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Philippe Parreno at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Monday 11 April 2011, by Benoit

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not."

This quote, frequently attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, although he originally paraphrased Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, echoes in many ways important aspects and dichotomies in Phillipe Parreno’s recent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery (25 November 2010 - 13 February 2011). Born in Algeria in 1964, Parreno is a visual artist who works primarily with films. He came to prominence in the early 1990’s and has been largely associated with relational art, theorised by Nicolas Bourriaud.

The recent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London presented a series of four films – old and new. Walking into Parreno’s exhibition is a rather confusing experience. Providing as little information as possible – which was Parreno’s intention – the gallery appears at first as a large empty space, where hardly identifiable noises come out of the walls and a strange assemblage of electric adapters streams out of the carpeted floor. Only one film plays at a time in an endless cycle. Unless the visitor comes in at the specific moment when No More Reality/La Démonstration is playing by the entrance, they will have to peruse an empty space, where sound and variations of light become the artist’s language to direct his audience. The most impatient and uncomfortable ones most likely go straight to the gallery attendants, standing awkwardly in a corner to ask where the art is or if the show is currently being installed. Others will ask about Anish Kapoor’s sculptures and walk straight back out into the park. The most persistent or intrigued gallery-goers will accept this brief moment of discomfort until they find their way through the rolling projection sequence.

Relational Aesthetics describes a form of art-making and modes of display that create a community or a social dynamic around the work. Very influential in the 1990’s, this theory set the ground for contemporary debates on participation and the activation of the audience in the arts. To a certain extent, I would agree with Bourriaud when he says:

‘We don’t want to be governed, we want to be active. It is from this perspective that the encounter between Parreno’s work and Relational Aesthetics occurs: namely the symbolic redistribution of the active and the passive in the field of art. ‘ (Bourriaud, 2002) [1]

However, one could also question how active it is to follow a simple set of instructions translated into an aesthetic language. The fact that the artist has, quite literally, programmed his audience to navigate the space from one room to another is hardly a form of participation, hardly a mode of active spectatorship. More interestingly though, Parreno orchestrates the possibility for disobedience: as only one film plays at the time, the gallery is left with an incredible empty space. Working in the gallery throughout the exhibition, I witnessed all sorts of behaviours and reactions. Quite rarely, visitors would take up this opportunity to enjoy the availability of this large unattended space. One visitor, who watched some or all of the films, just walked out of the virtual circle of the film sequence to find refuge in an empty room and started meditating (literally). Others took a nap, or gathered with friends to have a chat. The gallery visitor’s ability to subvert the exhibition space becomes a mode of resistance towards the apparent audience programming in operation. In the current cultural economy, where public institutions and galleries are increasingly relying on private hires, this kind of reconfiguration of the politics of the space is rather interesting: on the one hand, we have an exhibition consisting of a largely unattended space, up for grab in a slightly deviant way in relation to the work presented, and on the other hand, this same object-free space becomes an attraction for private hires and other corporate events. The value of the same space therefore changes from one context to another, one audience to another.

The notion of absence is constant in Parreno’s work. Whether it is the ‘posthumous’ character in June 8 1968, the illegal migrant Chinese boy of Invisible Boy, or the artist himself - absent and yet directing the audience flow. Another type of absence that struck me in the exhibition, is a kind of de-politicisation of aesthetics.

“It (aesthetics) is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.” (Rancière, 2004) [2]

June 8 1986 depicts in a highly cinematographic fashion the deportation of senator Robert F. Kennedy’s corpse from New York to Washington DC, after he was assassinated. This event, which followed JFK’s death by only three years, marked the end of a phase of hope for political change in America. It was the end of something, throwing the country in a period of mourning. The film is a detailed re-enactment of this event, based on a photographic series by Paul Fusco. Look-alike actors, outfits and cars, all elements have been orchestrated to recreate the scenery, however some things are missing. As Micheal Fried mentioned in his essay On Philippe Parreno’s June 8, 1968 [3] , as well as Lucia Pietroiusti during her presentation at the French Institute in February 2011, banners, flags and direct signs of political expression of loss have been omitted from the film. This is very interesting, as Parreno seems to have put a lot of effort into reconstructing every details of the event. Invisible Boy, which supposedly depicts the existence of a young illegal migrant boy from China to New York City and whose loneliness leads him to imagine all sorts of fantasy characters, presents a similar trick. Even though the video deals with a politically sensitive topic, the film barely discloses traces of migrants’ precarious existence, and the high aestheticisation of the work detracts from the film’s political potential, as if it wasn’t the point at all. It is thus surprising to think that the artist would pick such problematic or historical moments to deprive them of their political nature, as if the absence of these elements was making a statement. According to Lucia Pietroiusti, independent curator and editor based in London, “the removal of a kind of politics, is an index of its absence. It is a way to look at how we de-politicise experience.” This statement seems to emerge in a loud, colourful and unpredictable way in No More Reality/La Démonstration, the oldest of all four films. La Démonstration – the only work that contains speech, or at least elements of it – shows a group of children protesting against reality. This piece, which is the documentation of a workshop run by Parreno in the 1990’s in France, diverges from Invisble Boy and June 8 1968 in its graphically political imagery – a virulent demonstration, which strangely echoes the current student protests. As the chanting goes on, the blinds come up in the gallery, unveiling heavy (fake) snow dropping from the building’s roof. This film comes across as a strong statement in relation to the other works, discretely pointing to the tension between historical and social elements and staged political aesthetics.

It is quite difficult to firmly locate or identify – in this exhibition - the artist’s authorship over his work, as if it was leaking onto the space and spreading through the mode of spectatorship at stake. He programmes an endless cycle of social dynamics, directing the audience into an ordered path, and yet subtly leaves the possibility for resistance. He proposes a revolution for the end of reality, and suggests a form of narrative where the representation of political elements is left out. Notions of reality and fiction overlap in a strange way, as if they were in a constant dialogue. This dynamic seems to reference the audience’s uncertainty or discomfort towards the reading of the exhibition. “What am I looking at?” asked one visitor. The question seems almost only relevant if asked the other way around. “What am I not looking at?”

Benoit Loiseau @ ...ment

...ment is an online journal for contemporary culture, art and politics. Through a multi-disciplinary set of editorial forms, the journal aims to reflect on urgent societal issues and debates. acts as a field for enquiry, dialogue and experimentation and is committed to emerging forms and ideas. Issue 1 of ...ment ’Welfare Statement’ is now available online at www.journalment.org. A limited print edition is also available at different bookshops in Berlin and London.


[1In Philippe Parreno: Films 1987-2010 ; Serpentine Gallery, London; Koenig Books, London, 2010

[2Rancière, J. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Tr. Gabriel Rockhill, 2004

[3In Philippe Parreno: Films 1987-2010 ; Serpentine Gallery, London; Koenig Books, London, 2010

Forum posts

  • I agree about the depoliticisation of art, as if the artist is making a statement of his own detachment from (and superiority over) everyday life and the mundane character of politics. Frankly for someone who doesn’t know much about relational aethetics and the like, the meaning behind the works was frankly opaque. Good piece, though, definitely helps putting it in context. C-J

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