Entering its second decade, the Palais de Tokyo reopened this spring after several months of refurbishment that extended its space to a total of 220,000 square feet, making it “the biggest art center in Europe,” as it is being promoted. The museum has also acquired a new director, Jean de Loisy—a former curator at the Centre Pompidou who organized the exhibition “Traces du sacré” in 2008, among other shows.
Through the summer, this new Palais de Tokyo, with its bare-bones renovation by architects Lacaton & Vassal, was occupied by the institution’s third triennial of contemporary art. (The first two editions, both titled “La Force de l’art,” featured French art and were held under the great glass roof of the Grand Palais.) This year, the survey was curated by Munich’s Haus der Kunst director, Okwui Enwezor, assisted by a team of young curators: Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdelah Karroum, Émilie Renard and Claire Staebler. “Intense Proximity” brought together 130 artists representing some 40 countries. Most works were at the Palais de Tokyo, but others appeared at venues in and around Paris.
In light of the West’s increased receptiveness to other cultures over the last three decades or so, Enwezor’s idea was to consider art from an ethnographic standpoint in order to locate the “zones of contact” and “disjunctions” at work in postcolonial societies, which in many respects are like patchworks of communities. We are well aware of the disjunctions in Europe, and especially in France, where the far right received many votes in the last presidential election. Still, “the goal of the critical discourse informing ‘Intense Proximity’ is not to study ways in which contemporary societies can develop a shared space where these communities can live together. The question is more about how to cope with the disjunctions, the density of our ethnocentric processes founded on identity,” writes Enwezor. Ironically, regarding this question of identity, the Parisian triennial was originally created precisely to present the French national art scene, somewhat along the lines of the Whitney Biennial in New York.
The 2012 exhibition began with a few fundamental case studies: for example, drawings and photos made by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the Amazon in the 1930s, and Walker Evans’s “African Negro Art” portfolio. These were juxtaposed with work by more recent artists, among them Michael Buthe (who engaged in dialogues with Africa and the Orient from the early 1970s until his death in 1994) and Chris Ofili (whose paintings here brought to mind Matisse and Gauguin). Soon enough, though, one was distracted by the sheer quantity of works, and baffled by some of the juxtapositions. There was a lack of structure in this show, which was not really on a human scale. Since many of the works here went no further than a “discourse on” something, their documentary appearance generated an irritating uniformity.
But there were several pieces with a serious potential for strangeness that kept them afloat on this sea of propositions. For example, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s video Touching Reality (2012) presents a close-up of the artist’s hand flicking through horrific images of war on an iPad. The photos of French Polynesia from the series “Second Nature” (2011) by South Africa’s Guy Tillim have a venomous beauty. Jewel (2010), a hypnotic video by Hassan Khan (Turkey), shows two men dancing in front of a speaker; the score, written by the artist, was based on Egyptian pop music. In Adel Abdessemed’s video Odradek (2011), a Bacchic trance takes hold of women as they lift woolen veils from their faces, evoking maenads preparing to tear apart the body of Orpheus. Finally, in her mixed-medium video installation from 2012, Wangechi Mutu appears surrounded by slightly creepy hanging baubles, crouching in a forest, swallowing black material (earth? excrement?) in what seems like some kind of voodoo ritual.
Weirdness versus documentary pretty much sums up the conflict that ran through this show, and runs through contemporary art in general. In fact, anyone wishing to further explore the “bewitching” dimension evinced by the handful of works mentioned in this review needed only to cross the Seine to “Les Maîtres du désordre,” an exhibition on the theme of shamanism organized by de Loisy at the Musée du Quai Branly: pure magic.
Photos: (right) View of photographs from Guy Tillim’s series “Second Nature,” 2011. (left) view of Chris Ofili’s Afro Red Web (left), 2002-03, mixed mediums on linen, and Raising of Lazarus (right), 2007, oil and charcoal on linen.