On 7 April 2012 the Grand Palais in Paris held a twelve-hour banquet of tom ka, a traditional Thai soup, prepared by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and his team. Free and open to all, Soup/No Soup (2011/12) preceded the public opening of 'La Triennale 2012: Intense Proximity' – a minefield-laden excavation of the juncture between hostility and hospitality. Resulting in an uneasy social harmony of objects given and objects received, Tiravanija's project drew forth the complexities of transactional value that structure gift economies – the ever-present quid pro quo. First presented at Gavin Brown's enterprise in New York in 2011, the performance acquired a further layer of signification in its Parisian re-staging due to its resonance with a public debate around the serving of soupe au cochon (pork soup) in France – a controversy initiated in winter 2003 when kitchens run by Bloc Identitaire (Identity Bloc), a far-right nationalist organisation, began serving pork soup to homeless people in Paris. A traditional French recipe containing smoked bacon and pigs’ ears, feet and tails, the soupe identitaire (identity soup), as it came to be known, was quickly understood as a political act of debasement and exclusion aimed at members of the Muslim or Jewish faiths – ‘Help Our Own Before Others’ is the group’s official slogan. In December 2006, following widespread civil unrest in the banlieues of Paris, police authorities attempted to shut down the rapidly proliferating kitchens serving soupe identitaire, citing its distribution as the type of antagonistic alienation that provoked the riots.1
Considering the soup a potent ‘Trojan Horse designed chiefly to register opposition to the presence of unwanted foreigners in France’, Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of this year's Triennale, describes his encounter with this incident as the beginning of his inquiry for 'Intense Proximity'.2 The placement of Tiravanija's Soup/No Soup at the Grand Palais (a Beaux-Arts edifice inscribed with the phrase ‘a monument dedicated by the Republic to the glory of French Art’) and its framing as the first, highly visible work in this massive exhibition, becomes a statement, on the part of the artist as well as the curators, on how artistic practice is embedded within current debates around citizenship, immigration and national identity. Set in this context, the work highlights the insidious violence of everyday social conflict – the desecrating politics of anti-difference that gave rise to the soupe identitaire – while working against such exclusionary tactics through a participatory event of inclusion.
The curatorial decision to begin 'Intense Proximity' with a re-staging of Soup/No Soup further serves to sharply distinguish the 2012 Triennale from previous editions. Known under the title of 'La Force de l’art', former incarnations were held in their entirety at the Grand Palais and were intended to highlight contemporary visual art in France. 'Intense Proximity' takes this dictate as a challenge: literally moving beyond the original site of discussion by extending the exhibition across state-sponsored and independent venues throughout the city, while simultaneously foregrounding the malformations of nationalistic sentiment underlying the project. ‘FEAR EATS THE SOUL’ is emblazoned like graffiti, the black letters standing 9-metre-high across the central lobby of the Palais de Tokyo: a space that newly served as the exhibition’s primary site. Taken from the title of a 1974 film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this dominating text – a second project by Tiravanija – is the axis around which the exhibition’s multiple galleries seem to spin. Whether read as a reference to the film's own racial narrative or as a critique of national policies, the import is clear: the rejection of difference from without will consume you from within.
This constant interplay between consumption and difference, desire for understanding and risk of objectification takes shape within different subject matter and topics. As clearly intended, the most pervasive reference is ethnography. Muse and demon, ethnography is shown in this context as both a fertile source of insight into the fractious contact between cultures, as well as a problematic terrain strewn with tangible remnants of processes of objectification and exploitation undertaken in the name of cross-cultural understanding. (Indeed, the repeated use of the phrase ‘ethnographic poetics’ in the tome-like publication that accompanies the exhibition directly points to an understanding of ethnography as capable of simultaneously holding contradictory meanings, without fixed determinants.) Taking advantage of France’s rich ethnographic history, 'Intense Proximity' displays documents such as André Gide and Marc Allégret’s silent film Voyage au Congo (1928) and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s field drawings from the late 1930s in the recently expanded rough-hewn galleries at the Palais de Tokyo. Yet when interspersed with contemporary works such as Carrie Mae Weems’s chilling reworking of archival photographs chronicling a trajectory of slavery in the Western world – From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) – these historical images are cast forth as deeply complicated objects. A number of exhibition reviews addressed the curatorial inclusion of ethnographic work as a historical frame through which to think the radical singularity of a contemporary moment in which former colonisers and colonised are placed in sharp contact. However, this teleological account – in which contact among spatially disparate cultures becomes a moment defined by a collapse of that distance, both geographically and technologically – seems thwarted by the inclusion of works such as those of Weems, which reveal a competing curatorial imperative to deny such exceptionality of the present.3
Ethnography is used by the curators not only as a reference, but also as a historically rooted approach to art-making. In fact, the media privileged within the exhibition, such as film, video, photography and sculpture, all evoke traditional modes of entering, documenting and bringing back experiences or material symbols of ‘difference’. Shown as part of a series of screenings held at Palais de Tokyo, Jean Rouch’s controversial film Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955) is paradigmatic of the ongoing tension between ethnography and art.3 The film depicts a West African ritual performance in which participants are ‘possessed’ by the spirits of their colonial masters, defying domination by embodying the role of the master. Bodies become sites of unholy contact as they perform the operations of biopower: an act of symbolic resistance that was misconstrued as evidence in support of colonial stereotypes (the grotesque caricature viewed as savagery).
The potentially exoticising lens of both ethnographic and artistic representation is further explored in Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s short film Toxic (2012), which looks at the intricacies of policed bodies and gender ‘normalcy’. Shown as part of the same screening series as well as an installation at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, where it was filmed, alongside photographic portraits of ‘homosexuals and transvestites’ from the 1870s from the Paris police archive, Toxic focuses on two central figures: a punk resplendent in glitter make-up played by Ginger Brooks Takahashi and the drag queen Werner Hirsch. Microphone in hand, Takahashi muses on toxicity: poisonous speech, xenophobic materiality, marginalised subjects, pill overload and invisible radioactivity coursing through the air. Re-enacting a Jean Genet interview from the 1980s, Hirsch, in contrast, questions the contemporary art world’s desire to celebrate queer identity by placing it centre-stage, a well-intentioned gesture that functions to further marginalise homosexuality by rendering it exotic (queerness taking the place of the ethnographic other).
In contrast with Boudry/Lorenz’s nuanced exploration of ritualistic performance, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s video performance Some Objects Blackened and a Body Too (2011) – where she mimes early-twentieth-century practices such as blackface and Josephine Baker’s ‘Revue Nègre’ – seems heavy-handed and literal. An artist I otherwise admire, here the work is both strangely anachronistic and unreflectively utopian in its apparent assertion that racially determined gestures and bodies can be ‘possessed’ in an art context without reinforcing the stereotypes one hopes to explore: whose body is doing the inhabiting still matters. Elsewhere, installed on the split staircase leading to the lower level, Camille Henrot’s Coupé/décalé (Cut/Delayed, 2011) visualises Rouch’s theory of ‘shared anthropology’ (an acknowledged collaboration between the film-maker/anthropologist and his subject) through a straightforward and highly effective split-screen. As visitors descend into the lower floors of the Palais de Tokyo, bodies in the film throw themselves off cliffs on the island nation of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific Ocean – their sole safeguard a vine tied to their feet. At the other side of the frame, lagging behind this death-defying act with several seconds delay, tourists snap pictures of the ritual, shadowing the role that we – as spectators – inhabit in the gallery space.
This split-second distance between viewer and observed is further explored in Marie Voignier’s excellent feature-length film L’Hypothèse du Mokélé-Mbembé (The Hypothesis of the Mokélé-Mbembé, 2011). Screened in the same series as the works by Rouch and Boudry/Lorenz, Voignier’s film follows Michel Ballot, a cryptozoologist (someone who searches for animals whose existence has not yet been proven), as he looks for a mythic creature in southwestern Cameroon. Spurred on by tales of the creature among the Baka Pygmy, and funded in part by Christian fundamentalist groups who hope to question evolution by proving the simultaneous existence of humans and dinosaurs, Ballot shows villagers hand-drawn pictures of the animal he hopes will be described: interactions that open up the chasm of mutual incomprehension between people from different cultures that 'Intense Proximity' examines.
Similar gaps in understanding, misplaced stereotypes and attempts to productively deploy histories of difference circulate throughout the exhibition. Key moments of insight arise from curatorial juxtapositions, such as the placing of Walker Evans’s photographs of the 1935 ‘African Negro Art’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in proximity to David Hammons’s remarkable sculpture Stone with Hair (1998). The zombie-like dancing sculptures of Annette Messager’s Motion/Emotion (2009–12) filled a small back room like macabre monsters from a macabre closet and were, in turn, positioned adjacent to both the images of Reynaud-Dewar’s blackened body and Thomas Hirschhorn’s nearly unwatchable film of photographs of desecrated bodies flipping by on an iPad (Touching Reality, 2012). The extent to which operations of power either scar or are manifest through the landscape as well as the body was also strongly felt throughout 'Intense Proximity'. The exhibition ‘Tropicomania: The Social Life of Plants’, for instance, organised by the collaborating institution Bétonsalon, explored the ties between botany and globalisation, taking the Parisian Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale (created in 1899) and its archive as a point of departure to research the economic, political and symbolic implications of the circulation of tropical plants. Landscape also emerges in Eric Baudelaire’s film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011), included at the Palais de Tokyo with an installation of silkscreened posters. Baudelaire uses Japanese film-maker Masao Adachi’s fukeiron – ‘landscape theory’, or an attempt to represent the alienation of Japanese youth of the late 1960s solely by filming the landscapes in which they lived – to retrace the history of the Japanese Red Army, in which Adachi himself participated, and the attendant confusion between reality and images, the quest for freedom and the brutality of terrorism.
At times, the exhibition as a whole seemed to inhabit this landscape of violence and scar tissue: pointing to a social alienation so profound it seems impossible to act against it. Yet 'Intense Proximity' also propels visitors forward with moments of brilliant curatorial dialogue and a sheer abundance of remarkable artworks. By bringing together ethnographic archives with contemporary art – eliciting their deeply embedded and often contentious histories of cross-fertilisation and appropriation – the Triennale denatures the intricately constructed lens of ethnographic vision.
Research for this article was made possible thanks to a curatorial research grant of étant donnés: the French-American Fund for Contemporary Art, a program of FACE and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.
See Craig S. Smith, ‘Poor and Muslim? Jewish? Soup Kitchen Is Not for You’, The New York Times, 28 February 2006, p.A4. Okwui Enwezor cites this article in the essay ‘Intense Proximity: Concerning the Disappearance of Distance’, in Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far, where he describes his encounter with the pig soup controversy in depth (see pp.29-33). In addition to Enwezor, the curatorial team included associate curators Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Émilie Renard and Claire Staebler.↑
O. Enwezor, ‘Intense Proximity’, op. cit., p.21.↑
See Chris Sharp, ‘La Triennale: “Intense Proximity”’, Art Agenda, 26 April 2012, where he writes: ‘“Intense Proximity” is essentially predicated upon the following global and postcolonial predicament: what happens when the distance between the coloniser and the colonial subject, or, in broader strokes, near and far, visible and invisible, collapses?’ See also Vivian Sky Rehberg, ‘La Triennale’, frieze, September 2012, which states that: ‘“La Triennale” departed from the premise that the mobility and migration of people and cultures in our postcolonial, global era has resulted in societies in which the collapse of distance heightens spatial, temporal and social tensions.’↑
The curatorial choice to locate an extensive film series at Palais de Tokyo, rather than a cinema, was not coincidental, as made evident by Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet’s excellent performance and related installation Avant le monde et après (Before and After the World, 2012). Bringing together nineteenth-century Swiss historian Johann Jakob Bachofen’s theories of matriarchal societies with a subgenre of 1970s pre-historical and science-fiction B-movies that showcase scantily-clad women in matriarchal structures, Hervé and Maillet staged a one-night performance played by iconic New Wave French actresses Françoise Lebrun and Edith Scob. Circumnavigating ideas of gynocracy and staged in a projection room, the performance also evoked Palais de Tokyo’s brief history as host of the Cinémathèque Française.↑