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Exhibition Memory
Louvre Museum, 2000-2001 in Catalogue Contemporary Art Magazine, Issue 2

Magazines are full of current stories, shows recently opened or just finished. Still infused with the writer’s visit, the articles are ’news’. Catalogue takes here a different approach, experimenting with exhibition chronicles written years after the show, accounts necessarily shaped by the remembering process. In this edition, curator Guillaume Désanges selects for us two Louvre exhibitions : Posséder et détruire : stratégies sexuelles dans l’art d’Occident (2000) [Possess and Destroy : Sexual Strategies in Western Art] and La Peinture comme crime ou la "part maudite" de la modernité (2001) [Painting as Crime or The Dark Side of Modernity].

I remember two exhibitions organised at the Louvre museum in the early 2000s by curator Régis Michel : Posséder et détruire and La Peinture comme crime. These two shows, almost turned into one by my patchy memory, have been crucial for me both emotionally and intellectually, and played a part in the way I work as a curator today.
A few images, off the top of my head : the entrance inside the Louvre’s rotunda, covered with huge wall projections. Viennese Actionists’ performances : a naked woman splashed with crimson dye, Dionysiac bundles of flesh and paint. It was a dizzying introduction, crude and violent like a monumentalised snuff-movie. The architectural solemnity and the identity of the place gave a sort of timelessness to the representations : trashy films were caught in their archaic universality, both subjected to and challenging the sacralised legacy of the building. Flesh against stone.

"Yet despite these aesthetic confrontations, there was a strong sense of coherence."

A bit further in, I recall darkness : the exhibition enmeshed the viewer in obscurity. Ancient and contemporary artworks were individually lit, as if by candlelight. The show had a crypt-like atmosphere, precious and mysterious. It was all theatre tricks : art seemed to jump out, jack-like, out of the black box. I remember the unsettling combinations of media - charcoal, video, photography, painting - and the constant back-and-forth between styles and periods. From Goya to Otto Muehl, from red-chalk sketches to contemporary installations, from the fabric used to catch Yves Klein when he jumped in the air to Odilon Redon’s oils on canvas. Yet despite these aesthetic confrontations, there was a strong sense of coherence.
The formal disparities obeyed a strictly thematic logic, unfolding the curator’s motifs and ideas. The artworks were decontextualised and recontextualised, demonstrating a Deleuzian approach to exhibition-making. Objects veered from their commonly accepted meanings, their newly-found significations becoming in turn the exhibition’s raison d’être. The organisation of the space matched closely the discursive structure : the entrance to each room was a short and articulated chapter, complete with title and introductory text written in a sharp, illuminating, almost bombastic style. The exhibition’s theoretical premise didn’t bother with justifications, it simply was, supported only by the immediate, almost brutal relationship between Michel’s ideas and the works. The curating felt more speculative than demonstrative ; a fertile, active and feverish intelligence was at play, subtly echoing the chosen artistic subject.

"Theoretically and spiritually, these two exhibitions embraced the cruel, dark and destructive side of art."

The decisions on texts and scenography, however significant they were, never felt gratuitous, instead truly resonating with the art on display. Theoretically and spiritually, these two exhibitions embraced the cruel, dark and destructive side of art. Under the aegis of Nietzsche, Bataille, Artaud, but also Deleuze and Foucault, one show looked at the artistic act as a ’crime’, as a sacrilege against representation itself, while the other reorganised great artistic figures (from Da Vinci to Degas, from Raphael to Bill Viola) according to a typology of sexual perversions : incest, paedophilia, voyeurism, sadism and so forth. In both cases, there was the same will to shoehorn the works into the exhibition’s premise, without any regard for the risks of appropriation and disingenuousness. But it didn’t matter as these theoretical speculations, only based on intuition and a sensual kind of intelligence, ended up taking full significance in the works’ arrangement. Self-generated, they were nonetheless truly convincing.
By daring to take risks, intellectually and formally, these subjective perspectives revealed a fascinating secret art history. Bold decisions were everywhere : a film on concentration camps was shown alongside the works of Viennese Actionists, sparking irate responses even at Le Monde. The association made theoretical sense, often referred to, but it was ’visually’ unacceptable. This was a tangible demonstration of the underlying exhibition premise : the unmatchable destructive power of representation. Another memory : Jean-Luc Godard on TV, showing extracts from the film Microcosmos alongside images from André Malraux’s L’Espoir. Godard explained why it was more relevant for him to present the images without comments, reasserting the primacy of visual juxtaposition over discourse.

"Understanding curating as a form of risk-taking and as a commitment resonating with the works on display."

These two exhibition-manifestos rested on a number of principles that have been crucial for my practice as a curator ever since, among others :
- The non-adaptation to the space (the Louvre isn’t designed to show contemporary art, and yet it gave a rich tonality to the exhibitions, the galleries adding another layer of complexity to the ensemble).
- The desire to surprise the visitors, to trap them in a curatorial system, using theatrical tricks if needed. This can involve, for instance : playing on the contrast between light and darkness, on the different scales, on the jarring colours (a good way to fight indifference and boredom).
- Understanding the exhibition as a precarious assemblage of works, at once subjective, affirmative and daring.
- Understanding curating as a form of risk-taking and as a commitment resonating with the works on display.
- The theme as a crossover : using formal decisions to enlighten the ideas and intellectual decisions to enlighten the works.
- Art criticism and exhibition-making seen as forms of storytelling.
- Accepting to work against the obvious, and eventually embrace what Barthes used to call ’the fecundity of misinterpreting’.

Source :

Guillaume Désanges