To a three-year old, your seventy-year-old grandmother might just as well be two hundred years old. The sheer number of years is too incomprehensibly high to make sense of anyway. To a child of ten, age continues to be a quite abstract concept, but you may have some vague idea of your grandparents or great-grandparents pulling down blackout blinds during World War II. At the age of thirty-five time starts whizzing by at greatly increased speeds, and once you are in your forties things happen so quickly that 150 years is actually a time frame you can relate to. At the age of seventy you wonder at how your strength seems to vane – especially because you remember your childhood as if it were yesterday. This is also an age where many people read biographies with a voracious appetite, perhaps in order to carry out more or less subconscious comparisons: What can you do in a lifetime? How much can you achieve? Which choices proved the decisive ones? Will the impact of any of those choices still be felt a hundred years from now?
Such thoughts passed through my head when I recently visited Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s retrospective, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster 1887-2058, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This may seem hardly surprising given the retrospective format of the exhibition, but strangely enough this was actually the first time that a retrospective exhibition has had that effect on me. Perhaps my age (43) has finally enabled me to experience retrospective views in a new and different way, but even without such considerations there is certainly something special about the way in which the 50-year-old Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster handles this particular challenge.
By now we have often seen such retrospectives give rise to quite a lot of conceptual antics and contortions – particularly in connection with the 1990s generation of artists to which Gonzalez-Foerster belongs. This is partly because such retrospectives take place at increasingly early stages of each artist’s life and career. For it was with this generation that the exhibition industry boomed. Never before have there been so many exhibitions, so many institutions for contemporary art and so many artists with constant jetlag. So when the artists from Gonzalez-Foerster’s generation (and league) reached their forties, they had already staged so many exhibitions that there was plenty to look back on. Hence the rise of the mid-career retrospective, a special format that numerous artists from that generation have already been subjected to several times. Artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Elmgreen & Dragset seem to have had countless shows of this kind. Often, these exhibitions are marked by a kernel of panic nestling at their innermost, subconscious core: the invitation to stage a retrospective quite obviously prompts a sudden sense of mortality, and so artists will often strive to recontextualise their oeuvre with startling displays and devices that demonstrate that they are still evolving, still alive.
Even though Gonzalez-Foerster undoubtedly scatters a tremendous amount of perspectives and narratives out across the thirty works selected for the exhibition, you never get that sense of panic. Perhaps this is because she appears to own the format to a quite unusual degree. She plunges so deeply into the format that it feels as if she inhabits the exhibition.
I entered the exhibition three times, and I finally sat down in a sitting chair in front of the entrance in order to replay the situation in slow-motion. A very strange atmosphere pervades the very first part of the exhibition. You arrive by an escalator to the Galerie Sud – the place where the Pompidou usually presents solo exhibitions of contemporary art – and present your ticket to the guard. It then seems as if the classic Brasilia Hall (1998) is the first work on display – an installation consisting of a grass-green carpet, red neon on the wall spelling out the word “Brasil”, and a film about the modernist city of Brasila, which aimed for open, democratic spaces with multiple horizons. Given the multi-facetted approaches seen in this exhibition, this work would indeed have been a reasonable opening act for a Gonzalez-Foerster retrospective. But in fact the exhibition begins before this point – in the glass-lined room that juts out from the façade facing the large square outside. This is where the sitting chair is. It is also where the guard sits, and you will find a few plants and a couple of exhibition catalogues for you to leaf through. At first glance it seems that the amount of glass prevents this space from being used to exhibit anything, and so we perceive it as a kind of lobby or reading room. But appearances can be deceptive: we are already deeply immersed in the story.
Sitting in my chair, I review a timeline on the wall. It defines the two extremes on the exhibition’s timescale: 1887 and 2058. The first, “1887: Construction du Splendide Hotel”, states the year of the construction of Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, a former greenhouse, where Gonzalez-Foerster exhibited the work Splendide Hotel in 2014; a work that takes a classic Gonzalez-Foerster approach as it embroils itself in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 411 and Rimbaud’s Illuminations. The last year on the timeline, “2058: T.H.2058, Londres”, is a reference to the future scenario of T.H.2058, which Gonzalez-Foerster presented at Tate London’s Turbine Hall in 2008: a work which installed 229 bunk beds among classic works of modern sculpture by artists such as Calder and Bourgeois. Supplemented by pocketbook editions of science fiction literature, the installation offers a vision of a shelter created to hold people after a future climate disaster. This is to say that the exhibition title eschews the usual practice of referring to the oldest and most recent works on display; instead it describes the artistic-mental span of time – from past to future – that Gonzalez-Foerster has worked with through the years.
From the timeline we may deduce that the exhibition itself starts in 1977, the year in which the newly opened Centre Pompidou showed a Duchamp exhibition that not only presented a number of iconic works, but also included plenty of potted palms scattered throughout the exhibition. This apparently left quite an imprint on the memory of the young Gonzalez-Foerster, who was twelve at the time, for you are transported to that setting as you sit in the sitting chair – next to a palm and a large photograph that has been printed onto transparent self-adhesive film and attached to one of the large windows; the photo shows Le Grand Verre as it was installed at the Pompidou in 1977. There is also a tall plinth topped by an empty cube-shaped glass display case – a work by the artist and collaborator Philippe Parreno, whose retrospective was held in 2013 at Palais de Tokyo, coinciding with the time when the third contributor to this generational partnership, Pierre Huyghe, had an exhibition at this very same spot, the Galerie Sud at the Pompidou. Now, then, we see that Parreno and Duchamp, in his “Pompidou 1977” guise, have been added to the mix.
This means that – in an utterly transparent, yet also very Duchampian roundabout manner – the seemingly empty, glass-encased space with the empty display case and “the large glass” constitutes a kind of starting point for the entire exhibition; a beginning that deals with the grandest narratives possible – institution, art, generation. This is just one example of the wealth of subtle associations and interweaved references found in this exhibition; the sheer number of such allusions sets your head spinning.
If looking-through–Le-Grand-Verre is one of the retrospective approaches taken in this exhibition, there are also other perspectives which take a more direct, 1:1 approach to the general ideas about lived life and art. In the autobiographical Equinimod & Costumes from 2014, Gonzalez-Foerster presents a room in which her private photographs, drawings, and – notably – her clothes from the 1960s to the present day are now up on the wall. At first glance this seems quite far removed from the platform works of her youth, showing empty teenage bedrooms from the 1970s or empty office spaces. It seems as if the invitation to stage a retrospective prompted her to jump right into her own narratives – to take centre stage on all the platforms, something which they did not exactly invite when they were first made back in those happy days of relational aesthetics. At times it almost feels as if she is having fun dressing herself in her past oeuvre as a kind of drag act.
The exhibition has quite a non-hierarchical layout, with labyrinthine sequences of partially empty rooms, environments and passages, but in what we perceive to be the heart – or engine room – of the exhibition we find the film screening room, which shows a sequence of eight films in total. One of the funniest is De Novo from 2009, which shows Gonzalez-Foerster sitting at a table in a restaurant as she relates the story of the four times she was invited to take part in the Venice Biennial. The narrative is very much about expectations and disappointments. The first time, in 1990, she was disappointed by the exhibition venue, a former prison at San Marco. It did not feel as if she were truly part of the exhibition. The same happened in 1993, when she exhibited in the lagoon itself – the work was under water. In 2000 she finally exhibited at the main exhibition, but suffered a breakdown during the installation because she repeatedly saw people ambling in to see the installation prior to the opening, before the film was up and running and before the carpet had been laid: “It was as if people were trampling around inside my head, in my mental space.”
In 2003 she received her fourth invitation to contribute to the Arsenale exhibition Utopia Station. It was a difficult time, she relates. She was all emptied out, had no ideas. The only idea that came to her was to write the letters U-T-O-P-I-A in a circle … She ended up showing an entirely darkened space with black holes inside. The question of how these black holes were constructed is not made clear, but at any rate visitors would walk around the darkened space, discussing whether they could see the black holes. “I knew then that I had to take a break form art,” says Gonzalez-Foerster drily to the camera. The film itself was shown at the Venice Biennial in 2009; this was the fifth time Gonzalez-Foerster was invited to contribute.
At the age of fifty you may have seen enough, read enough and experienced enough to be able to envision how little or how much will happen in the decades that follow. Perhaps you can picture the idea of a forty-three year period until 2058 – the end point of this retrospective. At that point she will be 93. Perhaps that is roughly the age that the women of the Gonzalez-Foerster family reach before they die. But as we have established, the exhibition title – 1887-2058 – is also about the period of time that Gonzalez-Foerster has specifically addressed, artistically and mentally, and you could certainly say that this is plenty of ground to have covered within a single oeuvre. When you have done this, perhaps you have done enough. On the other hand Gonzalez-Foerster has closed no doors, burnt no bridges. Who is to say that she will not create a work inspired by Napoleon’s bedroom or come up with a future tableaux from Senegal anno 2105?
I have only met Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster once. It is unlikely that she remembers. But I do, for it was a very special day. It was the morning after I kissed my boyfriend for the first time. We met her at breakfast at his hotel, where she was also staying. I think it was in Basel in 1899.