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The Palais de Tokyo.

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The premise of the exhibition (citing the curatorial statement) was to “bring together eighteen artists whose works also read as instruction manuals on how to withdraw into seclusion and take refuge in the limits of the visible.” Despite the portentousness of these remarks the show was consistently hilarious.

Chasing Napoleon
Curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler.

October 2009 - 17 January 2010.

Recently I was wandering through the unseasonably warm streets of Paris (it was late November), while indoors a marked chill was evident among its public art institutions - many of them preparing for strikes in response to the cultural policies promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government. Such developments included both the threat of significant job losses and funding cuts, as museums have been urged from above to “do more with less.” The Pompidou Center was the first to close, and remained so for over three weeks, until a sort of holiday cease-fire of their labor dispute occurred just before Christmas. (Even the Louvre - that is to say, the formidable cultural repository that even those who loathe museums make uncharacteristic efforts to attend—closed its doors for a time.)

Thus after staring pointlessly at the darkened Beaubourg, I considered my other options. The ever-so-chic Fondation Cartier was hosting a retrospective of graffiti art, but to my mind the only thing potentially drearier than street art on the street is street art in the museum. So I proceeded on to various commercial galleries, most of them offering high-end tedium as usual, with two notable exceptions: large-scale photo reliefs by the venerable John Baldessari at Marian Goodman and the captivating installations and videos of Su-Mei Tse at Serge Le Borgne.

Finally I found myself amidst the architectural double-whammy of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Palais de Tokyo. The former hosts an exhaustive and largely turgid permanent collection of the mid-20th-Century French artists whose works one hopes never to see let alone remember, and a worthwhile but oddly selected temporary exhibition of last works by contemporary artists, called Deadline, highlights being Felix Gonzalez-Torres (yet again), Absalon, Jörg Immendorf, Chen Zhen, Willem De Kooning, and the vivid and underrated photographs of Hannah Villiger.

But far more convincing was Chasing Napoleon, a snappy group show at the Palais de Tokyo curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler. The premise of the exhibition (citing the curatorial statement) was to “bring together eighteen artists whose works also read as instruction manuals on how to withdraw into seclusion and take refuge in the limits of the visible.” Despite the portentousness of these remarks the show was consistently hilarious. I must admit that as a guileless American I am a prime target for conspiracy theories, especially having been at work on that particular day pondering both Gallic governmental machinations and the exact number of times I’d overheard Thriller since June.

While literary references from Henry David Thoreau to Don DeLillo were used to contextualize the exhibition, it is the darker iconic persona of Theodore Kaczynski (a.k.a. “The Unabomber”) that took pride of place, in the form of a recreation of his cabin by Robert Kusmirowski, and a reconstitution of his library by Dora Winter. Much like a tabloid journalism/reality TV fix for art geeks, I enjoyed the version of Saddam Hussein’s Spider Hole by Christoph Büchel or Tony Matelli’s Fuck it, Free Yourself!, in which 500 Euro notes stayed alight perpetually. Tom Friedman’s Untitled (a [witch’s] curse), its appearance otherwise indistinguishable from an empty plinth, was scoffed at by a passing couple, eyebrows raised, thoroughly unamused. Meanwhile Ryan Gander’s darkened room installation Nathaniel Knows, featuring both a rough hole burrowed through the exterior wall of the gallery and a ventilation grill, was intended to reference his earlier pieces - but I didn’t care, it was enjoyable all the same.

The more historic components threaded through the exhibition consisted of Dieter Roth’s endless series of slides (purportedly 33,000 images) depicting vernacular architecture in Reykjavik; Paul Laffoley’s simultaneously lurid and schematic paintings mapping the Counterculture; and a nice transatlantic mirroring of Minimalisms: one of Tony Smith’s imposing black geometric sculptures placed alongside Charlotte Posenenske’s galvanized airshafts and ducts. I’d also rank Robert Gober’s sublime pewter Drain, which in a manner of speaking, emptied out the space in-between.

Chasing Napoleon conveyed that particular mixture of perverse fascination and intellectual condescension that characterizes so many European attempts to excavate American mythologies. Though it didn’t avoid this near-inevitable cultural clash, the exhibition itself survived on its considerable curatorial merits. However tendentious its pseudo-argumentation, this altogether elegant display of lively intergenerational approaches was more than effective, combating the more common conspiracy of dull and retrograde artifacts proffered up as if somehow essential and innovative.

[Depicted works, in ascending order, are by Robert Kusmiroski and Dora Winter, Tony Matelli, Charlotte Posenenske, Christoph Büchel, Ryan Gander, Tom Friedman, and Paul Laffoley.]

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