Zurich Few contemporary works grab you by the lapels and talk to you as insistently as those of Société Réaliste. The Paris-based duo of Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Naudy, who have been working in tandem since 2004, titled this exhibition “Archiscriptions,” suggesting a show focused on meetings of architecture and text. And so it began with the video The Fountainhead (2010, all other works 2011), a silent, digitally manipulated version of the 1949 film of Ayn Rand’s eponymous novel, with all the actors erased from the scenes. The absence foregrounds the dense, soaring metropolis of New York and the bluff brutality of the buildings designed by the film’s architect protagonist. Hung adjacent to the video was Commonscript, a grid of 24 stills taken from the doctored film and 24 quotations from its protagonist transposed from his first-person perspective into the third-person plural, the forthright statements making the emptiness all the more eerie. “They will have no choice but to submit or to rule,” one asserts, “they will choose to rule.” Is this prophesy about architects or tyrants?
After Rand’s deterministic lines, the viewer encountered a flood of other references, ancient and modern, dealing with the question of whether architecture and urban planning are responsive or formative acts. Signs and typography are Société Réaliste’s weapons of choice, and the space was chock-full of lightboxes and enameled metal plates with cross-pollinating symbols and slogans. Standing apart were the approximately 4-foot-tall, glossy black sculptures Zero Euro and Infinite Dollar, in each of which the currency sign is modified so that it becomes a loop reminiscent of the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol consisting of a snake or dragon eating its own tail.
With two other sculptures in metal, the artists align two architect-planned cities: Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier and serving as the monument to a modern, independent India; and Birobidzhan, designed by Le Corbusier opponent Hannes Meyer and serving as the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast established by Stalin in 1932. Société Réaliste’s Archiscription is a re-creation of Chandigarh’s Open Hand monument, with the city’s urban plan embossed on either side, while A Gift From Birobidzhan is a fake manhole cover whose surface is cast with the city’s name in English, Hebrew and Russian and the extended city plan for settlements of Jewish people that never materialized. While Chandigarh is currently being stripped for its parts—with elements of its urban fabric (lighting, civic furnishings, architectural drawings and carvings, and indeed manhole covers) being hocked at distant auction houses—Birobidzhan was the whim of a fickle totalitarian, a utopia that never could live up to the propaganda.
This dense exhibition went well beyond its nominal architectural and textual focus, encompassing currency, institutions and manifestations of power, movements of people and the politics of construction as much as the construction of politics. Seen through the gallery’s ample windows, in a city dominated by finance, Infinite Dollar and Zero Euro pulled in passersby, but the sculptures’ graphic immediacy belies the complexity of the collective’s oeuvre. Société Réaliste creates contemporary works that respond to a historic continuum of ambition, folly and empire.
Photo: Société Réaliste: The Fountainhead, 2010, video, approx. 2 hours; at Anne Mosseri-Marlio.