While the United States continues to debate how art should be publicly funded, or as so often the case is, not funded or de-funded, France has no such confusion. “Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism” at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) draws on the FRAC Collections, FRAC standing for French Regional Contemporary Art Collections, which are essentially contemporary art collections owned and purchased by certain regions of France. The focus here is on artists working in France but also included is work by Chicago artists that fits into the exhibition’s intent to explore “idealism, utopian thinking, and, in counterpoint, the cynicism that follows failed revolution and the retreat of optimism in the face of pragmatic reality.”
Chicago proves to be a poignant location to explore such topics as the city has its own attempts and failures at utopian living. Beginning the exhibition are the titular Villes Spatiales (1958-60) drawings by Yona Friedman, which show fantastic cities that float in the air. It is hard to ignore that such modernist utopian dreams took shape not in the ethereal plans of Friedman, but in the monolithic housing projects that we in Chicago are so familiar with even as they are demolished before our eyes.
Yves Belorgey. Préparation de la muraille de Chine en vue de son explosion. 2000. Glycreol and oil on canvas. 94 x 94 inches. Collection of FRAC Limousin
This failure of modernist architecture is of course not limited to Chicago; as an international movement, failed housing projects litter the world. Thus it was somewhat uncanny to see Yves Bélorgey’s painting from 2000, Préparation de la muraille de Chine en vue de son explosion [author’s translation- Preparation of the wall of China in view of its explosion, painting seen above], which depicts the ubiquitous, Brutalist hulk of a modern housing project with the windows and walls mostly blown out in obvious preparation for its demolition. Immediately to the left of the painting is Bélorgey’s 2003 video Destruction that seems to show the same building from the painting being demolished while a crowd watches from a hill. In Chicago, we have been witness to a similar sight as the housing projects in Cabrini Green and elsewhere, are demolished with little plan for alternative housing sites. Apparently universal housing is one idea of Modernism that we are done with.
Philippe Ramette. Balcon. 1996. Collection Frac Bourgogne. Courtesy Philippe Ramette © Adagp
Housing and those who get it, is a topic that Phillipe Ramette’s Balcon (1996, seen above) addresses directly. Smartly placed across from an entrance to the gallery, from a distance the photograph seems straightforward you are looking at a smartly dressed man confidently looking out from a balcony. When you eventually meander over to it, it is apparent that there is a little trick photography going on: the man not standing vertically, but lying over an open grave, clutching a balcony that is not supporting his weight but is just a prop—the camera has been flipped to make the horizontal into the vertical. The vertical mass that one supposes from a distance is a green building is in fact a French garden of some sort. The man hovering over his open grave in the midst of his possessions is at first a bit facile, even art schoolish, but it has stuck with me continuously since seeing it because of its simplicity. This is the ultimate quest of our capitalistic lives, gather as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, stand to survey your hoardings, and then it is all for naught, as you leave everything behind in death. Perhaps seeing the Roger Brown exhibition adds to this contemplation.
Installation view of "Spatial City" at the Hyde Park Art Center. Foreground: Christophe Berdaguer / Marie Péjus. Divan. 2003. Wood, paint, sheepskin, books. Diameter 82 / Depth 27 ¼ inches. Collection of FRAC Basse-Normandie. Left middleground: Ben Hall. The Propensity for Violence. 2009. Mirror, cinder block, sisal rope. 6' diameter.
A great pairing of works is right at the beginning of “Spatial City,” with Christophe Berdaguer / Marie Péjus’ Divan (2003) and Ben Hall’s The Propensity for Violence (2009), each echoing the other in shape and subject. Divan is a construction consisting of a glossy white circle with sheepskin blankets thrown over the bottom so that it resembles some kind of modernist furniture, propped up on either side by books so that it doesn’t roll away (detail shown at left). The books are significantly mostly all on psychology: there are psychoanalysis subjects, a couple titles by Freud, some by Lacan, and some books on structuralism thrown in there too. Hall’s piece consists of a round mirror two yards in diameter placed on the ground, over the middle of which is suspended a concrete cinder block, held by a single rope. Our tenuous psychological state seems to be at stake in these pieces, slight changes to the elements could result in things literally rolling downhill or going to pieces. Berdaguer/Pejus summon the psychologist’s couch where patients learn to reorder their psyches to deal with modern life, while Hall implies a pending psychic destruction, the shattered mirror as a shattered psyche á la Barbara Kruger’s You are not yourself. Both disasters are barely held off—at any point the books could be removed and the rope cut.
“Spatial City” brings rarely seen work from France’s regional collections to the United States in a cohesive and relevant manner, thanks to the originating curator Nicholas Frank (of Inova, Milwaukee) and the HPAC curator, Allison Peters Quinn who clearly added some nice choices to the show. This is the difference that makes an exhibition relevant to the city it shows in, or merely functioning as a look-this-is-what-we’re-doing kind of exhibit.