Joseph Nechvatal on "Introspection: Expérience Pommery #15"

 Stephen Wilks, Donkey Roundabout (2000) photo © by Xavier Clayes
 

Introspection: Expérience Pommery #15
Domaine Vranken Pommery
5 place du Général Gouraud, Reims, France
until December 31, 2020 

Urban social distancing has been reminding me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s renowned appraisal that “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is other people). In the context of the ongoing Covid-19 virus pandemic, meat-space placed art often feels contagious; heightening moods of fear, frustration, compassion, anger, empathy, and hope. The invisible transmission of the virus has essentially steered relevant contemporary culture towards a heightened sense of human mortality and vulnerability. So as France carefully cracks open, not a bottle of champagne in celebration of defeating the Covid-19 virus, but the door to a controlled pandemic masked normality, I dropped in to a show of vintage French contemporary art in Reims called Introspection, the latest (the 15th) Expérience Pommery exhibition at the champagne-maker Domaine Vranken Pommery in Reims.

This understated effort, short on flair and audacity, was in-house curated by Nathalie Vranken and has a timely but counterintuitive title: as introspection usually means withdrawing into oneself, perhaps as a result of fear of the other, while bubbly champagne usually suggests fêtes of frivolity and friendship. Introspection here means a modest retrospective of the Domaine Pommery’s years of collecting large in situ and sculptural pieces of various interest and in various styles. The exhibition, reflecting our withdrawing times, is meek and rather conservative in its objectives. A tentative and capricious celebration of survival seemed the underlying sentiment; one that rubbed up against the tradition of lite-headily popping open celebratory champagne bottles and raising glasses to the sky.

Social distancing can easily be maintained at Introspection, as the Domaine is grandiose with a labyrinth of 18 kilometers of wine cellars that serve as the art galleries for Introspection, dug into ancient Roman chalk pits where millions of bottles of champagne lay in wet twilight. Most of the show is buried 30 meters deep in this vertiginous 18-kilometer wine cellar maze. It is open to masked individuals and small masked groups until December 31, 2020. (French people in the cultural sector are increasingly gob-smacked by the lunacy of Trumptards who refuse to wear a mask as an expression of their individual liberty, as it restricts the liberty of the entire society by helping the virus rage on. WTF USA!)

 Pablo Valbuena, Kinematope (Pommery) (2016), Daniel Buren Écrire la craie : Bas-relief (2007) and Dominique Blais, Sans titre, Les Disques rouges (2011), photo © Xavier Clayes 

Rows and rows and rows of beautifully stacked dusty bottles of champagne set the frame for the art. The descent into Introspection is made ecstatic by Pablo Valbuena’s mesmeric sonic-kinetic-luminous installation Kinematope (Pommery) (2016) that techno-electrifies the steep 116-step staircase. This leads into a beautiful section of dug vertical bands by Daniel Buren called Écrire la craie : Bas-relief (2007) and the ambient musical rubbing red discs of Dominique Blais’s Sans titre, Les Disques rouges (2011).

I was pleased to see this arrangement again (I was at Expérience Pommery #14 last year) as I had greatly missed the silver aluminum sculpture Untitled (1997-2003) by Bruno Gironcoli that greeted me last time; an idiosyncratic, large-scale, machine-like sculpture both anthropomorphic and science-fiction-based with scaled-up and distorted odd domestic items like butt plugs, bunny ears and alien cutlery.

Hicham Berrada, Présage – Tranche (2014) installation view photo © Fred Laures
 

Hicham Berrada, Présage – Tranche (2014) photo © Fred Laures 

The concept of a lethal, invisible, circulating virus has humbled our powers of perception, so one of the best pieces in the show is Hicham Berrada’s slowly evolving chemical landscape projection Présage – Tranche (2014). It felt to me full of a sense of sinister proliferation, yet abuzz with chimerical, bubbly, and viral organizational patterns of sybaritic becoming. I loved how it mixed flamboyance with a sick sensationalism that demanded my aesthetic contemplation. The artist managed to create a living painting (or light show) from different chemical manipulations with fascinating colors and ephemeral shapes, and I appreciated the scrupulously anti-climax slow pacing of Présage – Tranche that developed a bleak but smooth mood. Its affiliation with the fermenting of grapes into champagne is fabulous, while its gnarly putrid quality reminds us (again) that the high-end contemporary art market is essentially a bilious bubble.

Some of the other art in Introspection lacks the sparkle and good taste associated with Pommery champagne. But by ignoring some silly eye-candy sculptural nonsense, like Choi Jeong Hwa’s inflatable cheap swag Fruit Tree (2015) and Enrique Marty’s Sunbath (2008), a man covered in sand on the beach listening to the radio, I found real enchantment in the cool, cloudy, digital negative projections of Lisa Oppenheim’s Smoke (2013), which were captured from the Imperial War Museum archive in London and transformed. With an aloof beauty, the mercurial drifting of two large projections of Smoke poignantly recalled the bombings of the Second World War in occupied France, and were set up to frame a French Gothic stone sculpture of the Madonna and Child. The installation, where one could sit in isolated comfort, had me afloat between the marvelous and the menacing; a place where introspection became revelation. It convinced me that film is the art form closest to dreaming.

Stephen Wilks, Donkey Roundabout (2000) photo © by Xavier Clayes

I was also moved, in other ways, by Stéphane Thidet’s weepy Le Refuge (2007), where rain pours down inside a wooden hut producing the feeling of desperate confines within a pensive prison, and by the drunken, darker vision of Stephen Wilks’s Donkey Roundabout (2000). Sensually provocative and perverse, it is a macabre sculptural carousel of limp donkeys carried round-and-round by stiff wooden skeletons, rotating on wooden gears. Its sly burlesque mode spoke to me of cycles of confinement and de-confinement, as the artist has inserted texts and drawings in the donkeys’ pockets from people he has met during his travels. It is both a humble and high-minded reminder that we never can really move past the presence of viral pestilence. WM

 

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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