Beaubourgian divagations

Following our strategic progress arrondissement by arrondissement, we tackled the Beaubourg. Thought to. But setting forth from one of the seedier stations, harrassed by cigarette sellers and ticket pushers – a wall of them on the steps up to the station – Barbès-Rochechouart, we were limited in our choice of lines to 2 and 4. And, taking the first train out, found our choice further limited. We surfaced at Arts et Méters. First headed in the correct direction. But were soon distracted by a series of arcades, called Passages. Only a handful of the shops were open. And there was no foot traffic. They were the sort of shops you fnd in unfrequented arcades anywhere. The only point of interest a furniture maker and restorer, who had stacked his raw materials out the door, working on rattan-backed armchairs, fauteuils.

We were further distracted by St. Nicolas des Champs, a church that had grown from a small but tall Gothic edifice. With an extension in the Romanesque style to the nave and chapels surrounding the high altar in a semi-circular configuration. Notable for the mixture of styles and the scale of the additions. Inside, quite consistent, but outside, a tumble-up and -down of architectural redundancies, including a dormered apartment tacked on to the side of it.

We had to double back. Encountering once more the horror of Les Halles. A structure with hardly a single redeeming feature. And beside it, St. Eustache. Into which we were again tempted. This was a nave of awe-inspiring height. Lost-in-the-clouds height. Accentuated by tight groupings of multiple columns. And the overhanging organ. There was a rather awful Raymond Mason and a couple of good school of Rubens paintings. The art chosen for its devotional rather than aesthetic qualities.

Coming out beside Le Centre du Georges Pompidou, I was struck by its scale, and that of the vents, poking out of the cobbles like enormous periscopes. It is massive. And ugly. Dated. Architecturally, if it were truly brutalist it might have aged better. But it is the decorative elements in its exteriorization of functional elements that let it down. Particularly the colours. The fading reds. Greens. Blues. The primaries. A skeleton of white bars and poles. And the dirtiness of its glass-work. Were it in Hong Kong, it would not be in so parlous a state, I imagine. Although on the top floor we did see two glass-cleaners at work on a cute little two-seater swing, one very white, the other very black, as if chosen precisely for aesthetic reasons and not for their devotion to the craft of window-cleaning.

And entering, this was clearly a supermarket, not a place to set one at ease in the contemplation of artworks. We started at the top, with a special Arman exhibition. Which for mapping the artist’s trajectory was fascinating. But he showed such extraordinary lapses of taste in individual works. Compensated for by the sheer playfulness of some. Even when indulging in destructive raptures. Like a slice of a statue of Joan of Arc, called a Slice of Life, St. Joan.

The most successful works for me were the rubbish works. As the curatorial voice informed, a reaction of fullness to the void of Yves Klein. A gleaning, the videos showed, of crap off the streets, like Pourbelle Les Halles, rubbish from this area, Les Halles, that was sheer innovation. The trans-valuation of shit. Shit into gold. Of course, Duchamp had been in the general area but not as a maximalist, not in terms of quantities of shit, purely in terms of the quality of shit, straining it, letting art take the strain, as a principle, watching it bend, like laws are bent. Arman if nothing else – nothing not changed in meaning by the passage of time, since rubbish like nothing else changes in meaning, takes on an ideological significance, as Benjamin recognised – deals in bulk. Arman deals in bulk amounts of carnage and slicing. Not bodily. But, if one could say it, sumptuary. Consumer society waste.

The curator is saying: … “at the height of his creativity, Arman also establishes the foundations of his own paternity over future generations of artists with these works.” This was about the works made in collaboration with Renault, using products off the production-line, works numbered at 110, beginning in 1967.

As if in answer to this sort of paternity-claim came the next exhibition we visited two floors down, exhausting, of women at the Pompidou, exhausting as if it were attempting to be exhaustive and somehow, artistically and critically, comprehend the contribution of female artists. Which meant thematic organisation. A failure throughout what we saw here. A ‘protesteth too much’ aspect to this exhibition: a didacticism possibly attributable to the artists, reactionary. But to enter art practice through the vagina – without the vagina becoming itself much of an articulate organ, simply articulated, in terms of expression – meant a rehash of the binarity of gender by way of shock: I suppose the body-li-ness of the work as a tendency is worth mentioning. But seems at the same time the site of a defensive ramification to act (out) against the innate pathos of the body, bodies, the pain, flow, time of embodied experience. In regard to the latter, Louise Bougeois must be countered an exception. She had what in a church would be a chapel – three walls and interior space – devoted to her. Extreme tension. Pain in bones and muscles. Cramps and aches. Occupying the middle area, a beautiful marble, soft rounds pressing upwards through receding surfaces, like eyelids or foreskins. I also liked the colours and forms of Aurelie Nemours’s work.

We sort of hurried along upstairs, to the between floor, niveau 5, before we were fully done in by the amount of art, with its huge level of human interest, its drama, in its excitement further exacerbated by rubbing against curatorial critical organs. Like Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex quoted in doorways. Always of interest. But not necessarily of value. Does a woman have to be naked to get into a major gallery? If you believe the work here, she needs not only to be naked but self-abusing as well.

Here were the works we knew only from reproductions in books. Francis Bacon. Alberto Giacometti. Balthus. The surprises: Giacometti’s Figurine dans une boite entre deux maisons, 1950, a work I’d not seen before; the vibrancy of Giacometti’s drawings, to which no reproductions I’ve seen do justice; the mordancy of the Bacons, mortified surfaces, suspended, colour the chief vector of vivacity, stuffed peacocks; the development in the Balthuses, from flat painted surfaces to a surface so worked as to have a strange sort of organic depth, like mouldy cheese. A softness, tumescent, to the paint. So: in Giacometti vivacity, in Bacon vivisection, in Balthus decomposition as maturation.

Max Ernst was also featured here. But something – despite the surfaces being so attractive – stops me from getting too excited about this work. I think it is that its qualities can too easily be summoned to mind without the material support or reminder. For the three artists I mention, absence is a problem: what it is exactly about their works in their material presence that is so compelling as to be sublime, auratic, seems to want to evade abstraction, remain immemorial. As the work itself in precisely the sort of presence that is a memory stands as memorial to both its own irreducibility and that of an affect.

A further surprise in the work, drawings and paintings, of Avigdor Arikha, 1929-2010. Liking the musical works of Takis on display. And, from the bookshop, wanting to look up Ernest Pignon-Ernest.

A strange state of affairs when downstairs on the ground floor the action outside the gallery captures our attention more fully that what is inside and we are abstracted from it, locked up, away from the street, behind plate glass, the sound muted, while out on Place Stravinsky some break dancers are doing the electrocution with kids, holding hands in a line.

Q. became the ‘volunteer’ in a street magic show. Holding a paper towel, that was 1) burnt; 2) eaten; 3) resurrected as an endless white telescoping tube from the mouth of the magician. For my final act I will attempt the most dangerous … Q. having to pull the tube, hand over hand, out of his mouth.

I notice an omission, that of Duchamp, from those mentioned whose works we saw for the first time today. Probably a true absence. His works were exciting to see and there would be a lot that could be said about them, like the pattern of drainage holes at the bottom of R. Mutt’s urinal, but if they did not invent the idea of works that are better thought about – gripping as they are – than actually seen, they might be considered examples thereof. Or works, paradoxically, that summon the artist to mind before they are themselves really seen. Each one has the drama of a proper noun that passes in the telling. Like jokes whose punchlines we’ve heard, even if we’ve forgotten them. We mouth them with the teller. Laugh along at the end. Un-self-consciously.