The latest show put together by the École des Beaux-Arts, 'Transit', seemed to be a thinly-disguised attempt to prove that the institution's vitality has not completely sapped away and that it still has the ability to foster some current artworld trends. The very title echoed that of 'Traffic' (CAPC, Bordeaux, 1996) which, like 'Transit' and 'Connexions Implicities' (another group show seen earlier this year at the École), was concerned with communication and interaction, or relational aesthetics, as defined by Nicholas Bourriaud. But whereas 'Traffic' introduced such concepts in relation to a certain body of art and practice, 'Transit' merely recuperated 'relational art' and used it as one of four or five captions that structured the exhibition.
'Body art', the 'art of the everyday' and 'fictive constructions' are over-familiar phrases from exhibition titles of the past few years. Their convergence in an institutional context inevitably has a fossilising effect, encouraging the viewer to see the works as illustrations in a pre-packaged art history lesson instead of attempting to interpret them in the light of curatorial concepts acting as open propositions. As a result of this, the best works in the show are those that manage most forcefully to escape 'captioning'.
Valérie Jouve's portrait of a young woman shouting against the background of a desolate urban space, for example, disrupts the apparent neutrality of the section entitled 'Urban spaces, real or fake places'. In Sans titre n?5 (1991), the sophisticated mise-en-scène of the woman's forceful expression and the formality of the blue sky of Marseilles and the blurred background that was once a block of flats play off against one another. The figure and the background suggest, then contradict, different types of reading, while the aestheticism of the image prevents any straightforward social interpretation.
On the top-floor gallery, the show makes evident the fragmentary nature of works dealing with communication and with the body. The drawings of Fabrice Hybert and Philippe Parreno testify to this desertion of the finished artefact in favour of the work process. As in the case of Marie-Ange Guilleminot's La Robe de mariée (1994), the artists presented here leave it to the viewer to reconstruct a narrative from the fragments that are available. But these weak assertions were contrasted strongly by the baffling display of narcissism evident in Pierre Moignard's self portraits and Pipilotti Rist's video pieces, which turned out to be the most exciting works in the show.
Moignard's three Autoportraits (1993) depict the artist full-face and life-size on a canvas whose dimensions closely follow those of the head. The stylised features are easily recognisable, yet when taken in combination with the geometric background, the pictures seem obsessive and at the same time impossible to pin down. There is something similar in Rist's confrontational but impalpable videos: Blutclip (1993) and Pickelporno (1992). The images of the latter, in which a man and a woman come together in a sexual embrace, are intertwined with the crudest and most clichéd visual metaphors: breasts are juxtaposed with watermelons, blossoming flowers echo penetration and the sequence ends in a red climax followed by images of splashing water. Beyond this evident claim of 'feminine power', Rist - like Moignard - violently assaults the viewer by ironically asserting the right to be excessive, extreme, colourful and kitsch. This somehow managed to thwart the exhibition's right-thinking project, subverting the general blandness that comes from a middle-of-the-road selection of works all belonging to France's main institutional collecting body, the FNAC. The sense of boredom encouraged by the exhibition is, in a sense, provoked by the generational claim made in the exhibition's subtitle. It therefore comes as no surprise that another group show, which opened simultaneously in an artist-run space of the east of Paris, easily managed to challenge this definition of a generation.
Indeed, 'Ne me quitte pas' opposed the clear-cut framing of 'Transit' with a far more open selection of works, most of which were made specifically for the show. The general theme was that of a light nostalgia, visible in Anna Barribal's cut-out postcard installation, Relic (1997), and Frédéric Beaumes' V... (1997): reworked found video-footage of a family's holidays, season after season. Other pieces attempted to equate artistic activity with political concern in the form of a derisive commentary on political events - Théophile Billich's LA CAMPAGNE-Législative, Mai 1997, or Jun Takita's La Grotte de Glassbox (both 1997), for example. Political concerns were less immediately obvious but deeper and more abstracted in Georges Tony Stoll's photographs Jeux avec deux balles bleues (1997) and the video, Le Jour où j'ai décidé de me peindre les mains en bleu (1997). The latter shows a young man covering his hands with bright blue paint before posing in front of a clumsily stretched yellow sheet acting as a backdrop. Dressed plainly in tee-shirt and trousers, he begins to move before the camera, first awkwardly and then, gaining some assurance, beginning to mimic theatrical gestures, as if endowed with a new persona thanks to his blue hands. The scene appears to be close to nothing; but the vivid Klein blue - a magic colour in itself - combines with the assertiveness of the figure's posture to declare the possibility of the artistic gesture, almost as an act of resistance.