Philippe Parreno H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS


Philippe Parreno Danny The Street (2015)

Philippe Parreno
Park Avenue Armory
June 11 - August 2, 2015


French artist Phillipe Parreno’s ambitious multi-media set piece, H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS, is an experiment in the affective limits of the staged and scripted. Parreno’s first major U.S. exhibition, H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS shows the artist’s high-stake investment in reexamining the phenomenological capacity of art by inverting its now-traditional means: 1) challenge the autonomy of the art object and 2) critique the limitations of the institutional space by expanding and exploding it. Where the best Minimalist artists succeeded in giving people their bodies, Parreno seems intent on taking them for himself. Robbing the viewer of their ability to assert critical and rational distance in the moment is a well-worn procedure. But in H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS, something more insidious is hard at work: as viewer, the viewer is robbed of their presumptive ability to have ever achieved criticality at all. Through this process, any sense of beingness becomes stilted and contrived. And so, instead of feeling expansive and open-ended, the work reinforces the hermetic principles of the classically-defined art space by dehumanizing the viewer and framing them into the piece’s design through a series of highly-regimented patterns: a Warholian dance diagram for the body and the mind, made disconcertingly literal.

Perhaps creating the sense that we’re made to fall in line is a prescient critique of what it means to be a public participant. We go to the movies and absorb the results of the latest $150 million budget, and when the lights go up we have no trouble seamlessly reentering the mundane. We respond to the production of our lives in stages until the stages, made routine, feel so diffuse as to enforce the value of individual agency while constantly violating it. And when we’re finally able to identify this process for what it is, the feeling comes with no small sense of shame and embarrassment. Parreno’s work, in this manner, reminds us that no amount of money can truly enforce the illusion of freedom, however much it can stage its ecstasy and rapture. But perhaps more embarrassingly for him, H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS is proud to show that the practice of everyday life is itself a constant servitude, as though we needed a reminder.  

Frank O’Hara once commented that few (American) poets were better than the movies. A famously cheap and irreverent blow to the gut of high art practice across media, O’Hara implied that despite any sophistication it might retain, high-brow art and its associated discourses held little efficacy in an era defined by large-scale popular culture and the media conglomerates pitching it. After all, popular culture could rightfully claim a truly public identity that art-proper could no longer achieve, if it ever even had. Parreno, decades after Pop Art’s initial adventures in presuming the public gaze, weaves sociality back into the conversation by staging popular entertainment values and taking them seriously.

Danny The Street (2015) is an ensemble of complex light sculptures that line the gallery space. These sculptures, most of them titled Marquee, prove tantalizing for the way they’re reflected in the polished sheen of the three grand player pianos. Taken directly, these works are severe attempts at Futurist set design, while in reflection they resemble their spectacular predecessors: the hotter, yellower lights of movie theater marquees and state fair concession stands. Pianists have been replaced by their digital analogues, programmed to execute a list of classical pieces made poignant by their flawless detachment from the personal. The empty piano benches remain in place as haunting reminders of the pianist’s ascent into post-human ethereality.

Philippe Parreno Danny The Street (2015)

The pianos and the overhead light sculptures, just when their impact is ready to expire and they threaten to underwhelm, are joined by the onscreen monologue of Ann Lee, an animated character telling the story of her own engineering and development. And just as that descends to the status of mere ornament in a procession of ornaments, real-life child actors flank the screen, each figured as a manifestation of Ann Lee’s digital avatar. The performance is chilling and uncanny, as the actors in context feel both embodied and disembodied, stuck in the liminal space between interaction and catatonic detachment.

But H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS is ultimately oriented around a series of short films, so that such doting performances, charming in their willingness to engage and delight, recede to the margins. These films, already made vulnerable by their position as the larger work’s ethical core, drive Parreno’s themes of complicity to their didactic limits.

It becomes clear as the films unfold that our immersion into the environment comes at the expense of the viewer’s faculties, not their liberation. Parreno himself might conceive of his shows as unequivocally scripted spaces, and pandering to utopian ideals—“liberation” might fall under this umbrella—is to be resisted according to the Relational Aesthetic paradigm. Likewise, the negative implications of a scripted approach to art are not subverted, reconstituted, or redefined so much as they’re reinforced. H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS affirms—even celebrates—the domineering qualities of popular media by presuming total audience complicity and experiential limitation. To be implicated into the performance is to feel exploited by it, as Ann Lee’s earlier monologues prove to have anticipated. Do everyday theatergoers experience the same?

Philippe Parreno Danny The Street (2015)

Put another way, the viewer is weaved in to a “public” characterized by the passivity demanded of them. When The Crowd (2015)a 24-minute exhibition of public spectatorship filmed in the very space where it’s being watched— lights up the screen, its actors assume the role of viewers while the viewers likewise code as actors, an intention worn on the film’s sleeve. But the wide-lensed rhetorical grandeur on display here doesn’t humanize these subjects, despite the overblown rhetoric begging the contrary, so much as it portrays the artist’s heroic ability to vivify a subject otherwise considered bloodless. This failure, perhaps an ironic one, brings to mind Dziga Vertov’s more sincere approaches to the same subject, now almost a century old. His commitment to a public’s consciousness feels invested in their triumph, as such triumph feels propelled by no more than the public simply being itself. That Vertov was able to convey this sentiment both because and in spite of his radical form seems like an even rarer miracle than usual after watching Parreno’s preening endeavor.

June 8, 1968—“a re-enactment of the train voyage famously recorded by photographer Paul Fusco that transported assassinated senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington D.C.”— is a far more moving attempt at the same. The onlookers watching the train as it passes by are charged into life by unresolved tensions: their sense of somber decorum is challenged by their less noble, coterminous role as curious participants in a public spectacle. These tensions, and the lines they blur, might function as a deft commentary on the function of H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS itself. Moreover, the self-conscious undertones on display here testify to the consistency of Parreno’s message, whatever it may be. It also reminds the viewer, however, that Parreno is at his best when his formal palette is restrained and his tone sobered.

These films, alongside the more ancillary pieces mentioned above, pose the following question: while hired actors necessarily assent to the artistic vision of those behind the scenes, must our encounter with the object as viewers also require such acquiescence in order for the show to succeed? And to succeed at doing what? To the former question, Parreno seems to offer a resounding “yes.” As to the latter, I can only wonder if we’re being humiliated for having arrived at all. WM



Spencer Everett

Spencer Everett is a poet and writer based in New York City. Other recent work of his can be found at Avidly, Fence, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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