Paris in Person | Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 at the Pompidou Center
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Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 at the Pompidou Center

Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

Kader Attia, Yto Barrada, Ulla Von Brandenburg et Barthélémy Toguo

12th October 2016 – 30th January 2017

Centre Pompidou


So we found ourselves (one of us did anyway, but let’s keep it more interesting this way) on an opening of the exhibition dedicated to the four finalists of the Marcel Duchamp prize – Kader Attia, Yto Barrada, Ulla Von Brandenburg and Barthélémy Toguo. The event was an invitation only and took place on Tuesday (today, so exclusive news!) while the rest of the museum as well as the library are closed. From the very entrance, this was a considerable contribution to the atmosphere, as the space of the Pompidou center is huge (here, imagine Donald Trump saying “HUUUGE” to get a better feel of it). When it’s empty, it is all that more impressive.


The exhibition was divided into four parts, each of them handling a different subject, all the while maintaining this overarching connection between all of them. More on that later though. From the entrance, you first step into the space dedicated to Barthélémy Toguo. His work is themed around the subject of AIDS and Ebola viruses, two of the illness ravaging the African continent (and two probable causes for a contemporary person to know about the existence of viruses as such). His treatment of the subject, done in the collaboration with the Institut Pierre et Marie Curie (who helped him draw and sculpt those viruses accurately) was to build monumental porcelain vases, painted with a series of his self portraits and decorated with images of these viruses. They were all centered around a table where sculptures of these viruses were presented.


photo © Fabrice Gibert


photo © Fabrice Gibert


photo © Fabrice Gibert

Straight ahead was the space occupied by Yto Barrada, a French-Moroccan artist. For the purposes of this exhibition, she decided to do an exploration into the life and work of (a now forgotten) pupil of the famous anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Thérèse Rivière. Her installation was a copy of a room (a room within a room – very Inception-like) ornate with various objects Thérèse collected and analysed throughout her life before she was interned for grave mental difficulties. A work is supposed to be an assembly of her life, suppressed emotions and personality and her obsessive desire to prove herself as a scientist (back in the day, we’re speaking of the 30’s of the 20th century, women scientists were not as common as they are today). It is a reconstitution of her house, representing an inner being, made of fragments of her work.



After exiting the room and going back to the Barthélémy Toguo space, from there you go the right and access the Ulla Von Brandenburg installation. Her’s is dedicated to the “contemporary ritual” –  a white staircase ornate with different colors is placed in front of a large canvas upon which a movie is projected. It displays dancers performing a ritualistic dance, using the staircase as their podium and altar. In her own words, the installation was not only aimed at exploring ancient ritualistic practices and their possibilities (and presence) in the world of today, but also at a place of the individual in a society today. The dances the group does are collective and, again, in her own words (she was present at the exhibition) are meant to show how a society is supposed to embrace an individual and make her/him feel safe. The ritual dance is therefore used as a binding agent, a socially cohesive practice – as rituals always were.



Behind this space is the final section of the exhibition, dedicated to Kader Attia. Again, we see a mixture of a film and of an installation, this time though clearly divided by a barrier. His film is in a separate dark room, whereas the installation of papier maché objects is further inside this space. The film is a documentary dealing with limb loss and the phantom pain that ensues. Following in the footsteps of the great (and unfortunately, as of recent late) anthropologist René Girard, he explores the notion of mimetism via this highly symbolical contextualisation of the given phenomenon.


Kader Attia, Excerpt from a film Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016. Kader Attia, 2016.

So what were our impressions after and during the show ? You could say they were mixed. The intention of the artists as well as the jury selecting them as the final four finalists were clear – art and anthropology are placed closely together, interwoven even. The artists ask questions rather than giving answers, and those questions are aimed at the very sources of our society (as anthropology is). The questions would concern our perception of illness and injury, our attempt to rationalize them and distinguish ourselves from them. Not only by naming the influence of René Girard in the exhibition catalogue, but also by a clear intention, the Freudian line of inquiry is clearly drawn – illness and violence are, in fact, the very source of our society. Freud wrote about taboo as being the first sign of civilization, and of ritualistic repetition of the initial violence out of which not only all the arts, but all the laws would be born. It was clearly the intention of the jury to bring these works together in order to recreate that notion. Ritualistic dance, violence of separated limbs, rationalizing deadly viruses, making sense of society and yourself in it by assembling fragments; all of the different segments of the exhibition point to one notion, that of the very source of our society and our inquiry of it. You could say that the curators did a fine work of placing these works together, as the connection is clearly underlined.


However, our impressions are not all positive. While all of the written above is very interesting, it is essentially “old news”. The European artistic scene has been fascinated by Africa, the roots of our civilization, by (so called) primitive art for well over a hundred years now. From the fauvist movement and the early cubists, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, we have seen over and over again the exploration of the roots of our society and admiration of the primitive. This attitude is in itself a very colonial cultural appropriation and is, for most part, acting as nothing more as a mirror for the vain European culture that admires its progress over other culture’s “primitivism”. These inquiries are interesting, but they don’t really step out of that same old line and they don’t really bring anything new to the table. We are very anxious to witness an original line of thought, one that would not do one of two things – celebrate the cultural supremacy of Europe (and the cultures that stemmed from it) or inquire over “primitivism” of everything else.


Also, there is a considerable problem of the necessity of contextualization. In all honesty though, that can be said about almost the totality of contemporary art. If you are not familiar with anthropological concepts here addressed, this exhibition might not do much for you. Although this art explores “the primitive”, “the initial”, “the ritualistic”, in order to “get it” you have to be very well versed not only in contemporary art but also in anthropology. It is the art made only for the initiated and therefore limited to a very small circle of people. It is rather paradoxical that these two notions go hand in hand ; cultural elitism and admiration of the primitive – but that is a subject for an altogether different inquiry. Our biggest complaint is, however, that this type of approach is closer to actual anthropology (or a creative anthropological essay of the sorts) than it is to the domain of art. It feels more as an experiment than it does as an experience. It is quite cerebral, yet not very moving. But, again, in all fairness, you could say the same for a large portion (luckily not all of it) of the contemporary art scene in general.