Intense Proximity, Paris Triennale

Published in the December 2012 issue of Sculpture Magazine, www.sculpture.org

Okwui Enwezor‘s Intense Proximy is not the Paris Triennale of yesteryear.  This overly large and ambitious exhibition at the new Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is a post-identity post-national triennale, with its point of departure being the proximity of contemporary artists the world over, who share a common visual language and have similar preoccupations with the complexities of the globalized world in which we live.  Globalization has indeed brought us closer together, but it has also had an intensely destructive impact on local communities and their way of life.  Nothing demonstrates this reality more than anthropology and ethnography, both of which have such a rich and important tradition in France, dating back to Marcel Griaule and Claude Levi-Strauss, both of whose works are included in the exhibition.  Through the act of researching and learning, the observer alters and restructures the culture that he/she is documenting.  And this dance of cultural creation and destruction that we euphemistically call exchange is visible not only in the extreme cases of ethnographic contact, but in all societies where cultures have collided – so intensely experienced in recent years in Europe where immigration is the main topic of every discussion, particularly when trying to explain national identity (the intense proximity among different peoples living together).  But despite the veneer of heavy identity politics discourse so reminiscent of shows in the 90s, Intense Proximity is more relevant in Europe now, as the Old World struggles to understand what happens when “the distance between the Self and the Other, between us and them, has collapsed?”

The exhibition integrates ethnographic documentation in the form of film and photography from the beginning of the 20th century with projects undertaken by contemporary artists who, among other subjects, also explore the duality of ethnographic impact, and thus offer the viewers a perspective of how we construct our understanding of the Other.  The exhibition is loosely divided into three main themes.

The most clear example of the construction of understanding is the video installation The Fourth Wall by German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer projected in the dark and cavernous depths of the unfinished Palais where the daylight doesn’t shine and the sun’s warmth doesn’t reach.  The video presents the incredible and unlikely story of the Tasarday, a tribe that had been living in complete isolation in the jungle of the Philippines until 1971, when an apparent first-contact was made and this footage was shot by the few who were allowed on the expedition, the project reveals the illusory nature of authenticity and ultimately identity.  The reality of what was considered a “first-contact” was put into question a decade or so later when it was discovered that their lifestyle changed so dramatically despite little documented contact during this time that their initial isolation must have been a hoax.

Based on the display, the main part of the exhibition, which was treated as an official museum show with the building construction carefully obscured by beautiful white exhibition walls, seems to be the upstairs.  As we enter the Palais we are greeted by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s monumental wall drawing with the phrase Fear Eats Your Soul, a quote from Fassbender’s film: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and a clearguide for how to understand the exhibition.

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On this first floor a few sculptural installations stand out: Meschac Gaba’s Marriage Room, Museum of Contemporary African Art, featuring photographs of the artist’s African marriage to a white Dutch wife and a collection of objects that scientifically documents this ceremony, much as an ethnographer would do to a marriage rite of an unknown culture; Monica Bonvicini’s Deflated, a cube made of mirrors on top of which sits a trapezoidal figure made of steel chain engages the audience in the work and brings up questions of self-identity as only the legs are reflected; Camille Henrot’s Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and like Flowers? is a whimsical and engaging work that uses the Japanese art of Ikebana, or plant arrangement, to give plant form to the world’s most famous revolutionary books, thus Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is composed of roses, the archetypal bourgeois flower of English gardens; and David Hammons’s Stone with Hair, which besides being self describing, is also a poetic objet reminiscent both of ethnographic pieces and of a Dadaist work, and reflects on western perception and imagination of Africans and African-Americans.

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The next floor of the exhibition is rawer and more confused.  There are installation pieces that belong to the Palais’s own opening launch, which share the same space as the work included in the triennale and somewhat diffuse the impact.  But this notwithstanding, Annette Messager’s spectacular Motion/Emotion invigorates the senses as various hanging compositions, such as clothes, pieces of fabric, bags, wigs, etc., are animated by fans from underneath, which create a state of constant motion and activity; Dan Perjovschi’s large-scale window drawings that appear to be floating in space and peering down at us offer humorous and profound insights into local and global political issues as seen by an outsider’s eye, but also serve to connect the rough interior in an innovative way with the exterior and surrounding space; Batoul S’Himi’s The World Under Pressure, a multitude of gas canisters with the cut-outs of maps of various parts of the world, clearly revealing the areas that are undergoing the most difficulty, but also alluding to labor issues as an integral part of the concept; Nina Cannell’s contribution blurs the line between materiality and science experiment, with one work that increases the concentration of oxygen in the space to stimulate perception, and another work that turns a piece of chewed up gum hanging from the ceiling into a sculpture (maybe an homage to the poetic photo gum sculptures by Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow); Dominik Lang’s Sleeping City integrates the work of his father, an unrealized artist in his day, in his own architectural encasings, and thus creates an exhibition not only revealing the somewhat absurd methods of display and exhibition-making that we take for granted, but also examines the artist’s difficulty of transcending his time, place, and context, thereby remaining a prisoner of history; and finally Karthik Pandian’s Unearth, five monoliths made of pressed earth from Cahokia, the largest Pre-Columbian settlement in North America, which are aligned on an east-west axis, and which offer an insight into the archaeological process and record.

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The last part of the exhibition takes place in the dark underground caves of the Palais, where one can wander through Hades for ever.  It is here that we experienced The Fourth Wall in more ways than one, and where we were impressed by the video sculpture, A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.  This latter work features a back screen on which is projected a line-up of individuals and a front screen on which is projected a holographic image of one of these individuals telling a pitiful and tragic story, which would in any other context be believable, if it were not concluded with the request for financial support.  The viewer then finds out from the description text that in fact these individuals are reading carefully selected spam letters that have made the internet rounds and that the individuals are all actors, not the auto biographers that we, with our western desire to “help” all those other countries in need, would so readily believe (this writer included).

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Intense Proximity is intense indeed – through its sheer magnitude and breadth, and its attention to artists living and working in “peripheral” zones – and maybe a bit too much for a mere mortal to take in.  But it is also an important statement of internationalism and community when nationalism is gaining ground and dividing us on the backdrop of economic instability.

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