‘Empire, State, Building’ was the first large-scale solo exhibition to take place on the home turf of Société Réaliste, the Paris-based cooperative founded in 2004 by Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Naudy. The two heroic commas inserted in the exhibition’s title sufficed to scrap the landmark New York skyscraper into a heap of ideological significations while encapsulating the artists’ aesthetic and political investments. For this show, Société Réaliste painted the walls of the Jeu de Paume’s ground-floor galleries in a monochromatic grey so that upon entering one had the impression of looking over a grisaille cityscape. Once inside, the space took on the more ominous cast of a mist-filled graveyard, where latent past and future catastrophes simmered beneath images, texts and objects that explicitly critiqued capitalist and communist imperialism, the definition and role of the state, and the significance of economy, geography and built environments in the promotion of political power.
If this subject matter sounds ponderous, to these eyes the hardcore conceptual precision and steely austerity of Société Réaliste’s sculpture, graphic design, cartographic digital prints, photographs and film were nothing short of beautiful. Architecture and representations of architecture feature prominently in their work, as in Empire of the Soviets (2011), a brushed-metal sculpture that transformed the Empire State Building into the Palace of the Soviets in seven steps. For the exhibition’s centrepiece, The Fountainhead (2010), based on Ayn Rand’s eponymous 1943 ode to free-market capitalist individuality, the artists took King Vidor’s 1949 film adaptation of the novel and emptied it of all human presence, thus exposing the visual power of the filmed architecture and interiors, which endured even in the absence of narrative. Regardless of our presence, there is no escaping the influence of spaces of representation.
The exhibition design was produced by Société Réaliste’s Transitioners bureau, a ‘design office’ specializing in identities for political trends, including colours, logos, typefaces, lexicons and ideas that can be used to shape and represent social transformations. But this was much more than a strikingly effective curatorial conceit or a parodic commentary on the white cube/black box phenomenon. The 2011 collection Culte de l’humanitée (Cult of She-Manity), presented here, was inspired by the Brazilian flag, which features an image of the starry sky on the night the Brazilian Republic was founded. Société Réaliste reconfigured the celestial map according to Auguste Comte’s positivist calendar, which proposed to divide the year into 13 months of 28 days (Caelum Ingonitum. Transitioners: Culte de l’humanitée, 2011). This rupture with the temporal order of things, spurred by revolutions and the founding of republics, was symbolized with grey-scale squares (some resembling washed-out Josef Albers paintings) painted on the walls at different heights. Their geometric components and tonal saturation were calculated according to the brilliance and size of the stars present in the evening sky on 5 October 1789, when the women of Paris marched to Versailles to capture the King and Queen and bring them to justice.
The formal reduction or abstraction that is operative in many of Société Réaliste’s art works and projects, including Futura Fraktur (2011), a typeface invented out of the combination of two fonts that were outlawed by the Third Reich, or A New Alphabetical Order (2011), which translates the alphabet into currency symbols, stands in dialectical opposition with the considerable, almost frenetic mass of visual and historical research the artists undertake (their exhibition catalogue is not only testimony to this, it is a crucial guide through their work). Though archival information plays a significant role in each project, it would be meaningless if not conjoined to their method of visually scrutinizing and critically evaluating our world. Société Réaliste could not be less interested in uncovering arcane genealogies of images, facts or events or in flaunting their own erudition. Instead, ‘Empire, State, Building’ clearly articulated their aim to expose the ‘immemorial struggle for the control of variable forms through which power is produced and reproduced’.