Nuit Blanche, the tenth annual city-wide art exploration (“art walk” is a gross understatement when over 125 artists’ works are sprinkled all over the City of Light), was a personal success this year than the last (as I was stuck in an apartment with ex-pats waiting to leave for hours as they pre-gamed and played horrible music – see article: Waiting for Nuit Blanche). I took precautions not to invite too many friends and to plan an accurate itinerary of the exploration that began in northern Paris and ended in the center. The journey clocked in at about ten hours, shedding three or four people in the process, leaving me with three others at five in the morning.
Here’s a brief description of the pieces we encountered and where they were located:
1. Jesper Just – No Man is and Island (2004)
I was rather surprised to see Just’s work shown in Paris since I first encountered this tidbit of repressed masculinity a couple of years ago of on UbuWeb by pure chance. I felt immediately attracted and intrigued by its balance between humorous and earnestness, like a good Bowie song. Le Divan Du Monde was a perfect setting for the video, with it’s plush furnishings and art deco steel mingling with what could only be described as a cozy bordello.
2. John Wood and Paul Harrison – The Board (1993)
To be honest I wasn’t turned on by this video involving two guys utilizing a rectangular piece of plywood – walking on it, pushing it, crawling under and over it, sliding on it, pulling it, etc. – until the keen eye my wife suggested that it could be a commentary on how useless certain tasks are, of how we busy ourselves with very mundane things (or maybe she didn’t say that). All of a sudden I got interested in the video, but it was too late because we were already outside walking to the next piece. Maybe I was too quick to judge Wood and Harrison, but see for yourself.
3. Christian Boltanski – Demain Le Ciel Sera Rouge (2011)
It’s artists like Boltanski that one needs to buy a bottle of red wine and wait with friends in an exceptionally long line only to be a little drunk by the time they reach the entrance that make Nuit Blanche truly special. One of my favorite installations of the evening, Demain Le Ciel Sera Rouge (Tomorrow the Sky Will Be Red), creeps into your eyes and works itself comfortably to a place deep down in that embittered, guilt-ridden subconscious of ours, so by the end of the night one cannot help but thinking about Boltanski’s work and ask themselves what was it exactly that touched them so personally.
In utilizing the outside balcony of the Théâtre de l’Atelier, the work begins with a tall, bald man with a megaphone spurting out incomprehensible words (or maybe because my French isn’t so great) to the people waiting in line. There was a smoke-filled room illuminated behind him, giving an ominous air of terrible days to come, and he, this bald prophet, preaching to us, the deaf choir. There was a definite play on waiting in line, art, commodification and what the world has become – those big questions most artists fail to address without rendering themselves a cliché. Boltanski doesn’t beat us over the head with his philosophy, keeping much of the work open for interpretation, although always leaving an unfamiliar aftertaste.
Walking inside I quickly noticed, as did the fifty other spectators, that we were on the stage of this small European opera house, reversing the role of the one who watched to the one who’s being watched. Watched we were indeed as dimly-lit pig masks in the crowd stared us down, leaving a tense silence, a demand from us to entertain them. A woman shrouded in black, hovering above the pigs, acted as a sort of Pythia
while sending down cryptic messages to the audience/entertainers. It was both a purification ritual and curse, to leave with a sense of not being as responsible as we ought to be as human beings.
True, the heaviness of the work seemed to butt heads with the spectacle of the evening, taunting us to really look at art rather than to be entertained by it. But this attempt failed the eyes of many viewers as I heard a “was that it?” or “that wasn’t worth the wait” by a few people upon exiting. As for me, I was won over.
In these Rocky Mountains we’re presented, not without humor, with four screens of two men in beaver hats playing a range of musical instruments (pink electric guitar, piano, banjo, drums) in the negative 20 degree crisp Canadian air. The humorous link between the romanticism of nature and the quirkiness and uncomfort of the musicians coping with this ideal by swigging a bottle of whisky in between songs to keep warm gave me a few good chuckles. It was at once a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Canadian countryside and a backhanded compliment to the music created in this landscape. A great piece that puts us at the center of the four projections, begging the question of what the hell the connection is between nature and its representation through art (if there is any connection at all).
5. Virginie Yassef – Il y a 140 millions d’années, un animal glisse sur une plage fanguese du massif central (2009)
Okay, first of all this work encountered us as we left the Kjartansson videos. We had no choice but to see it – a 50 foot piece of green wood with a pinkish scratch at the top (a dinosaur?). That’s it. The title of Yassef’s work is longer than the description of the work itself, which, in my limited opinion, isn’t worth the effort or material used. Translation of the title: 140 million years ago an animal slipped on a fangy seashore of massif central
. Attempting to recreate a poetic moment of some forgotten time could appeal to an audience even less known than the moment itself.
6. Renaud Auguste-Dormeuil – I will keep a light burning
If you ever wanted to imagine what the stars of Galileo would look like on April 14th, 1611, represented with hundreds of lit candles, look no further. Auguste-Dormeuil’s intricately and delicately placed work in the center of a calm Montmartre crowd was a sight to see. Representing a flickering light as a star reminds us of the fragility of it all. Sometimes the wind would blow a candle out. When this happened, one volunteer would walk over and relight it. I understood the preservation of the work, but I was hoping to see a slow disintegration of these “stars” over time, but then the title would have been deceptive. A beautiful work nonetheless.
7. Thomas Espina – Ignicion (2008)
I didn’t know what to expect from the extremely pretentious description of this piece, mentioning things like “symbol of freedom” and “polysemy.” But my intrigue was not for nothing. Appropriately placed in a classic movie theatre. All pretenses aside: it was the shortest (and the best) action film I’ve ever seen. To be honest the wine was working its magic by the time I arrived, and, by the looks of the rowdy crowd, the wine was working with them, too. There were shouts and laughter and hushing just before the video re-looped to the beginning: a fuse lit that burned from the stage towards what looked like silhouettes of birds in flight. You guessed it – as the fuse got closer to these birds that were made of steel, hammered into a concrete wall,the screams got louder and the yells got more heated
. And then, BOOM!! The birds went up in flames, leaving a charred remembrance on the wall. Screams of joy and release showered down from the drunk onlookers. And then the video looped again, and again, and again. I found myself screaming with the crowd, feeling such elation after the explosion. It reminded me of a bunch of clever hicks blowing stuff up in a dirt pit – in other words absolutely stunning.
8. Pierre Ardouvin – Purple Rain (2011)
It was early in the morning, about 3am, when we reached the long line outside of Purple Rain. Friends have left except for two remaining zombies. The wait, honestly, was worth it. We were greeted with a purple plastic umbrella and a small courtyard in which rain showered down on dozens of Parisians. The guitar to Prince’s song (guess which one) was set on loop, and every once in a while a person would yell “Purple rain, purple rain!” somewhere in the crowd. Strangers seemed to be familiar in this rain, smiling at each other, speaking and laughing at nothing in particular. The plush purple light also rained down on us, adding a vague mix between royalty and sexuality, like that scene in Marie-Antoinette where Kirsten Dunst is playing with her fan
. There were others who began dropping their umbrellas to embrace this purple rain in its entirety. A romantic gesture that wasn’t lost to onlookers. There was a glimmer in my eye and a clean feeling of optimism as I left. A perfect installation for the playful atmosphere that was Nuit Blanche.
9. Isaac Julien – The Leopard (2007)
Exhausted and verging on annoyance, I should have called it a night with Purple Rain, but of course everybody must end at Hôtel de Ville, the centerpiece of the entire art extravaganza. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to be the finale this year since I had missed the one last year and the one the year before was known to be incredible. “What a pretentious piece of shit,” was the first thought that came to my mind, especially after most Parisians were clapping ignorantly at the end of this film about, well, immigrants, islands, t-shirts, and a lot of other nonsensical connect-the-dots-or-you’re-a-fool video art. Don’t get me wrong, video art has incredible potential, but there are others who abuse this potential and make works like Isaac Julien. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe I was too tired to think about the dispossessed and how greed and power and capitalism and…should I feel guilty about not caring? Art-as-protest is a difficult genre to traverse, granted, but there are those who can do it well without being both vague and preachy at the same time. Maybe next year the center of Paris will bring one of these artists to the forefront.The night closed with some food and a crowded metro back home. I was glad to have stayed up all night and walked with friends to some very eye-opening works. Nuit Blanche is distinctly Parisian, and Paris is the perfect city for such an event. It’s nights like these that give me the optimism and power to move further as an artist, to keep the delicate flame of art alive inside myself, letting me know that artists are not alone, and for at least one night, we can see each other and imagine a world that might perhaps have Nuit Blanche every day.