Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sarkis-Passages, Centre Pompidou

In the latest exhibition to open at the Centre Pompidou, Sarkis plants a work on every level of this vast space. Most of the Sarkis’ installations don't open until April, but three of them opened this week. This scattering of his work across the different exhibition spaces of the Centre Pompidou is innovative, and unsettling to our notions and expectations of a single artist exhibition. And indeed, the burying of his work in the midst of other exhibitions, in spaces that are used for other purposes, is a compelling strategy, precisely because of its novelty. I saw Au commencement 19380 (2001) on my way to the bathroom on level 2 of the Bibliothèque Publique d'Information, and like everyone else, I walked straight past it, thinking to myself – “oh look, they have a new sculpture,” not realizing what it was until I read about the Sarkis exhibition. This kind of integration of art into the everyday life of the multi-purpose cultural playground that is the Centre Pompidou has the potential to disrupt, distract and challenge viewers in exciting ways.

Tonight I went in especially to see Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs. Even though going to see one work of an exhibition that spans all levels and spaces of the Pompidou Center might defeat the purpose of the works’ strategic placement so we stumble upon them, surely going to see one work only still upsets the conventions of gallery going? Exhibitions are designed such that we go from beginning to end following a narrative trajectory laid out by the museum. In this case, it is more like going on an easter egg hunt for the hidden treasures, never really getting an idea of overall cohesion, getting lost on our path, and having no real context for what we are seeing and experiencing. And then, in an extension of this letting go of the rigid structures of reverence for the great artists work — that a single artist exhibition organized in a single space would incite — not only is Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs tucked away in the midst of the vast and unwieldy elles@pompidou exhibition, but the installation of brightly colored felt robes, slippers and shelved pieces of felt functions as an introduction to the mysterious, compelling, and unfathomable work of Joseph Beuys, Plight (1985). While I was taken with the humility of an artist of Sarkis’ stature effectively bowing down in homage to another artist, it was the Beuys work that held me. Despite the brightness of their color and the grandness of the ceremonial felt robes made by Sarkis, his creation paled in comparison to Beuys’ mute, grey understatement.

Plight (1985) is a moving experience indeed. The title of the Sarkis’ installation, Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs, is a direct reference to the multicolors of Beuys' felt rolls. Of course, because of Sarkis’ title, I was drawn to study the millions of colored flecks in the grey felt rolls that line the cave-like room into which we are guided by Sarkis’ overture. And on examination of the grey felt, with the bright colors of Sarkis’ felt objects still in mind, we realize that it is grey felt that carries the mystery of being able to contain every color in the rainbow and its variation. It is not just felt, but grey felt. And, of course, we know from Beuys’ biography that grey felt is indeed mysterious and powerful as it was the material (together with animal fat) that kept him alive when his plane crashed in Russia during WWII.

Very quickly, I realize that being inside Plight is not only a visual experience. It becomes claustrophobic being in that space, surrounded by felt rolls, alone. The silence that results because all sound is absorbed by the felt is so extreme that I begin to hear my ears listening. It doesn’t take long before I begin to feel as though I am in a Joseph Beuys happening, the weight of the silence, the warmth and closeness of the atmosphere wraps tightly around me. And then, just as quickly, the pressure is released when someone else walks in the room. Within seconds, even if I don’t speak to them, their presence starts to affect me. In the middle of what feels like a hermetically sealed cave sits a grand piano, locked shut. The piano, like the felt, is often present in Beuys' works, because he was a pianist. And the presence of the piano is like the felt, a protection, offering a kind of safety, just in the idea of it, even though there is no chance that a sound will be emitted.

Beuys’ world is one where communication is impossible, but nevertheless, its impossibility shows us the force of a different kind of connection with other human beings, one that results from the very essence of our physical existence, together. And although I might not have needed Sarkis to mediate between me and the power and mystery of Beuys’ installation, I came away with an appreciation for the contemporary artist who lead me through the maze of the Centre Pompidou to this unfathomable experience. This may not be the response Sarkis or the Centre Pompidou intended, but it's a response that surely comes from the ceding of control that motivates both the artist and the museum to experiment with strategies of display.

NB. Image above is Les 12 Kiriegsschatz dansent avec le Sacre du Printemps d'Igor Stravinsky (1979-2001). There were no available images of the pieces in Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs

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