Paris Express, Day One

About a week ago, fleeing the election frenzy and the omnipresent fog (spiritual and meteorological) that is Bank Holiday in England, Sophie Halart took off to Paris to see what keeps the young urbanites and other bobos busy culture-wise on that side of the pond. Day One.

Day 1

The Maison de l’Amérique Latine in Saint Germain presented throughout the month of April an installation by the contemporary artist Voluspa Jarpa. In a rather inconspicuous room on the ground floor of this bourgeois villa, Jarpa’s work contrasts sharply with its surroundings. Cutting through the ebbing flow of visitors searching for the posh restaurant sheltered in the gardens of the institution, I make my way towards the installation. The work consists of two parts. On two wall panels forming a right angle, the artist creates a black mural while in the middle of the room, figurative pendants hang from the ceiling.

A Chilean artist, Jarpa spent the past few years of her artistic career researching early clinical interpretations of hysteria. She is particularly interested in the work of the Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (hence the name of the exhibition L’Effet Charcot) whose early research on hysteria at the hospital of the Salpétrière in Paris greatly influenced the young Sigmund Freud who trained under Charcot’s supervision. As a doctor, Charcot was mostly interested in studying the attitudes and physical demeanors of hysterical patients in order to create a symptomatology of the disease. However, Charcot was also fascinated by the physical expression of hysteria and his research reflects a desire to aesthetise the disorder and to create what Charcot himself called a “living museum of pathologies”. To this effect, Charcot created a series of photographs documenting the physical postures and facial expressions of the female patients treated for hysteria at the Salpétrière. All in all, 5,500 women resided there, unwillingly contributing to the creation of a highly contestable corpus of knowledge of such a ‘feminine disorder’ (as it was then considered).

The Italian doctor Rummo compiled these different postures into drawing plates. Out of these drawings, Voluspa Jarpa makes stamps with which she covers the walls of this installation. In some areas, the stamps are so condensed together that all that the eye can see is a black cloud. On the edges of this cloud however, one can decipher quite clearly the silhouettes of these women twirling in the air. In the middle of the room, these silhouettes take on a third-dimension as pendants hanging from the ceiling.

The general impression of the installation is one of a cloud of flies slowly invading the room and darkening the view, so much so that one can almost hear a worrying buzz going crescendo the more one stares at the impressive mural.

In the interview that the artist gave to accompany this show, she interprets the movement of the installation as symbolising the movement of the unconscious. This somehow adheres to Bachelard’s poetics of space where a man’s soul comes to be understood as a room. However, the rendering of this unconscious is certainly not an unproblematic one. Indeed, this army of miniature women spinning around the room also stands as a feminist rebellion against the type of Cartesian categorisation that clinicians like Charcot tried to impose upon hysterical women. Proud harpies escaping the civilised power of white men and the stifling norms of bien pensant society, these silhouettes spread across the room, a dark threat hovering around.

Moreover, in the tribute she pays to these victims of patriarchal bourgeois society, Voluspa Jarpa operates another type of poetic revenge. Indeed, the building that is now the Maison de l’Amerique Latine actually used to be the residence of the Prof. Charcot himself. By allowing these little ghosts to haunt freely the walls of this house, Jarpa also gives them the chance to unleash their antics upon the man who, through his attempt to cure their disease, remained mainly concerned with making them fit in a society so reluctant to accept dissonance and marginality.

This image remains with me as I make my way to the second exhibition of the day: a collective show of young Chilean contemporary artists exhibited in the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, the exhibition space located at the top of the brand’s flagship store on the Champs Elysees.

If the soul of a man indeed is like a room, the psyche of Louis Vuitton may be forever haunted by hordes of globetrotting teenagers buzzing around the shop in search for one of the brand’s iconic handbags and other Murakamic accessories. I fray myself a passage through the crowds of tourists and reach a lift door where a friendly employee inquires whether I have any particular fear of the dark. I don’t really understand the sense of the question until I find myself locked in the dark lift whose walls are covered with some sort of black textile and where the only light goes off as soon as the doors close. The experience is a strange one, somewhere between entropic memories of pre-birth levitation and coffin-claustrophobia and the thirty-seconds journey that takes me to the top floor of the building leaves me time to consider the causes of the quiet panic I start to feel. This experience comes courtesy of Olafur Eliasson who was commissioned by Louis Vuitton to create an ‘atmospheric’ lift taking us from the darkness of luxury consumerism to its more respectable form of corporate philanthropy.

At the top of the building, a snail-like exhibition space unveils the work of a panel of contemporary Chilean artists. According to the curator Hervé Mikaeloff’s introduction text, there is a crisis on the contemporary artistic scene in Chile that may be explained by the overall textual preferences of the elites in the country. The breeding ground of as renown poets and writers as Neruda or Sepulveda seems to be having issues with the type of epistemological language proposed by visual arts, especially in its more modern forms of photography, video and in-situ installations. The exhibition therefore gives a large representation to these media. The quality of the show however remains uneven.

Some works such as the installation by the brothers Navarro (Ivan Navarro, the most famous of the two siblings, represented Chile at Venice’s last year Biennale) are somewhat disappointing. The work deals with the issue of foreign interventionism in the internal affairs of Latin American countries. Referring explicitly to the role played by the USA as well as European countries in the support of the Operation Condor (a transnational military project allowing different dictatorial regimes to share information and arrest political opponents throughout the South American continent in the 1970s), the artists wish to provide the French visitors with a reminder of their country’s own use of torture in its recent past, especially during the last years of the French colonial presence in Algeria and the Independence War that followed. Despite the compelling content, the political message somehow falls short, mostly because the visual language of Ivan Navarro (his repetitive use of neon lights and mirror props in order to create dizzying senses of mise en abyme) takes too much centre stage. Moreover, the plasticised press clippings referring to historical events that lay on top of the displays insist too strongly on the archival dimension of the project, thus obstructing one’s feel of the work as a whole.

However, the exhibition also contains some works that really stand out.

First of all, a couple of videos by the artist Nicolás Rupcich convey an admirable sense of the absurd. In the first video called Landscape Design (2007), Rupcich films the installation of a palm tree in the middle of a six-lane highway in the capital Santiago de Chile. The camera captures the titanic efforts that have to be unfolded in order to complete the implantation of this palm tree as it films no less than two crates, a truck and six men working through the night. The second video entitled Big Pool (2009) films the hotel complex of San Alfonso del Mar which hosts the biggest pool in the world. As large as 6,000 private pools put together, the mass of azure water is filmed from an angle that emphasises even more its width and the alternation of general views and close-ups reveals the artificiality of this larger-than-life complex. This sense of modernistic hybris comes through even more strongly as most of the complex appears completely deserted, the only few humans present being the team of maintenance staff facing the endless task of cleaning this gigantic pool. Rupcich’s videos reminded me of the type of surreal architectural projects undertaken by the megalomaniac leaders of oil plutocracies of Central Asia who build extraordinary buildings and towns for the benefits of just a handful of members of the upper class. In the context of Chile, the project rather seems to reflect the aspirations of a middle class eager to catch up after years of economic deprivation and social frustration. However, projects such as the building of a pool the size of a lake or the installation of a palm tree in the middle of a highway in a city located at over 1,700 feet above sea level stand as the derisory symbols of such aspirations- or rather the simplistic understanding of these aspirations by urban planners and developers.

While Rupcich’s videos explore the absurd excesses of civilisation in relation to Nature, the work of Carolina Saquel stand at the other end of the spectrum. The artist presents in this exhibition a video installation called Cuero Vivo (Living Leather). The title is a reference to a malefic creature in a Chilean popular legend, which was said to be responsible for the disappearance of men and animals wandering too close to the water shores. The video shows the surface of what appears to be a lake. As blue, still and translucent as Rupcich’s big pool was, the water in Saquel’s video appears dark, stormy with a texture as heavy as mud. Staring quite magnetically at the water, one deciphers movements coming from below, bubbles of air coming from within or riffles created by the wind, one can’t really tell. The intensity of the video, accompanied by a soundtrack of wind running through wild reeds and high grass, builds up a threatening tension as if something is just about to emerge from the dark waters, yet never quite does. Saquel’s work explores the ancestral fears hidden within each of us, the ones that gave birth to Greek mythology, the Grimm brothers’ tales as well as contemporary horror movies and tabloid back page stories. The work’s ability to trigger a soft sense of panic within each visitor makes it extremely efficient and brings more significance to the curator’s main idea of the contemporary arts in Chile as a resisting force to mainstream logos and rationalisation.

In a rather similar vein, the video presented by the artist Francisca Garcia documents the earthquake that shook the southern city of Valdivia in 1960. The highest tremor ever recorded (rating 9.5 on the Richter scale), the quake shook the land and created a tsunami that struck as far as New Zealand and Alaska. The work is showed at a very timely time, just months after another earthquake shook Chile this year. While the work may sound like a reminder of nature’s destructive power, it is actually quite a different line of thought that the artist wishes to pursue. In her work, she makes reference to the geodynamic experiments carried out by the scientist Nikola Tesla. Garcia’s thesis is that Tesla’s artificial simulations of earthquake may actually have been partially responsible for the 1960 Valdivia quake. While this theory has been widely refuted and may sound a little far-fetched, the interest of Garcia’s work lies in the suggestion that even natural catastrophes out of human control may have been worsened by human obsessive attempts to capture and control natural phenomena.

Another type of trauma is explored in Álvaro Oyarzún’s work. On the whole width of a wall, the artist presents a tri-partite work made out of ink drawing on polyester panels, presented as “thematic cartographies” of a particular period of Oyarzún’s life. On the left extremity, the artist draws some characters quoting famous artists in speech bubbles. The characters are all perched on what look like troglodyte cliffs but may also be recalling the cartography of human’s inner anatomy. The right hand side panel takes on a much more intimate character as Oyarzún, still using the same layout and use of caricatural characters makes us follow important quotes exchanged between his partner and himself during what appears like a lengthy and painful separation. As one jumps from one branch to another, the message evolves from “we had so much in common” to “we have grown apart” and “there is nothing left” (approximate paraphrasing from memory). In the central panel, one follows different incarnations of what appears to be the same character (seemingly, a caricature of the artist himself) desperately wandering through an abstract desert. In most of its representations, the character appears disembodied or missing a limb, sometimes the head. Here again, the apparent scientific aspect of the body pieces contrasts with a juxtaposed intimate confession, the result of the artist’s train of thought. However, the obvious torment which haunts this drawing only half-conceals a very caustic undertone such as when a dismembered head laments “I have lost my head over her”, laying nearby a worn out copy of Lacan’s Fragmented Body. Oyarzun is undeniably a very talented draughtsman and his ability to draw a new type of cartography of emotions, a sort of Carte de Tendre gone wrong provides a very contemporary yet universal dimension to his confessing characters.

Sophie Halart, May 2010

Voluspa Jarpa, detailVoluspa JarpaProfessor Jean-Martin CharcotCarolina Saquel, Cuero Vivo