It’s hard to imagine that there’s more than this — more than the hundreds of works currently filling the immense, labyrinthine new Palais de Tokyo as part of the 2012 Paris Triennale, Intense Proximity — but the event in fact continues at seven other locations in and just outside of Paris. It’s a dizzying thought. The exhibition at Palais de Tokyo is already more landscape than art show. I felt like I was wandering around some wonderful, unfamiliar country, snapping pictures of the exotic vegetation to show the people back home. I’m not sure that this was the response that Okwui Enwezor, the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich and the lead curator of this Triennale, was hoping for. In fact, Intense Proximity’s purpose is expressly political: to explore the themes of territory, culture, identity, and anthropology in the work of emerging, established, and canonical artists. That this exploration is set in a Wonderland-esque environment is, I think, to Enwezor’s credit, and speaks to the imaginative possibilities of the space.
Oddly, of the 120-odd artists (a broadly-defined category of creative individuals that can include anyone from El Anatsui to Claude Lévi-Strauss) represented in the show, only a handful are from or reside in France — this, despite the second stated goal of the Triennale: to highlight and contextualize, within the international sphere, the French contemporary arts scene. The show opens with a vast, swirling mixed-media work by the German artist Michael Buthe. In a gorgeous interplay between pattern, colour and texture, a spray of lilac is laced over red, orange, and yellow swathes like a hovering cloud. On the opposite wall, Buthe’s Stein, a series of fourteen photographs that exist somewhere under thick layers of acrylic paint, recalls childhood picture-making in its crudely figured forms and joyous, gung-ho use of colour and paint.
If these works don’t smack of culture wars or identity politics there are plenty more that do. As a treatment of the latter theme, Self-Identification, a series of photographs by Ewa Parum, could hardly be more explicit. Made in 1980, the pictures show humdrum scenes of daily city life — people shop, cross the street, queue to enter a post office or a bank — punctuated by the presence of a naked woman. Inserted into the tableaux by collage, she goes unnoticed by the figures around her. That she could never pass so imperceptibly by us (she is a naked woman) underlines the fantasy described in the work: to be sexual without being objectified. This male-female tension is replaced by a colonizer-colonized standpoint in Walker Evans’s African Negro Art Portfolio — photographs of art and objects taken in conjunction with the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Powerfully, their presentation here undercuts their colonial intimations; densely hung in a five-by-fifteen grid, the seventy-five images demand consideration — not, in this arrangement, as individual works, but as an entire reality.
If Evans’s urban views are missed, there is Helen Levitt’s 1948 film In the Street, a wordless, character-driven exploration of her native Brooklyn. It plays on a small television at the foot of a flight of stairs, at the top of which a large-format Thomas Struth photograph beckons, a mass of rainforest, of green: Paradise 27, Rio Madre de Dios, Peru. And then, down one flight in the stairwell and on the other side of a door, is paradise satirized: Yto Barrada’s Palm Sign, a free-standing aluminium palm tree festooned with paint and coloured lights. It is pointedly kitschy, and sadly alien, and, perhaps embarrassingly, very pretty. Barrada, a Paris-born artist now living in Tangiers, is also the author of my favourite piece in Intense Proximity, a film called Hand-Me-Downs. Over 8mm film footage of puppet shows, snake handlers, white people golfing, family outings to the beach, political rallies, alligators slithering heavily through the mud, and aerial views of Paris, a narrator tells us the story of her life. “My mother was a goat,” she says. (I am immediately hooked.) “I was born in 1944.” And thus it begins, a childhood in an unnamed country, a progression from farm to apartment tower. I sat on the floor of the darkened space allotted to its presentation — one world within two others — and watched Barrada’s film unfold. I watched it twice. I didn’t want to leave.
(All images: Intense Proximité installation views, Palais de Tokyo, 2012. Photos by Kate Addleman)