Monday, October 12, 2009
Unleashing Phantoms at the Louvre. Robyn Orlin's Babysitting Little Louis
Readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of the Louvre. It must be my favorite place in Paris, I love everything about it - its architecture, the collection, the activities, exhibitions, and there’s nothing better to do on a Friday night than visit my favorite paintings which, because they don’t appear on the “highlights of the collection” guide for visitors, always silently awaiting my arrival. One of the things I have always admired about the Louvre is its awareness of the necessity to keep the collection alive. While other museums might be happy to let their Roman antiquities, Egyptian relics, medieval paintings, and old masters rest on their historical reputation , not the Louvre. Not only does the Louvre invite young artists to create works that converse with the collection, it purchases and commissions contemporary works - see the installation of the Anselm Kiefer pieces in Richelieu. I have also had the joy of being educated by young art students in one-on-one presentations to visitors about otherwise obscure works they have studied. These and other events ensure ongoing interest in the Louvre’s extraordinary collection, and bring to life works I would probably have otherwise walked straight past.
So while I am not surprised that the Louvre invited a figure such as Robyn Orlin into the museum to unleash her creative vision, I am nevertheless impressed that this stalwart of French heritage and culture embraced Orlin’s lashing critique of its whole raison d’être. Babysitting Little Louis is swashbuckling fun from beginning to end. The title of the piece refers to a minature of François Girardon’ 1692 statue of Louis XIV which sits in the Puget courtyard with other impressive, but noticeably bigger, bronze and marble statues. Like the bigger, more sturdy, pieces in the Puget, the tiny bronze sculpture sits in the open air (as opposed to encased in glass) to avoid oxidation. And so, little Louis is very vulnerable, and needs to be “babysat” by the guards to protect him from the temptation of wandering hands. This is explained to us in song by the 8 security guards on the first stop of a “guided tour” they will lead us on over the next two hours. Immediately, the colonial and racial politics of little Louis’ power are the focus of the show. We hear of Louis’ nightmare — as we watch black African women in fantastic dress writhing on the opposite balcony. As we all stood around, a six foot plus African guard approached a group of us, to tell a story of how when he was a young boy in Africa he met a man with no head. A story that was brought to resolution when the man came to Paris as an adult and found the head on display in the Louvre! Clearly, the other guards of various racial origins were telling similarly frightening stories of Louis XIV’s colonial rule.
Towards the end of the performance an English tourist (one of the handful of professional dancers and actors used by Orlin), goes to Africa. While the audience sits and stands huddled in between headless African statues and oriental antiquities, the man plays Louis in Africa: he recounts in a broad British accent such exciting events as his lunch with Nelson Mandela, who when he arrived was having tea with Madonna. Carrying an “Out of Africa” shopping bag, at one and the same time, a typical tourist and a slanderer of French Imperial oppression, the man had me in hysterical laughter. Sadly, for a non-English speaker, the French translation did not capture the trysts and asides that held the most humorous, and cutting, remarks.
There were many other wonderful moments as we went around the museum: one highlight was when a guard entered into a conversation with deeply reflective statue that mimicked a therapy session. “I know you are depressed, but many people would do anything to be in your place surrounded by treasures;” “you want to be like Michael Jackson, dying, and have all these people come to mourn you.” And on she went; it was brilliant.
Mention must be made of the extraordinary guards who performed the piece. Apparently Orlin talked to guards, watched them in their work and eventually selected eight enthusiastic security guards for Babysitting Little Louis. Orlin invited them to make a film of their favorite work in the museum. At one point on our tour, everything stopped, the guards opened their jackets and projected their films on the inside. So we all crouched down and watched intently at the amateur images. While the technology of projection onto jackets, and sculptures in the midst was probably more interesting than the films themselves, the point was made with conviction. Guards in a museum are not simply someone to ask for directions to the toilet and the exit. As much as the piece was a scathing critique of the history of French culture and its acquisition, it also gave voice to an otherwise silenced group: the museum guard. The eight guards who performed in Babysitting Little Louis, not only showed their creativity through singing, dancing, filmmaking and performance, but the piece was an opportunity for their articulation of the depth of their engagement with the works they survey. The greatest tribute to them was that I didn’t know if they were actual guards from the museum or actors until I got home and read the program. Ultimately, it was the guards, and their continual interaction with the audience and statues alike, that shattered our preconceptions of what we do and who we are in a museum: that we should observe silence, or that guards (like Africans) have no opinion on culture or their own oppression within cultural structures, and so on.
It is true that as we walked around, following the guards on their journey through the Louvre, there were times when chaos reigned. There were times when I wondered what I was meant to be looking at, times when I couldn’t see, and times when there was so much going on that I didn’t know where I was supposed to be. Our movement through the space, and the conception of the piece itself, were at times too ambitious, resulting in incoherence. However, there was much to make the night fun and memorable. In addition to the innovation of the whole spectacle there was the pleasure of being in a French audience. While the French are usually reluctant to laugh out loud, I did catch a few having a chuckle at this relentlessly entertaining, and simultaneously, searingly critical “night at the museum.” That in itself really speaks for Orlin’s performance: getting the French to laugh at the principles that underlie the history and culture on which they have built their very national identity. And this, within the walls of their most revered cultural institution no less. This alone makes Babysitting Little Louis quite an achievement for Orlin. And in its embrace of an opportunity to see itself and its collection from an innovative (and not so flattering) perspective, Babysitting Little Louis has me even more in admiration of the Louvre.