Column: Art

by Ellen Newton

Not All Is Lost, But Much Is
Ceci N’est Pas sees L.A. play host to those with the most: The French
The French intellectual/artiste can think a urinal into a piece of art and then turn around, as though he’s forgotten what he’s done, and ask himself, “What is art?” And once a question like this is asked, the proverbial floodgates open.

Look now at Michel Blazy. He sticks his hands into noodles, ants, orange peels, plants, and decaying food to then construct art objects. Stephan Balkenhol carves human and animal forms from blocks and slabs of wood. Laurent Le Deunff plucks objects from the world of nature. Shelving the predictable mediums of their industry, these French artists are keeping the torch lit in the spirit of object experimentation. And furthermore, who decides whether that which experimented with is “art.” Yet, despite their constant creative evolutions, as a whole, French artists have been lost in the fray of the art world for some time now. One-third of French submissions to Anglo-Saxon auction houses have been rejected in recent years. Pourquoi? In 2009, Sotheby’s modern art specialist Grégoire Billault suggested that French artists are excluded from the art world’s favor because, “It’s paintings that the art world is fighting over,” and not other mediums.

If that’s the case, French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc was on the mark when he quipped “Le genie est une longue patience.” Decades after Paris fell from grace in the art world, the French are ripe for greater global recognition. And they’ll find it in the most un-French of places: Los Angeles, California.

This winter, one of the city’s best kept secrets, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, will kickoff five months of cross-cultural exchange, “Ceci N’est Pas,” with the French Los Angeles Exchange (FLAX) and Paris’ Palais de Tokyo. LAMAG will launch the initiative with one of the most significant exhibitions of works by contemporary artists from France and Los Angeles yet to be presented in the United States. An array of talent—including the aforementioned Blazy, Balkenhol, and Deunff, as well as many American artists—will show at the exhibit, which includes artists both living and deceased. The exhibit is titled LOST (in LA), and in addition to exploring that discussed above, it befits French artists’ whose work has been largely underrepresented on the international art stage in recent years. To accentuate the theme, content surrounding the culture exchange will be accessible via eight-foot tall translucent cubes featuring interactive CRQ codes for mobile phones, which will appear around the city, from destinations such as LAX or Watts Tower.

How, then, to disappear and reappear? How to be in two places at the same time? These are the questions that LOST (in LA) will scrutinize—first, quite literally, by bringing French artists to LA where they appear in an international space but also risk getting “lost” in the megalopolis. Which, in some ways, is an old story: From Marcel Duchamp to Guy de Cointet, from Yves Klein to Niki de Saint Phalle, some of the most avant-garde French artists have discovered new ground in the Wild West and unearthed creative freedom outside the establishments of Europe and New York.

LOST (in LA) was conceived by a new generation of French artists who, explains curator Marc-Olivier Wahler, share a fascination for the television series LOST. About a year ago, Wahler was talking with a few artists in LA and France about another TV series—Twin Peaks. All agreed that it was the best TV series of the 1990s; for myriad reasons (both from a formal and content point of view) the show made an imprint on the artists. Wahler then pressed the artists to name a show of today that’s as influential. Without hesitation, most of them named LOST.

“Nobody claimed that it was the best TV show ever, or the most captivating, or the most audacious, but they all had a veritable fascination for the wonderful web of spatiotemporal shifts in the LOST universe,” he says. “Their fascination went hand in hand with an equally intense frustration: Each regretted that there wasn’t a formal structural that linked and connected these different spatio temporal layers. What could this missing link look like?” This question nagged at Wahler. “Like many artists, I am fascinated by any project that attempts to alter in any way the space-time continuum. This fascination increases tenfold when the spatiotemporal dimensions multiply and coexist simultaneously, as in LOST.”

Walher is respected as a curator for bringing cutting edge ideas to the table—ones having more to do with science fiction, quantum physics or replications than with art criticism or the usual philosophical ramblings of the art world. So, when invited by the FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange) Foundation to curate a group show about the vitality of visual arts coming out of France right now, Wahler, a Francophile Swiss himself, decided to showcase French talent by exploring the questions LOST prompted on a broader scale.

The exhibition expands on the idea of being LOST, with exploratory exhibits including two massive concrete wheels by Vincent Ganivet; Jim Shaw’s “Banyan Tree,” shot specially for the exhibit in Hawaï, where the TV series LOST takes place; Tatiana Trouvé’s Rock, placed in the middle of the exhibit space; and others.

Though the premise of the exhibit is simple, the concepts Walher is aspiring to evoke are not. “In order to see something as a work of art, we must accept that an ordinary object can disappear right before our eyes and instantly reappear as an aesthetic object,” Wahler explains.  Understanding the transfiguration of “non-art” object to an “art object,” the “magical moment” born from an object’s instantaneous disappearance and reappearance, compels Walher and drives the exhibit. Wahler has seen such concepts handled with ease in film, but believes thus far art hasn’t delved as deep. With LOST (in LA), viewers will join him in the quest for that nugget of wisdom.

And if that’s too heady for you? Well, you can always disappear.