Before getting ‘Into the Woods’, one had to pass through a luxuriant forest of fashion merchandise, as this show was set in a rather odd location: an art gallery inside Galeries Lafayette, properly named ‘La Galerie des Galeries’. Though it has existed since 2001, the space really became part of the Parisian artistic landscape when it went through important refurbishing in 2006. In any other European city, its location might be unthinkable; in Paris, however, where the art world has always flirted with fashion, it is almost a natural outcome. But finding it is not an easy task. First, you have to walk through Galeries Lafayette, through endless stacks of shoes on sale (from the most luxurious, such as Balenciaga, to the cheapest), up an escalator to the first floor, then ask directions at the Dom Pérignon Champagne bar. It will be a relief to learn from the bartender that the art gallery is ‘next to Louis Vuitton and Dior’.
A long black lava-like corridor, presumably designed to facilitate the transition from one world into the other, was the first contact with ‘Into the Woods’. This embodiment of the time-tunnel leading into some sort of cave was a fitting introduction, as one of the aims of the show, according to its press release, was to create a ‘phantasmagoric mental landscape’. Although not overtly claiming to be feminist, ‘Into the Woods’, curated by Daria de Beauvais, a curator working at both the Palais de Tokyo and independently, brought together 11 women artists who use a wide range of media, under the loose umbrella of ‘contemporary romanticism and gloomy Minimalism’.
Most of the artists share a common interest in all things occult: the invisible, initiation or pagan rituals, secret or alternative knowledge, coded signs and symbols. On entering via the corridor you could hear the distant sounds of voices and a piano – a sound piece by Marcelline Delbecq, the first artist in the gallery’s history to use the corridor. Swirl (2008) is conceived as an imaginary trip of a lonesome ice skater through landscapes, night dreams and visions. These mesmerizing sounds slowly collided with the soundtrack of Jessica Warboys’ grainy black and white film Caves of Light (2007). This work perpetuated the eerie feeling as it unravelled, depicting a highly staged scenario in which a woman slowly manipulates life-size sculptures in a mysterious ritual. Although retro in style, it is hard to accurately situate the time period, as the film strangely evokes both European avant-garde movements from the 1920s as well as films from the 1980s.
Hovering overhead was Maria Loboda’s Ancient Art and Ritual (2010), in which branches formed a triangular emblem that seemed to be leftover from a pagan ritual. Bamboo, magnolia and olive – plants of different climates that could never grow side by side – were brought together in an impossible conversation. Invisible powers also seemed to be behind a set of rigid materials meticulously bent and curved so as to perfectly lean in a row against the wall, as if taking a bow, in Alicja Kwade’s Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6) (Different Condition [Aggregate State], 2009). The artist’s choice of copper, mirror and glass is not incidental – they are loaded with symbolic meanings and the suggestions of magic and alchemy.
One of the most interesting contributions to the show was barely perceptible. Discreetly blending in with other works on view, Susan Collis’s Better than Before (2010), Expecting to Fly and So Be It (both 2009) seemed to be the leftovers of a previous exhibition, such as screws on the walls or a broom leaning against a wall, carelessly left behind. Only on close inspection, the screws turned out to be made of white gold and topaz and the broom adorned with black and white diamonds, turquoise and pearls. Another surprise was the work of young French artist Mimosa Echard, who presented a prolific series of miniature ceramic Batman sculptures on plinths (‘Batman’, 2010). This small collection of figures – variations of the same revisited Batman image deprived of his pop-cultural setting – suggested a kind of primitive
fetish object. With humour, Echard gives the iconic Hollywood figure an archaic-primitive touch – retro-futuristic fossilized remains yet to be discovered.
More than a ‘walk in the woods’, ‘Into the Woods’ simulated a journey through suspended time. Its small, coherent and elegant display managed to convey a melancholic atmosphere (albeit reinforced by the buzz beyond the corridor). In any case, Romanticism here seemed to be a method reinvented by the artists to make different genres and time zones live comfortably side-by-side.