Government's big push for French art with Force de l'Art 02

But curators dislike notion of national scene

The second edition of La Force de l’Art, the Paris-based triennial of contemporary art, has an unmistakably French air. Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, the project is a strong promotional push from the government for recognition of French art. But when questioned on what the exhibition has to say about France or the country’s art scene, the curators are reticent. “We didn’t want to deal with these kinds of considerations,” Didier Ottinger, deputy director of the Centre Pompidou and one of the show’s three curators, told The Art Newspaper. “There’s always some question about the national scene, what it is. Nobody cares,” said Jean-Yves Jouannais, a critic and also one of the show’s curators along with Jean-Louis Froment, an independent curator who founded Bordeaux’s CAPC contemporary art museum. Both Mr Ottinger and Mr Jouannais said, however, that the importance of literature was an inescapable tenet of French art—and it is clear that this is what permeates the 13,500 sq. m nave of the Grand Palais.

Véronique Aubouy’s Proust lu [Proust Read], 1993-2009, is perhaps the most archetypal of these literary-inspired works. A huge undertaking, the work involves hundreds of hours of filmed footage of people from all walks of life reading extracts from Proust texts over several years. Julien Prévieux has created a library of obsolete books, and Wang Du’s International Kebab, 2008, looks like a giant literary donor kebab—a structure made up of thousands of pages of printed documents piled high that can be shaved off with knives by the image-hungry visitor. The largest in scope is Jean-Baptiste Ganne’s work in the dome at the centre of the Grand Palais—a morse code rendition of Cervantes’s Don Quixote to be transmitted across Paris in red lights for 40 nights.

Mr Ottinger also argued that confrontational art is not dead in France. Philippe Mayaux’s Les Agitateurs, 2008, presents a series of disembodied hands hydraulically brandishing signs of political protest, and duo Sylvain Grout and Yann Mazéas are showing a Gordon Matta-Clark-style installation in which a house has been violently sawn in half.

In contrast to this year’s show, the 2006 edition of La Force de l’Art had 15 curators who each presented their own separate exhibitions in the Grand Palais. When asked why La Force de l’Art 02 had three curators, Mr Ottinger responded: “It was a strange decision, which was not part of our own decision. It was in fact a political decision…I received a call from someone who asked me: ‘Do you want to be the curator of the next Force de l’Art?’ and I said: ‘I don’t think it’s something to do for a single person.’” Subsequently three other curators were added to the team, one of whom dropped out. “Perhaps it would have been easier for us to do one show each, but we decided to make only one show in total,” Mr Jouannais told TAN. “That was exciting and difficult because we didn’t know each other very well. We’re not the same age, and we don’t have the same history in the field of art.”

Mr Ottinger said that the show was not untouched by the economic crisis. “Of course we had to adjust the dream to the reality,” he told TAN. “We were expecting many funds coming from private means, and of course with the crisis we had to readjust as the budget was no longer the same. It was quite a difference… but it was not painful. It’s rather easier than other institutions I have known, such as the Pompidou or elsewhere. It was very smooth. Two hundred and fifty people were working at the same time without any trouble.”

As well as the main focus at the Grand Palais, with an emphasis on up-and-coming artists who could benefit from a wider exposure, across the city six established names have made site-specific works. Radical performance artist Orlan is showing at Musée Grévin, the Madame Tussauds-style waxworks, Annette Messager has an installation of inflatable planets at the Palais de la Découverte, and Pierre et Gilles are showing a Madonna and child photograph at the Eglise Saint-Eustache. Other artists include Bertrand Lavier, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut and Daniel Buren.

News story published on The Art Newspaper website 29 Aprll, 2009

La Force de l’Art runs until 1 June, details at