Saturday, September 11, 2010

What's New at the Pompidou

Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle, 1962-1965

Georgia and I met for the first of our Friday afternoon art adventures this afternoon. And what better way to begin the new season than with a visit to the Pompidou Centre where much has changed since we were last there. We went to see the ValĂ©rie Jouve’s photographs before they come down on Monday, but after about ten minutes we both realized there must be more engaging art in the other galleries. We ended up strolling through the new hanging of the modern art collection on the fifth floor. For the most part, the works don’t look so different in their new context, but there were a couple of things that had us in awe.
Jasper Johns, Figure 5, 1960

For me the most exciting change, has to be the bringing of Rauschenberg’s Oracle sculptures out of the closet. The five piece interactive sculpture is displayed together with one of my favorite grey paintings in the Pompidou collection: Jasper Johns’ encaustic and newspaper on canvas,  Figure 5 from 1960. On an adjacent wall Richard Stankiewicz Panel, 1955, a collection of rusty metal pieces on a panel joins the conversation. Of course this was the room where I felt most at home. In spite of the ice-cold grey art works, this was the room that I immediately warmed to, but not only because of my fascination with artworks in grey. On entering this room, I was struck by how the three works spoke to each other, each highlighting aspects of the other that might otherwise go unnoticed. The everydayness of the objects, the fact that the sculpted metal pieces might have been found in a junk yard, of no use to anyone other than the eccentric collector, forced me to participate in the quotidian, and the elements of bricolage in Johns’ encaustic. The withering of technology and machines as it is expressed in the sculptures, at an historical moment (the late 1950s/early 1960s) when such technologies are beginning to come into their own, also turns Johns’ Figure 5 into a flat, painterly composition that proudly oversees the aging, corroding objects. For the painting has a certainty and a coherence, within its frame it is contained and complete, by comparison. This had never been my understanding of Figure 5 when it was hung outside in the main hall, as it was until now. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle, 1062-1965 (detail)

Each of the five pieces in Oracle apparently has a hidden radio that at one time the viewer was invited to tune to the station he or she desired. The radio broadcasts came together to create a sound environment, a collage of sounds that spoke to each other, not just to us and to Johns’ painting. When it was first assembled — the car door, ventilation duct, a window, a stairway and a water trough all on wheels — the interactive assemblage had a life of its own: able to move, to be heard, manipulated by the visitor, unexpectedly and unpredictably changing the space of the museum at any given moment. Such was for Rauschenberg the impact of these technologies on our everyday lives. Of course, the objects in Rauschenberg’s dynamic sculptural environment were no longer everyday once he exhibited them; they were clearly and carefully engineered for his sophisticated claims about life in a machine age, when machines no longer function as was their manufacturers’ intention.

And despite the dynamism and interactivity of Oracle in its conception and early installations, today in the Centre Pompidou, the piece is static, silent and visual only. It sits in the centre of the room, the visitor kept at a distance by the museum’s security measures. Oracle thus somehow loses its motion in time, becoming a testimony to a moment in the past when artists such as Rauschenberg insisted on bringing art to the public, an era when art created from the objects and phenomena in our midst were made to be integrated into our experience of the world. And then when Oracle reflects back at the aesthetic of Johns’ Figure 5, even that once living, breathing encaustic interacting with scraps of newspaper is also brought to a halt, and becomes fixed within its frame. 

And so the conversation between these works might be set in motion to illuminate and animate each other, but their conversation is also in the past tense. Perhaps I expect too much when I want to be included in that conversation? Afterall, I live in an age when scrap metal and other found objects are deified as art, when the artwork as an oracle of my own everyday world is a thing of the past

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