The most attention-grabbing aspect of the retrospective solo exhibition featuring the 49-year-old French artist Philippe Parreno is the fact that it commands no less than 10,000 m2 of floor space in the newly restored art venue Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Less striking, but more interesting is the fact that this retrospective solo exhibition might be said to be neither a solo show nor a retrospective; bizarre, yes, but it couldn’t be any other way. For Parreno is one of those artists who can be said to follow a different kind of logic – a little like the dialogue between two laid-back men in a play by Bertolt Brecht who quickly come to agree in one respect: “This beer isn’t beer, but that is compensated for by the fact that this cigar isn’t a cigar either.” Almost nothing about this event follows the usual run of things in the art world, and that is why the exhibition Anywhere, anywhere out of the world can be termed a real Parreno exhibition.
Ever since Parreno began to exhibit his work in the late 1980s in Grenoble, often in close co-operation with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Pierre Joseph, his production has unfolded in creative dialogues with one artist after the other. The most prominent figures include Pierre Huyghe, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, and Douglas Gordon, all of whom have worked on or contributed works to Parreno’s exhibition. A Parreno retrospective cannot feature only works by Parreno. As the curator Nicolas Bourriaud once announced, Parreno is – like the collaborators mentioned above – a relational artist for whom art arises in the encounter between people. As another curator, Éric Troncy, stated ten years ago, Parreno does not believe in monographs at all. Art cannot be traced back to a single auteur. Not even to a single work of art. Every time a work of art is shown, it is shown in a new way, and this, according to Parreno, makes it something else: “The art object does not exist without its exhibition.” That is why Parreno does not simply look back on his past work in Anywhere, anywhere out of the world. Rather, he seeks to revisit and project some of his early breakthrough works from the 1990s into the present.
Some of the works on display are more than 20 years old, but they no longer look like they used to. For example, this writer has previously come across the video No More Reality, in which children stage a demonstration under the ambiguous slogan “no more reality”, in a more low-key version on a small monitor at the Nils Stærk gallery. Now the video is screened on a gargantuan LED screen that you can literally see through. By gazing through No More Reality you can, to stick within the terminology, see even more reality.
When Parreno first presented No More Reality back in 1991, “reality” was turned into TV and shows. This was the year philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote three essays before, during, and after the Gulf War, where the media coverage was so massive that he proclaimed, respectively, that the war would not take, was not taking, and had not taken place. Now, in 2013, Parreno’s film is screened in a new LED format in such low resolution that it seems about as real as Pac-Man. The new version of No More Reality acts rather more like a thing in the world, on a par with all the other screens we are immersed in today. Indeed, the piece is rather environment than object. Like other works in the show it has been adapted to a new time and a new place.
Today, at a time when Second Life has long since been overtaken by everyday Facebook usage, No More Reality may simply mean that we are now less concerned with the distinction between reality and fiction, the real and the virtual, originals and copies, and so on. Nevertheless this distinction is exactly what Parreno has been playing around with for a couple of decades now. It is also a division he continues to play with at Palais de Tokyo. And that is why the exhibition can – in spite of or perhaps because of its contemporary look – seem strangely dated in places. The 2013 edition of No More Reality recalls an upside-down Flash Gordon film. While the characters in Flash Gordon dash around future settings in medieval armour, Parreno shows a work once typical of its era dressed up in the latest fashions. However, given that Parreno is a man of exquisite refinement, what may at first glance look like a problem might just as well simply be a point.
Parreno’s exhibition is undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated exhibitions on the Paris contemporary art scene this year. Not least because it coincides with another much anticipated exhibition: Parreno’s fellow artist and sometime collaborator Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou. It is hardly surprising if everyone compares the two exhibitions; the two artists do so themselves. If you go from one of these exhibitions to the other it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two artists’ approaches, themes, and aesthetics. But perhaps the differences glimpsed in the two artists’ approaches to their old works are rather more interesting. Whereas Huyghe demonstratively hides away some of his older works, Parreno may have done the opposite. Whereas Huyghe has placed his little book Pierre Ménard (1996/2007) – a rather lightweight reissue of the writer Jorge Luis Borges’ short story about Pierre Menard, who rewrites Don Quijote without changing a single accent – behind a pillar, one might say that Parreno has overexposed No More Reality in his new version. By blowing up the old film in a startlingly large format and in startlingly low resolution he did not so much breathe new life into a work as snuff it out completely. Whereas Pierre Huyghe seems to have put the issues that once concerned them both behind him now, Parreno still appears to be tackling them. And whereas Huyghe’s oeuvre is beginning to look like a draft for a new worldview Parreno is still dismantling an old one. Quite tellingly, the project Annlee – which was the most important claim to fame for both artists for a long time – is only featured at Parreno’s exhibition.
In 1999 the two French artists bought the rights to a manga character called Annlee, which they subsequently released as copyleft material. Having done that they invited their by-now-famous fellow artists to imbue the character with new life. Most recently, Tino Sehgal, a younger artist, has attracted a lot of attention by instructing little girls on how to play Annlee. This is also the case at Palais de Tokyo, where audiences first watch the 2000 film in which Annlee appears as an animated character: “My name is Annlee! (…) I am (…) a product freed from the market place I was supposed to fill” As the film ends Sehgal’s actress enters the stage: “My name is Annlee! …” First we get the film, then a real-life actress acting like the film. It is a fascinating spectacle. It is also an elegant exercise in a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. And finally it has a comical aspect, for many of Parreno and Huyghe’s early projects were re-enactments or reworkings of films made by their idols. The question is, however, whether the effect wasn’t stronger and more fun earlier in the year when Tino Sehgal presented the little girl – “freed from the market place” – at the Frieze art fair in New York.
Reality and fiction are also two entities addressed in Philippe Parreno’s new film Marilyn (2012), which recreates the iconic actress’ last hours at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. We see the camera panning around the luxurious interior of Monroe’s suite. Rain lashes against the window. The camera starts to flicker, like a gaze. We see a close-up of a pen beginning to write a letter. We zoom out and see that the pen is being held by a robot. We zoom out even more until the suite is revealed to be part of a small studio within a huge studio setup. We see the film in front of us end. And finally we see, through the transparent screen in the middle of the room, a pile of snow that turns out, upon closer inspection, not to be snow at all. The whole thing is tremendously skilfully and elegantly staged. At the same time one thinks that Parreno’s “cinéma d’exposition” is nothing but a small sequence from a French nouvelle vague film unfolded in space: it is François Truffaut’s 40 year-old film about making film, La nuit américaine, which is also a technical term for shooting “day-for-night”, i.e. for creating footage that looks as if it has been shot at night, though in fact it was recorded in broad daylight.
It can be difficult to see what Philippe Parreno actually brings to bear on all the countless works that he refers to, quotes, and draws on. The title of the exhibition – which he has used before – is from the famous poem Anywhere Out of the World by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who got it from the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn got it from a woman’s suicide note. It seems as if the only way out of Parreno’s jungle of quotes is to enter an increasingly dense undergrowth of quotes. Parreno plays the part of Baudelaire’s poet questioning his soul about where it might wish to go, but proposing nothing other than what it already has. Might, for example, the soul be tempted by Holland? “Perhaps you would find some diversion in that land whose image you have so often admired in the museums,” the poet suggests. But the soul remains silent. The poet wonders whether his soul is gone.
The sense of “soul” is also curiously absent as one walks around the Palais de Tokyo. In places the works are so far apart that you are prompted to search for them. Parreno hones and cultivates emptiness – in and between the artworks. He has sprinkled the museum with beautiful black grand pianos by Liam Gillick, playing even though there is no-one there playing them. The piece being played is Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which tells the story of a magician who creates three puppets, eventually burning one of them, Petrushka, whose response Parreno sums up as follows: “Now that you have killed me, I am alive.”
Some art critics would probably describe these pianos playing themselves as unheimlich. But here, “non-heimlich” as in “not cosy” might be a better term. Along the museum walls Parreno has strewn crackling designer versions of fluorescent tubes. Perhaps we are in a subway station where the light is about to go out and no train stops. The effect is theatrical – in a truly chilling way. At the far end of the venue’s main exhibition space you find a portal. As you open the door you stand on the threshold of an oasis: soft, gentle light from a cosy, high-end restaurant set inside this newly refurbished building flows out to greet you. A waiter, complete with butterfly, assures you that this is not, however, a work of art. In this situation most people will probably be tempted to leave behind Parreno’s art world – a world where Parreno is rather akin to the big man from the film Citizen Kane, who looks so very small because his house is so very big.
If Parreno is now, like Huyghe, an inspiration to many artists this is partly because he has carefully honed the exhibition as artistic medium, building on the work done by other francophone artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Bertrand Lavier. Of course this is also why he has been an inspiration to curators such as Bourriaud and Troncy, who set new agendas within the realm of curating in the 1990s and early 2000s. When the practice of artists such as Parreno could, even then, be mistaken for curating, this prompted curators to consider whether their practice could be mistaken for art, a position that Troncy may have advocated more than anyone else. And yet it is difficult to envision a curator at an institution following in the footsteps of Parreno the curator. One of the most charming features of his overwhelmingly vast exhibition is also one of the strangest. Instead of the small signs that we would expect to see posted on the walls we find small, discreet screens. Just as we are trying to get to grips with facts about one of the exhibits the screen image is replaced by a different text informing us about the Palais de Tokyo, its architecture, and its history, only to be replaced a few seconds later by poetic reflections that act as extensions of the works exhibited. Just like at the movies you do not have time to pause in front of a picture, for it is immediately replaced by another. And yet, Parreno assures us, film and art are two widely different things: “Film requires patience, you must wait for the words ‘the end’ – in art those words never arrive.”