Monumental / Spectacle: Philippe Parreno
by Nancy Chen
In 1995, Philippe Parreno was in Hamburg, Germany prepa- ring an exhibition at the local Kunstverein, a contemporary art space. The French artist, then thirty-one, was collabo- rating with local art students to realize the show, for which he envisioned producing a day that would keep repeating itself throughout the exhibition. Jörn Schafaff was a student who worked at the Kunstverein, encountering Parreno for the first time. “In order to introduce what he meant, Parreno referred to the movie Groundhog Day, and he used a lot of film terminology when he spoke about visual art,” Schafaff wrote by email from Berlin, where he now lives and works as an art historian. “What an idea! It was a commentary on the temporal structure of the exhibition format: Normally, the whole dynamic of processes and changes is frozen at the moment of the opening, virtually making each day in the exhibition look the same.” The resulting exhibition called “While...” included a diverse arrangement of elements refe- rencing media culture, collectively indicating a day in a loop. Schafaff concluded, “I think Philippe was not all that happy with the result, but for me, a young cultural studies student who knew very little about contemporary art, the experience opened up a whole new world.”
Schafaff, who received a Ph.D. in Art History from the Free University of Berlin, went on to write his dissertation on Parreno. The monograph, published in 2010, is called How We Gonna Behave? Philippe Parreno: Angewandtes Kino(Applied Cinema). This fall, Schafaff will visit the University of Chicago to co-teach parts of the combined undergraduate and graduate course “Philippe Parreno’s Media Tempora- lities” with Professor Ina Blom. Based at the University of Oslo, Blom is also Wigeland Visiting Professor in the Depart- ment of Art History at the University of Chicago, teaching here every fall quarter from 2016 through 2021. The course is devoted to an in-depth study of Parreno’s body of work and the media thinking that informs it.
Blom, a leading scholar of media aesthetics and the rela- tionships between art, technology, and media, first came across Parreno’s work in the late 1990s as part of a group of young European artists who were interested in the impact of new media on our social environment and everyday life.
These artists, including Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger, and others, created links between time-based media (such as film, video, and computing) and architecture and design, social/political processes, and natural phenomena. “I always found Parreno to be one of the most inventive and interes- ting in this group,” said Blom. “In contrast to the many artists who focus on messages and ideological content in the media, Parreno seems more occupied with the ways in which media shape our lived reality, and engages our sensorial and emotional capacities. [His work] draws on a vast register of collective memory-materials, intellectual references, and technological affordances that open up new ways of thinking about the relationship between bodies and technologies, or between the natural and the artificial. It is also deeply invested in imagining futures, or life at the limits of known realities. He is without question one of the most original, important, and admired artists working today.”
Whereas the majority of arts audiences (and artists) are accustomed to the fundamental concept of an “exhibition” as a static arrangement of finished artworks, Parreno has generally treated the exhibition format as an aesthetic medium in and of itself. He produces each exhibition as an open-ended space of possibility in which the participation of visitors with the artwork leads to the creation of something unexpected and new. This genre of contemporary art, in which the artist is facilitator or constructor of shared social experiences, was termed “relational aesthetics” by the French art historian and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who also happened to be Parreno’s roommate in New York at one point.
The words “monumental” and “spectacle” are often used to describe a Parreno exhibition. In recent years, the artist mounted groundbreaking projects at the Tate Modern in London (2016), the Park Avenue Armory in New York City (2015), and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2013). The Palais de Tokyo exhibition, called Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World (also the name of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, “N’im- porte où hors du monde”), was a paramount example of the way Parreno precisely choreographs an exhibition. The Palais de Tokyo, a leading contemporary arts space, was originally built for the 1937 International Exposition of Arts and Technology. Parreno was the first artist to occupy its entirety—over 70,000 square feet of space—filling each room with visual and aural effects, many of which were controlled using computer programs and automated technology. In the exhibition’s catalogue, the artist explained that he planned for visitors to experience the show as a promenade through a landscape, but following a path ordered by “paranoiac logic.”
Within the Anywhere landscape, familiar recurring charac- ters from Parreno’s universe that appeared on screens included Marilyn Monroe, a giant, glittering cuttlefish, a Japanese Manga charac- ter named Annlee, and the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane. One of Parreno’s best known projects to mainstream audiences is the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which he conceived and direc- ted in collaboration with Douglas Gordon. The film used seventeen cameras to document Zidane, in real time, during a match he played for Real Madrid at the club’s home stadium in April 2005. Two of the cameras used were on loan from the United States Army and were equipped with the most powerful zoom in the world. The cameramen were only instructed to track Zidane throughout the game, from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. Afterwards, Parreno and Gordon edited the footage, bricolaging the pieces together into a cohesive and lyrical portrait of a player as beloved as he is inscrutable. The resulting account re-contextualized the action to focus on Zidane as protagonist, or anti-hero, allowing viewers to experience a soccer match in a way that would never be possible on broadcast television. This idea of introducing a fresh way of seeing what is familiar, what one takes for granted, vitally connects to Parre- no’s artistic approach. Zidane is now widely available on DVD. In Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World, it was presented on seventeen floating screens, such that visitors physically navigated between different channels, as in a maze.
Having traveled to Paris to see Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World, Blom said, “It is incredibly hard to give a brief description of the Palais de Tokyo show, but it was one of the most compelling exhibition projects I have ever encountered. The exhibition really functioned as one big living mechanism, a real environment where you did not so much look at work as being drawn into one situation after another, from one end of the enormous building to the other. The dynamic of the show was closer to a musical or choreographic experience, but most importantly the project seemed to have a living, breathing dynamic of its own.”
In a literal sense, Parreno utilized a living mechanism to help facilitate the show: in Paris, as in a number of his shows, he incorporated a bioreactor connected to a colony of yeast. As described in the exhibition booklet of Parreno’s recent solo show at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (May–August 2018): “In an isolated booth there is a bioreactor consisting of a beaker in which microorganisms multiply, mutate, and adapt to their environment. Connected to com- puters that orchestrate the events in the exhibition, these yeast cultures develop a memory—a collective intelligence—that learns the changing rhythms of the show and evolves to anticipate future variations.” Inside a clear glass beaker, the yeast’s patterns of movement and metabolism change as it receives food and as it reacts to shifts in temperature and light. The bioreactor is linked up to software that controls all the sequences of the exhibition, so that the yeast’s response to the environment in turn trig- gers events within the exhibition, such as the curtains being drawn or certain sounds growing louder. In this sense, it could be said that the artist left a beaker of yeast in charge of the exhibition.
Exhibition views, Philippe Parreno, Gropius Bau Berlin, 2018, ©Philippe Parreno. Courtesy the artist, Pilar Corrias, Barbara Gladstone, Esther Schipper, Photo ©Andrea Rossetti.
Schafaff, who also experienced Anywhere in person, as well as Parreno’s latest solo exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, was struck by how by the artist seamlessly integra- ted the architecture of the respective venues into the overall artistic concept. “In Paris, the low-lit maze of rooms in the lower areas of the building really led you out of the world. At the same time, the presented works provided you with enough triggers to distance yourself again from the immer- sive atmosphere created. In Berlin, by contrast, the rooms were filled with light, the large windows of the ground floor galleries allowing for views of the urban landscape surroun- ding the venue. The Paris show took place in winter, the Berlin show was—in Parreno’s own words—a show about the summer.”
Befitting an artist whose work engages with contemporary media, there are over 15,000 posts on Instagram with the #PhilippeParreno hashtag. In recent posts from Berlin that document the untitled exhibition at the Gropius Bau, Parre- no’s work comes off as stylish, polished, and often whimsical. One of the most photographed views is the central hall of the Gropius Bau, with its slim, dark columns and neo-Re- naissance archways elegantly mirrored by a black reflecting pool. The rectangular pool of water is a piece created by Parreno called “Sonic Waterlilies,” in which amplifiers emit soundwaves that cause circular waves to ripple on the wa- ter’s surface, a reference to Claude Monet’s famous painted lilies. Nearby, a rotating circular bleacher gives visitors a place to rest while taking in shifting views of the space.
The other most photographed view from Gropius Bau is an installation called “My Room is Another Fish Bowl,” in which fish-shaped, helium-filled Mylar balloons hover languidly in mid-air across a light-filled hall. Visitors of all ages move through the space, playfully interacting and posing for pho- tos with the fish. Microphones installed on the exterior of the building import the real-time sounds of birds chirping outsi- de, further adding to the surreal atmosphere. In this iteration, the warm orange glow that fills the hall is a reference to ano- ther piece by Parreno called “Orange Bay,” in which the sun has died and the earth is bathed in the light of a permanent sunset. “My Room is Another Fishbowl” was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago this past spring..
Parreno grew up in Grenoble in southeastern France and now lives and works in Paris. He will visit the University of Chicago in October to discuss his work with Blom’s semi- nar and make studio visits in the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA). On October 29th, the artist will also participate in a public talk with Blom and Schafaff, accompanied by excerp- ted screenings of his film works. The talk is free and open to the public and will include opportunities for audience Q&A. Just don’t ask Parreno about the message of his art, or be prepared if you do, as he provocatively explained in a 2016 interview with curator Andrea Lissoni: “I’m not interested in themes or topics. I don’t have any exterior topics other than art. I’m interested in art and its condition of appearances and apparition . . . I’ve been occupied by art for thirty years. Ghosts of the tradition of our culture don’t interest me.
I’m engaging with art. Art is a transformative practice. It’s trans. Everything ‘trans’ comes from art. Art is what mutates things.”