Traces of the Sacred

June 11, 2008 at 12:01 am | Posted in art | 4 Comments
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Looking over my reviews of the last few exhibits I’ve been to, I see a theme emerge. What I’ve really been into, recently, is art that embraces the anti-rational, the emotional, the transcendent — nothing too cerebral or easily defined. So it’s no big surprise that I fell wholly in love with Traces du Sacré, the big exhibit currently at Beaubourg.

traces du sacré

How much did I love it? All told, I spent about seven hours there, spread out over three visits, and if I hadn’t been leaving town, I probably would have gone back again.

The purpose of Traces du Sacré is to assemble works by artists engaged in a search for something beyond mundane, material existence. Over the long history of art, artists have often been charged with representing spiritual themes; in the past, this generally meant producing overtly religious works, but in the 20th century, when organized, mainstream religion lost its sway over artists and intellectuals, people didn’t give up on the idea of the sacred entirely — they just found new ways to explore the basic human urge toward transcendence.

The exhibit is organized thematically, with a focus on the different approaches artists of various kinds took toward the problem. There’s a section on psychedelia, complete with day-glo swirlies under ultra-violet light, and a section on Freudian psychology — another non-religious way of examining the invisible landscape of the psyche. One of my favorite rooms emphasized the new occult/religious movements that grew up around the turn of the last century in an attempt to reinvent faith without the baggage of archaic religious institutions. It was surprising how many artists — Mondrian, Duchamp — dabbled in new age ideology before settling into their better known incarnations.

It’s a huge exhibit with some 350 works in various different media. Some were goofy or hadn’t aged well — Thelemites wandering around Egypt to a soundtrack by Jimmy Page, for example — but others, like Rothko, Francis Bacon, or a film clip by F.W. Murnau impressed with their ability to capture the resonance of the sublime and the supernatural within a secular framework.

Traces du Sacré
until August 11 200
Centre Pompidou

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A Long Way from Itsy Bitsy

April 14, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Posted in art, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Spider

Why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother, and she was as intelligent, patient, clean and useful, reasonable, indispensable as a spider. -Louise Bourgeois

Sure. And the spider/mother is definitely not supposed to be creepy, threatening, or controlling in any way, with its looming body and its spiky feet. Or perhaps Louise Bourgeois is not an artist to be taken entirely at her word. Consider, for example, that in a room filled with bulbous, organic, sensual shapes, Bourgeois is quoted thusly: “These are clouds, a formation of clouds. Me, I don’t see any sexual connotations in them.” Hmmm.

Such were my thoughts upon attending the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at Beaubourg. I can’t say I came away believing that she is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but there were certainly some strange, even disturbing pieces. As with many retrospectives, unless you are a hopeless devotee, I would advise you to hurry through the first few rooms of the exhibit — Bourgeois’s early works struck me as mostly uninspired and derivative, and infused with an irritating literalism (see the “house wife” series, where the artist depicts herself as trapped by cage-like houses).

Her works from the 80s onward, on the other hand, were a lot more compelling. I particularly liked her “Cells” — a series of installations that have a definite element of psychological spookiness. The two largest are made up of wooden doors, arranged in a circle to act as walls, and adorned with signs that read “Fermez la porte, SVP” and “Private”. In chinks and hinges, the viewer can peer inside these little rooms, decorated with strange red objects and representing the realm of the parent and realm of the child, and implying the dark secrets these two have from each other.

The rest of the exhibit was mostly devoted to Bourgeois’s grotesque fabric sculptures, like Seven in a Bed, in which seven pink bodies with ten heads among them seem to be maybe embracing, maybe cannibalizing each other. (See this and other works here.) I have to say, images like that can make you wonder if Bourgeois was quite as innocent as her words insist.

Louise Bourgeois
until June 2nd
Centre Pompidou

Annette Messager

September 18, 2007 at 9:02 pm | Posted in art | Comments Off on Annette Messager
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Yesterday I saw this terrific Annette Messager exhibit at Pompidou.

Titties

This was actually not my favorite piece, but it was pretty much the only thing that was legal to photograph. The stuff I loved included loads of disembowled stuffed animals, a case of dead birds, each with a tiny knitted sweater or booties, an incredible room filled with giant, inflatable, pastel-colored body parts (hands, eyes, lips, but also internal organs) that slowly and rhythmically inflated and deflated… I could have sat and watched that for hours. But the piece de resistence was a large room filled with a giant silk cloth, buffeted by air currents being piped up from below. And underneath the cloth were barely visible assortments of children’s toys, body parts, fluoresent tubes… and there was an intense, Bergman-like clock presiding over the whole thing. These images don’t even begin to do it justice.

I gather that she’s married to Christian Boltanski, and I’d never heard of her before — but while I’ve always found his pieces a little dull and self-involved, I was really impressed by her exhibit. It seemed like a great example of how contemporary art can be feminist without necessarily being obvious, hyperpolitical, or shocking/disgusting. Reminded me of some Dorothea Tanning stuff I’ve liked in the past — creepy and unsettling, operating on a very unconscious level.

This youtube film gives some idea of the first piece, at least.

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