Exhibition view of ‘Dries van Noten: Inspirations’, 2014, at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Courtesy: Dries Van Noten and Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; photograph: Luc Boegly

Ah, the cliché of a Parisian summer! I’m writing this in August, when locals have fled and tourists wander around in droves, only to find boutiques and boulangeries closed. Department stores, museums and cultural landmarks, however, are wide open and ready for business.

This year, though, visitors may have noticed more Parisians around than usual, some grumbling about the stagnant economy and high unemployment. They also may have encountered protests over the Israeli offensive into Gaza, concern about Ukraine and heated debates around anti-Semitism. They may have already heard that President François Hollande is beleaguered by personal intrigues and political setbacks. Still, if visitors missed all that, they surely caught the major headlines announcing that there are rats, RATS!, infesting the Tuileries Garden just outside the Louvre. So much for that picnic, chéri, let’s go inside and watch Ratatouille instead.

Granted, it’s not that hard to overlook the grittier realities of Paris, especially in summer. The seductive splendour of the city’s art and architecture – from the 17th century Place des Vosges nestled in the Marais, to the belle époque architecture of the Musée d’Orsay – can feel like a museum. And one would be hard-pressed to find direct links between the current state of contemporary French society and the world at large in the exhibitions in major cultural institutions in Paris. At the Centre Georges Pompidou was a show of documentation related to the formative exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ (1989) and a retrospective of Martial Raysse, a supposedly under-recognized painter, a founding member of the Nouveaux Réalistes and the closest thing France has had to a true Pop artist. At the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris was a fine Lucio Fontana retrospective and the informative ‘Unedited History: Iran 1960–2014’, curated by Catherine David. The Palais de Tokyo was hosting yet another smorgasbord of exhibitions, grouped under the heading ‘L’État du Ciel’ (The State of the Sky), which included an exhibition about Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas by Georges Didi-Huberman and Arno Gisinger; as well as solo presentations by Ed Atkins, Charbel-Joseph H. Boutros, Michaela Eichwald and others. There was also a group show titled ‘All that Falls’, including works by Camille Henrot, Agnieszka Kurant and Jimmy Robert, as well as Hiroshi Sugimoto’s intriguing exhibition ‘Aujourd’hui le monde est mort/Today the World Died [Lost Human Genetic Archive]’, which brought together his own photographic works, fossils and objects from space explorations.

Despite the considerable presence of current artists at the Palais de Tokyo, it was Belgian fashion designer Dries van Noten’s ‘Inspirations’ at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs that struck the most contemporary chord, and not because the show had anything to do with recent events. In vitrine after vitrine, Van Noten juxtaposed his latest collections with vintage garments by Balenciaga, Dior and Schiaparelli, as well as more recent ones designed by Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler, alongside historical textiles from around the world. There were clips from films including Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), and artworks by Francis Bacon, Bronzino, Elizabeth Peyton and others. By foregrounding the old-fangled notion of ‘inspiration’, which ceded to ‘appropriation’, Van Noten implied a specific kind of relationship – one where an object, idea, text, image or event becomes the source for the creation of another. It’s a relationship of causality and connectedness, of affect and agency. It is sometimes deferential, sometimes parasitical, but usually hierarchical. On a visual level, the result was jaw-droppingly impressive, but it also raised questions about the historic and the contemporary and their mutual relevance. In Van Noten’s presentation all images, artefacts and objects are levelled onto one jubilantly decorative field: a prêt-à-porter look from the late 2000s can be effortlessly associated with a priceless 16th-century portrait, leading us to wonder about the current cultural value of both.

Obviously, it’s not the remit of large-scale institutions to comment on the socio-political context of the day. But if they want to keep us engaged, they must negotiate the thriving, intricate, antagonistic relationship between the art of the recent past and the art of the present. To my mind, they should also (s’il vous plaît, Palais de Tokyo) help the visitor make better sense of the connections and differences between both, like the Van Noten exhibition managed to do, rather than serving it up on an architecturally spectacular platter. Paris is already very good at that on its own.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.