Philippe Parreno’s exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, occupies the site like an invasive species. The artist presents his work so that each piece is discrete but also plays its part to form a comprehensive whole.
What I like most about Parreno’s choreography of the viewing experience is that it doesn’t pick apart the mechanics of exhibition design and stop there. Instead the exhibition is used as a medium to further explore and express the content of the work. It is not art about art, but it is art that continuously takes its surroundings into account.
The exhibition is built around two films, Continuously Habitable Zones aka C.H.Z. (2011) and the premier of the much-anticipated Marilyn (2012). We see traces of these artworks until finally happening upon them hiding in the cellar.
Philippe Parreno, Continuously Habitable Zones aka C.H.Z., 2011, film still; Courtesy of FONDATION BEYELER, Riehen/Basel, and Gallery Esther Schipper.
A small water lily pond greets you at the entrance to the museum. Here we first encounter Parreno’s work in the form of ghostly circular screens floating just below the surface of the water. They take turns quivering, sending out ripples, as though unseen creatures were disturbing the stillness or a massive storm were rolling in. Inside, as you wander through galleries containing early Modernist works from the collection, you gaze out again on the pond. The surface of the pond is level with the floor of the galleries, forming a single plane. To your right is a massive late Monet, a mural depicting his water lily pond in Giverny. In front of you are these artificial, “sonic” Water Lilies (2012) of Parreno’s amongst the real life water lilies. It’s quite an amazing orchestration. Perhaps the best part is when you realize each robotic water lily has at least one, if not more, frogs chilling out on it. They seem to enjoy the vibrations and waves of the synthetic lily pads.
In an adjacent gallery also facing the pond are drawings related to both the films we have yet to see. The drawings for C.H.Z. act as a script or film treatment. They are intricate and beautiful but they also look ominous and foreboding, like drawings based on recurring nightmares made at the suggestion of a psychiatrist. The drawings that accompany the Marilyn film don’t have the same aura. They feel a little bit like they were made to sell in order to finance the production of the film itself.
Walking down the hallway that leads to the lower level galleries and overlooks the Beyeler’s Winter Garden, you swear you can hear water running. It sounds like dripping at first. There’s a leak? Maybe you’re just hearing things. This is crazy. No, now it sounds like running water, a pipe or a small stream. Where is it coming from? You pinpoint the source to a random spot in the floor along the windows. How odd. It must be art. This is one of the sounds from C.H.Z. that has escaped the screening room and has made its way upstairs, just as audio from the film is behind the pulsing water lilies in the pond.
The analogy of a germinating seed sending roots out from its underground home is fitting. C.H.Z. depicts an alien planet shrouded in a perpetual state of dawn – or dusk. The camera creeps over empty riverbeds dusted with twinkling ice, rocky passages littered with shale and into a cavern occupied by an unseen but ferocious roar. It’s as if the planet itself is a living beast and we are entering its mouth. The premise is based on the theory in astrobiology that planets with two small suns – dwarf stars – would better sustain life than a planet like ours, with one bright sun. The logic follows that these “continuously habitable zones” would produce black vegetation due to the sustained sunlight for photosynthesis.
We know going into the exhibition that Marilyn is about the famous actress, the suite in the Waldorf Astoria where she lived in the 1950s, a séance that tried to summon her presence and a robotic arm that recreates her handwriting. Just as we know that C.H.Z. is about some fucked up alien planet populated by black plants. The two seem like an incongruent pair, but they work together quite well as a double feature.
Philippe Parreno, Marilyn, 2012, film still; Courtesy Pilar Corrias Gallery.
Outside the galleries where the films play are marquees, empty frames with blinking yellow bulbs. A melancholic piano melody stumbles out of unseen speakers. It’s the soundtrack from Marilyn minus the voiceover. It becomes the soundtrack for this non-space. These bizarre sculptures lead us to imagine the galleries in which Parreno’s films are playing are movie palaces of old. They are the sad and pathetic. Opulent but empty, classy but gaudy, they are the perfect monument for Norma Jean.
The film Marilyn is not at all what you might expect from a project meant to summon the dead actress through phantasmagoric means. Parreno, in the tradition of theatrical séances popular in the 19th century, attempts to conjure Marilyn using today’s advanced technologies. The camera floats through her apartment suite in the Waldorf Astoria. Her disembodied voice describes everything in the dwelling. Interspersed with this are extreme close-ups of a fountain pen writing on the hotel stationary. The phone rings, it starts raining, the sky clears, day gives way to night. Everything is so perfect, saturated and modern, as you’d expect from 1950s Hollywood.
But something is wrong. She starts describing the same things again. The pen is re-writing what it has already written on the same sheet of paper. We hear the threatening and intense sounds of robotic machinery. Each delicate movement of the pen is accompanied by a high-pitched whir. The camera pulls back to reveal the whole suite in one long tracking shot. The desk once unoccupied now has a massive black tower standing at it. A crane juts out from the structure ending in a fountain pen.
The camera continues to pull back. The apartment suite is a set, the rain is created by a man with a hose, the world outside the windows is a large photograph. The camera pulls further back; the whole thing is contained in a dark soundstage. People are at work behind computers, running the robotic arm and Marilyn’s computer-synthesized voice. The film ends, the lights come up and we wait for the next screening to begin.
(Image on top: Philippe Parreno, Water Lilies installation , 2012; Courtesy of the artist & FONDATION BEYELER / Photo: Serge Hasenböhler)