Sunday, January 19, 2014

Robert Wilson - Living Rooms au Louvre

Robert Wilson, Shaker Chair, Living Rooms, 2013

In keeping with their tradition of inviting contemporary artists to engage with and use the works in its collection, the Louvre is currently displaying Robert Wilson – Living Rooms. Wilson, the renowned American Minimalist theatre director, accepted the invitation, turned it on its head, and then inside out. He moved his own art collection into the Louvre instead of working with theirs as every other artist has done. Wilson has organized his belongings in La Salle de la Chapelle, covering the walls from floor to ceiling with artworks, ephemera, masks and totems from native cultures, and memorabilia. In the centre of the space is his bed with a compelling video with Lady Gaga at its foot and a collection of native figurines at its head. All the objects in La Salle de la Chapelle are precisely placed, often being put behind glass and in vitrines in spite of their apparent mundanity.
Robert Wilson, Living Rooms, 2013
While I understand the references to surrealism, most significantly André Breton’s collection of art and ethnographic material, I was unsure of how to approach the display, what to make of it. I wasn’t sure of what I was being asked to look at? Usually, when we see inside someone’s collection of art or trinkets, we gain privileged access to the personality who collects. Or, as is the case with Breton’s collection, unknown, unappreciated objects are given new light, energy and contexts. Alternatively, the collection itself becomes a work of art, as we know so well from Joseph Cornell’s boxes. But at the Louvre, there’s little to learn about Wilson that we don’t already know, and although some of the Alaskan artefacts are interesting, there’s not a consistent or overall lesson, even impression, to be gleaned from their collection by Wilson. As a result, it is fun to see Marlene Dietrich's used shoes on display, or an anonymous photograph of Albert Einstein, but their appeal as curiosities only goes so far.

Marlene Dietrih's Shoes, in Living Rooms, 2013
In two other spaces — Le salon Denon, the heart of the great French paintings of the the 19th century, and la Salle de la Maquette in the subterranean Medieval wing — are a collection of Video Portraits of Lady Gaga. For these works, films Lady Gaga in video performances of Andrea Solario’s The Head of John the Baptist on a Charger, 1507, the Neoclassic painting by Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, and Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, 1793-1807 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Robert Wilson, Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière
by Jean August Dominique Ingres, 2013

Although I am impressed by Wilson’s translation of one medium to another, here painting to video, I was left asking the same questions. What exactly am I looking at? How am I being asked to approach these installations. I kept wondering why these, again very deliberate and precisely framed, images are titled Video Portraits of Lady Gaga? What do they have to do with her? Other than the fact that she is the actor in the image, what role has she played in the production of the video re-enactments?  What does her presence say about France’s heritage in painting?

Robert Wilson, Video Portrait of Lady Gaga as Marat from The Death of Marat by Jaques Louis David, 2013
If there is some comment on or engagement with the images that are re-enacted, Wilson’s use of Lady Gaga is even more disturbing. That Lady Gaga literally becomes the revolutionary in The Death of Marat nonchalantly hanging amid the great works of French painting might be said to turn this heritage into a “celebrity culture,” but I am not sure I agree with Wilson on that score. The transgender performer Lady Gaga turns enigmas that have perplexed art historians for years into camp glamour. I also wonder what Wilson’s re-enactments have to say about video art today? Especially when the videos look as though they were made by Bill Viola, which is to say, there is nothing new or formally innovative in Wilson’s videos.

Ultimately, I was disappointed by Robert Wilson — Living Rooms: it turned out to be a very hedonistic installation on a number of levels. Not only because unlike every other contemporary artist who has been invited to exhibit at the Louvre, Wilson seems to disregard the vast collection of the Museum, preferring his own creations. But also, because other of Wilson’s contributions to the Paris cultural scene this winter were outstanding. It’s no secret that Wilson is an artist who still has the capacity to push the boundaries of theatre in exciting ways. And yet, in his exhibition for the Louvre, in what must be a great honour for a contemporary artist, Wilson neither surprises nor challenges his audience.

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