A new series of exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo highlights the role of the curator.
The curator, that grandiloquent charmer of artists, administrator of objects and chronicler of ideas and attitudes, is the key subject of Nouvelles Vagues, a sprawling showcase of new, recent and occasionally vintage avant-garde work currently on view at Palais de Tokyo. Biennale-like in scale, this multi-part extravaganza comprises 21 independently curated exhibitions by a broad range of young curators, some working individually, others in collaboration. Two South Africans, Anthea Buys, formerly a curator at the National Gallery in Cape Town, and Mikhael Subotzky, a highly awarded young documentary photographer from Johannesburg, are the only African curators participating in the project, which extends to a series of off-site exhibitions at more than 30 Paris galleries.
The pair, who previously worked together on Subotzky’s 2012 Steidl book Retinal Shift, jointly pitched a proposal to showcase work that broadly engages the idea of structure as “a phenomenon that is both volumetric and conceptual”. It is a non-parochial and generative idea, one that has enabled Buys and Subotzky to select artists from different times and geographies. Their exhibition, entitled This House, includes Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975), a short film documenting the deceased American artist’s physical intervention with the structure of an abandoned building adjacent the (at that time) work-in-progress Centre Georges Pompidou. This House also includes a recent text-based piece by the Norwegian-Iranian artist André Tehrani, as well as newly commissioned works by Alexandra Makhlouf, Magnhild Øen Nordahl and Serge Alain Nitegeka, young artists born in South Africa, Norway and Burundi respectively.
The show’s title is drawn from a phrase spoken by Moses Lamani, one of two tour guides interviewed in Subotzky’s four-channel film Moses and Griffiths (2012). The film premiered at the 2012 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a remote university town in the Eastern Cape, and serves as a lynchpin for the exhibition. Shot entirely on location in Grahamstown, Moses and Griffiths presents an impressionistic retelling of the white settlement of this historically Xhosa enclave on South Africa’s eastern seaboard – very near to Nelson Mandela’s birthplace of Mvezo. Architecture is a key leitmotif of the film, which is set across two venues: a Victorian camera lucida, and a late modernist cultural centre and monument commemorating the arrival of English settlers in 1820. Some of the other works on show similarly reveal how architecture and ideology are intertwined. Tehrani’s reassembled text work, The Letter V in Various Media 1963–1998 (2012), offers a delirious mash-up of postmodernist fiction and Situationist ideas: Benny Profane, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. (1963), becomes a Parisian flâneur in a cut-up narrative. Nitegeka’s work should have embodied the curatorial idea, but ultimately didn’t. In 1993, together with his family, Nitegeka fled the conflict in Burundi for Rwanda. A decade later, after periods spent in the DRC and Kenya, he moved to South Africa where he has refined a practice that is commercially popular as well as conceptually agile.
His large site-specific installations, which obstruct easy passage through them, are more representative of the latter strain in his practice. Unfortunately, two Paris institutions wanted the same kind of work from Nitegeka for their openings, which coincided by a day. La maison rouge, a private museum near Bastille, which is currently showing a large-scale group exhibition devoted to South Africa’s economic capital, My Joburg, ultimately won first prize. For his Palais de Tokyo debut, Nitegeka resolved to make three arched scaffolding structures in his signature black. Compromise is rarely the basis for compelling art: Nitegeka’s installation conveys none of the awkwardness or sense of displacement that is the artist’s aim with these site-specific works. Nordahl, a Norwegian artist whose output includes arresting geometrical structures painted in bright primary colours that are partly informed by her early encounters with the Swiss duo Lang/Baumann, showed 7º (2012), a site-specific sculptural installation composed of four rectangular and rhomboidal planes, each declining, each painted a uniform colour – blue, grey, yellow and purple. An earlier version of this work was shown at the Tin Sheds Gallery as part of the fringe programme of the 2012 Biennale in Sydney, Australia. Makhlouf is a Johannesburg-based artist and twice the winner of the prestigious Martienssen Prize at the University of the Witwatersrand. She created a drawing installation that evolved on site. Like Nitegeka, Makhlouf works primarily with the colour black. Her choice of iodine however ensures a measure of impermanence: her black ink drawings will fade and disappear.
Presented as a discrete show within a large presentation of disconnected exhibitions, This House forms part of a larger argument about the role and place of the curator as an autonomous change agent. Following closely on the opening of the Prada Foundation’s restaging of Szeeman’s 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in Venice, Nouvelles Vagues aims to propose the curator as a kind of conductor of chaos. It is a valid proposition, but a gauche one too. Remember what happened to Mickey Mouse in Fantasia when he famously tried to makes dumb objects dance? A measure of that catastrophe is enacted in the Palais de Tokyo. It is a beautiful mess.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.