August 2008, Blue Noses in Paris

Blue Noses performance
Maison Rouge, Paris

Living in a foreign city, weeks have the tendency to take on themes – a string of events will suddenly condense into one of those cultural lessons which is at the same time disastrous and banal. (Last week I discovered I have been trying to pay my bills for months with pieces of paper from my bank which, incidentally, don't possess any monetary value.)

This weekend's lesson was that the French aren't scared of fire. On Saturday night, Belleville revelers lit a peanut-fueled blaze on a café table, a stunt that would get you arrested immediately in New York. And on Sunday a large crowd gathered at the Maison Rouge contemporary art foundation to watch some men light fireworks in their pants, without a protective pompier in sight.

The Russian prankster artists the Blue Noses undertook their pyro-performance before a crowd of several hundred at Boulevard de la Bastille, on the last day of the Maison Rouge's exhibition « Sots Art: Soviet Art from 1972 to today. » The local Russian community was out in full force (many favoring a perplexing wardrobe combination of fur hat, no socks), as were numerous small children on scooters; a few major art scene figures (the only people in Paris who dare to play with peroxide); and a flock of supremely anonymous black-clad Parisians hanging around like a pack of crows (if crows could be so genteel).

There was some delay, during which everyone cursed the creeping Parisian winter and smoked cigarettes. And then, in a great rush, the crowd swarmed across the boulevard and neighboring bike path to the canal-side walk on the far side of the street.

Posturing like a couple of bantam roosters, the Blue Noses – stocky, with shaven heads and goggles – stood apart from the crowd. They stripped off their black winter coats to reveal their working uniform

beneath: crimson t-shirts and bulky sweatpants. It soon became clear that the secret was in the pants. The pair stretched and pulled their waistbands in a comically exaggerated way that resembled nothing so much as Charlie Chaplin at work – though it was far less clear what exactly all this miming might mean.

With a pop, a handful of small rockets burst out of their gaping waistbands, whistling up into the sky and crackling into a shower of stars over the audience, trees, and sidewalk below. Like a couple of excited adolescent boys, the pair fueled up again and alternated aiming their missiles by torquing and thrusting their hips in different directions.

And then, it was over, marked by a smattering of uncertain applause. The Blue Noses had made the Parisian audience smile, laugh, and let out a couple of audible "oh la la's." I'm sure the Blue Noses were smiling too – what other audience in the world would be so delighted to watch two men literally ejaculate sparks?

This warm welcome in Paris was all the more significant because it followed the censorship of a Blue Noses photograph by Russian minister of Culture Alexander Solokov. The image, which showed two uniformed policemen kissing in a wintry birch grove, was not allowed to leave Russia for the "Sots Art" exhibition – an act which did little more than contribute to the exhibition's considerable success by whetting the appetite of Parisians for this forbidden fruit.

Sarah Neel Smith

Sarah Neel Smith is a writer in Paris.

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