Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Niki de Saint Phalle, Grand Palais

Niki de Saint Phalle, Exhibition View @ Grand Palais
All I really knew of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work before going to the Grand Palais last night was the fountain installation on the south plaza of the Pompidou Centre. Given the apparent frivolity of the fountain, I was surprised by the complexity and boldness that I discovered in her work on exhibition, especially given that it was made prior to the waves of 1970s feminism. Similarly, I was surprised by the fact that the work still holds its conceptual challenges all these years later. In many ways, I discovered a conceptual artist as opposed to the visual artist I was expecting.

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Niki de Saint Phalle, Une Nana
At the same time however, and this is her innovation, there was much joy and celebration in the sculptures especially. So much of the feminist art of this first generation is angry (and there’s good reason why) confrontational, loud and vociferous. Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is all of that, but it has another layer which she very consciously crafts: the beautiful. The Tir works are exemplary and extraordinary in this sense. Carefully sculpted pieces, adorned with, among other objects, bags of coloured paint, then covered by plaster surface are fired at from a distance. Saint Phalle aims where she knows the bags of coloured paint to be and what results are works most striking for their coloured tears of paint. The many layers of each piece create a complex narrative of violence, creativity, anger and grief. What is fired at is always as important as Saint Phalle’s performance of shooting. Her targets are the art world, centuries of art, culture, history, the United States government, her father, Kennedy and Khruschev. Just the apparently simple act of this petite, former model holding a gun cocked to fire speaks the empowerment of women to take a stance against the injustices in a world created by men, the same world that lies within the frame of her target.

Nike de Saint Phalle, Tir
I also loved seeing all the men going around, equally delighted by the joy and celebration of woman and women in Saint Phalle’s sculptures, clearly moved by her power as a woman with a voice. As babies are born and brides left faceless and abandoned, women strangled and suffocated, their bodies distorted, their clothes covered in hatchets and meat cleavers, toy guns and limbs of baby dolls, the men visiting the exhibition seemed to be as held by the sculptures as their girlfriends. However, I did wonder if they were equally confronted and outraged as I was by these disturbing sculptures of oversized women defined by marriage and childbirth gone wrong. Even as the oversized nanas, all bosoms and butts, danced and stood in their power, I wondered if all the visitors were as enraged and excited by a grotesquerie that also defines their power as I was? Black women and white, small and large, all of them distorted were refreshing and inspiring as I remember how many artists in this wave of feminism still to come, fought patriarchy with their perfect bodies. It is indeed, the contradictions of Saint Phalle’s women that make them both accessible and enjoyable as well as frightening and critically outspoken.

Sadly, I am not so convinced that the story has changed so much today, and I kept thinking how relevant everything Saint Phalle says is for today’s audience. I wish we had such an artist in our generation encouraging women to take ownership of the public sphere like she did. If there are strains of Saint Phalle’s ideas that are now old, it’s only because today the issues have migrated and a different language is used to articulate them. It’s these commonalities between then and now, I believe, that ensures the sculptures retain their force.

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