Tyre tracks in black paint

Soulages :: Centre Pompidou :: Paris :: 14 October 2009 – 8 March 2010

The Centre Pompidou presents a retrospective of the work of one of major players in the post-war abstract movement, Pierre Soulages. The exposition spans 60 years of activity, with more than 100 works on display, all set-up with the help of Soulages himself. The latter is important for an artist who dedicated his life to the analysis of light bouncing off black canvas. This black light, or outrenoir (“other-black”) as he calls it, varies greatly with your position in relation to the work. A quick search on Google will show you some his paintings, should you not already know them, but you might as well know that they are quite meaningless on a screen. To experience Soulages’ work, it is essential to face the work yourself. If you give them the chance to speak to you,  which they may or may not do, you will find out whether or not it means anything to you at all. Or have had the chance to experience first hand a major contemporary artist.

As you walk around the exposition, you will initially see works resembling graphical-design abstract characters painted in thick strokes of black paint. The canvas material is still visible through the paint, reminding the viewer of the reality of the work as an object. As Soulages’ interest seems to be more and more focussed on the colour and its intuitively-contradictory capacity to reflect light, the character-type forms are slowly replaced by more abstract structure of vertical and horizontal lines. There is a 1984 wallpaper-effect painting, created through an image of black homogeneous wood, cut up with a horizontally structured vertical lines. It is all black, but the reflection suggests an abstract version of trees in a forest which light up in an illusionary lighter grey. The effect comes out perhaps even better in a 1997 bamboo-ish painting in black with the thick vertical strokes conjuring up the image of a mangrove in glowing blue in the night.

In the heart of the exposition, it is these dark textured paintings which dominate. There are wide strokes of paint which at times (as in the 2007 work) are so thickly put on that the painter managed to carve into it, giving it a 3D effect. As you move around the paintings, the light bounces off different parts of the work, changing the image. In effect, the space around you is also being changed, as you move.

As the lighting is so important to the experience of the works, you might be surprised to hear that the exposition’s lighting is a common museum mixture of spotlight and white ambient lighting. You may also be surprised to hear that the walls and floors are plain white too. In a lot of his work, Soulages emphasized the black he used by contrasting it with a white -or sometimes a yellowish or other- hue. I can not help but wonder why he did not go that one step further to darken the walls and the floors and paint directly on to the wall to maximize the effect. Soulage does break the mould with a step over into a black on black room (1990 onwards), which shows three of his paintings in a black room with ambient style lighting from behind. The emphasis is on the lined texture. It is abstract without the letter-type motifs, giving that grey-tone effect despite being pure black.

For an artist who has been so fascinated with blackness and light, it is surprising that his work did not take a more object or experience orientated turn. The black-on-black room still had one white wall and featured real paintings. It seems but a step in the direction of “experience art”, where the artist gives the visitor an ephemeral aesthetic experience. Why not go all the way? After all, light is an ephemeral experience. The same feeling returned with the lighting, when we move around to see the light reflect off the paintings, why not allow for a room with changing light or even allow for an audience to manipulate the light or a movement of the work itself? Or is this all a little too playful for such a serious colour? Monochrome (or nearly monochrome) does, after all, command respect. Or perhaps even black could just, you know, lighten up a bit.

http://www.centrepompidou.fr / http://www.pierre-soulages.com


Planète Parr


Parrworld: the Collection of Martin Parr

Martin Parr (Curator: Thomas Weski) :: Exposition :: Jeu de Paume, Paris :: 20/06 to 27/09/2009

The Jeu de Paume groups together photographs and collected miscellaneous articles by the prolific British Magnum photographer Martin Parr. Besides the humorous time-stamped (mostly) kitsch miscellany of Saddam Hussein watches and postcards of highways, his own collection also groups together photos of both well-known and unknown photographers which inspire him. Of his own work, we are presented with three series: One on luxury (“Luxury”), one on tourism (“Small World”) and finally an urban portrait series of the UK made in conjunction with the British newspaper The Guardian.


In the section on Luxury, Martin Parr looks at the wealthy over the last 5 years “showing their wealth”, as he puts it. The pictures have been taken at horse races in Durban, Ascot, Longchamps and Dubai, and at a Millionaires’ fair in Moscow and surprisingly enough at the Oktoberfest in Munich. He sees his pictures as a record of a period of rapid growth before the current credit crisis set in. He talks of wealth as a global phenomena, yet you can clearly see the differences between the pictures he presents. Sometimes ‘luxury’ seems to be little more than a brand name, at other times it is a market, at other times it is elegance and again at other times just a state people find themselves in.

Let us take a look at two of them. The exhibition’s poster, taken from a picture in this series (from the Moscow Fashion week) shows a young woman wearing a colorful body-warmer, with an air of contented and fascinated greed. This light andhappy obsession, strikes a completely different chord to an unflattering one taken at a charity event in the USA (here), where we see opulently dressed guests being fed food on sticks. Because of their dark sunglasses, it is almost as if they are being fed blindfolded, as we see the hand on the left already handing them another helping, as if the food is being shoveled into them. This gives us a more cannibalistic image of wealth, and one far removed from the fascination of the young fashion victim at the fair, even if, in the same series, they could be seen as follow-up events…

Small World

Parr by dorsserAs you walk through the gardens of the Tuilleries in summer, with the thousands of tourists around you, Matin Parr offers you a critical and humorous glimpse of the very industry which brings all those people there: tourism. This is an industry built around selling experiences. To lift out two images, consider the funny and quite formal picture of someone taking a picture of a row of tulips (at the Netherlands?) wearing a red-yellow-blue coat which matches the colours of the flowers in the picture he is taking.

The lightness of the picture could not contrast more with the one taken out of a moving jeep out in the African bush, with a group of children running after them. On close inspection, we see a worrying determination in the eyes of the children running after the jeep. Then we notice the somewhat scared little white girl looking down at them, wearing an Egyptian souvenir T-shirt. If we sense some tension in the air already, then our prejudice is confirmed when we see that there is a man standing on the back of the jeep, in what looks like a military shirt. We can suppose that we are witnessing tourists touring a war-torn or impoverished nation being escorted through the zone. To finish off our feeling of discomfort, we see the man on the left take a picture of the running children, reminding you that the photographer himself is also on that jeep taking the picture of the running children, passively using the lives (or distress) of others as a source of his livelihood. A very uncomfortable thought.

If you happen to pass by the Concorde with little time, take in the “Small World” pictures which are shown in the open air. Seeing the critical and funny images of perhaps the worlds biggest industry and one which both surrounds us and in which we partake, is unique. If you have a little more time, go on in to see the rest of the collection – it’s a unique opportunity.

http://www.martinparr.com // www.jeudepaume.org

Terre Natale, Ailleurs commence ici


Exposition :: Raymond Depardon, Paul Virilio :: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain :: Paris :: 2009 :: Expected to close on March 15, 2009

Raymond Depardon is a well known French photographer who does not shy away from documentaries and moving images. This exposition is about film, with human displacement the theme. When we walk in, we are shown a film, Donner la parole, which starts with the inverse: people talk who are firmly rooted in their country and language. We hear, amongst others, from Yanomani’s in Brazil, the Kawesqar in Chile and a Breton in France. They talk to us in their native tongue about their attachment to their land. Threats to their way of life come in different forms, from environmental (rising sea levels, pollution, deforestation) to socio-political issues with jobs or minority protection. Some of them are fearful of the future and others just angry. Watching them on this enormous screen in front of you makes you wonder what you, or they, can do to protect themselves. It will not be easy in this ever globalising world with issues which stretch out to every corner.

But the lesson in human responsibility is not over. In the next room, we get to see film images of a tour of the world in 14 days with 7 stops. Although it is unfortunately without the ambient sounds, which would have added a little more exoticism to the images, we get to see some perceptive photography mixed into the banal of the day-to-day lives of people around the world. The film is both superfluous and harmonising as a vision. The power of the film is not quite a strong as his pictures independently, as one can see them in his book. There is, however, a direct point with the follow-up of the exhibition: what Paul Virilio set up downstairs.

An empty space with monitors hanging from the ceiling showing images of world news, at times jumping from one screen to another, at times in union. Behind us we hear the voice of Virilio theorising about the forming ways of life in the world’s urban centres, as nomads skip about from one physical location to another with their lives mostly in a virtual realm. The cliché jet-set as the pioneers of a new society clashes with the images of refugees running from hunger and war on the screens, helping you realise the difficulty of prediction in the real world. But there is help. Mapping out the world’s issues makes it easier to deal with them, and in this world of excess data, actually using it, is surprisingly difficult. Paul Virilio makes a great attempt.

Seated on the floor in the next room, with a screen which encircles you for three quarters of the way, you are injected with an overkill of global statistics. What makes it interesting, is the novel presentation form, which even modestly could be described as an orgy of visual effects. The presentation opens with a representation of the passage of the half the world’s population from the rural areas to the urban, and where these cities are. We get to see  an overview of recent human migrations, mostly out of hotspots (war, famine) which look like invading armies moving around the world. You can not help but feel a doom loom over us.

Having shown which countries managed to attract the most immigrants, as flags, the video adds little flags below each large one to show the remittances when are sent back by the migrants to their home countries. Of course money is only part of the reason why people move anywhere, with a war raging (as is often the case with mass displacements), your top priority is safety. But to illustrate the migratory reality, Virilio plays around with the remittance concept. For France you will see, for example, the amount of money Moroccan immigrants send back home. After that, the little flags are shifted along, and you can see how much the Moroccans in The Netherlands have sent back home, and so forth with the money carrousel. Although it is hard to estimate how much money actually flows back into your country from those that leave, you are none the less given an idea. But, as mentioned, it is more an idea of contemporary migrational levels  rather than economics.


Migration naturally increases with wars, famine and environmental factors when people flee. Wars can not really be predicted, but the presentation does an elabourate job of showing natural catastrophes around the globe and the future rising water levels due to climate change. This is taken on into the future, predicting the number of (coastal) cities which will be submerged provoking a mass exodus. Very upsetting, of course, but without explanation is this not just alarmist and one-sided?

And what is the point of all this in an art gallery? Statistics should be under the scrutiny of economists and social scientists and evaluated by theorists and politicians. For many people there is a large gap between our idea of our world and the reality, not in the least with an issue as tangible as migration. There has always been a lot of displacement and migration, just look at your own families, and is not a reason for panic. Rising water levels, on the other hand, and the consequences which can flow from that…

As far as art is concerned, the animations are impressive, to say the least. This is clearly the way forward of dealing with mass information aimed at a mass audience. But we should also be careful, as it is manipulative by virtue of its speed, not allowing you to critically evaluated what you are being fed. And that, even assuming that you have some kind of background knowledge you can test it to. Terre Natale asks questions in a somewhat paranoid way, but see it for what it is worth: the future of statistical presentation and an extension of your understanding of our diverse planet.


NB There is a beautiful, related, project out there, for those who have a thing for statistics, in the Gapminder, which gives a thrilling image of human development.


Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain

261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris