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The Rhinoceros in the Hall

CAN THE POMPIDOU CENTRE DEMOCRATIZE THE MUSEUM EXPERIENCE, OR ARE ART SPECTATORS DEFINED—AND DOOMED—BY ELITISM?
DISCUSSED
Unflattering Comparisons to Idi Amin, An Un-French Affair, “There Are No Dream Factories,” $200 Million Dollar Erector Sets, The Surreptitious Nighttime Spiriting of German-Forged Girders, Ostentatious Displays of High Art/Low Standards, Elephant Dung, The Business of Making Culture, The Phenomenon of the Non-Place, Snobbery as Tradition, Art-Made Democrats, DIY Reddi-Frames
by Alan Michael Parker
Photo courtesy of the Pompidou Center

The Rhinoceros in the Hall

Alan Michael Parker
8 Snaps

On Halloween night, 2008, four hundred people gathered in the basement of the Pompidou Centre to listen to Keiji Haino, a Japanese artist wearing wraparound shades, make noise. Keiji screams into finely calibrated microphones, his voice the only instrument (although he will lay tracks, and loop one scream atop another). He also ululates, yodels, barks, grunts, hacks, howls, and growls; he goes on vocal runs in a falsetto that could caramelize a crème brûlée from thirty paces. And all of this is amplified to extraordinarily painful decibel levels.

Roughly half the crowd looked to be having fun; these masochistic cognoscenti didn’t laugh or walk out during the forty-five-minute set, certainly a sign of bravery if not actual interest. The most impressive among them even refused to stuff their fingers in their ears, or wad strips of the program into ragged earplugs, or wrap their heads guerilla-style with their cashmere scarves. Not only did they endure, without modulation, the tympanic abuse, they gave Keiji a standing ovation. The other roughly one-half fled.

This sort of audience stratification is typical in art museums that cultivate local audiences rather than exclusively catering to those in the know—an issue that the Pompidou Centre has faced from its inception. From the outset, the Pompidou Centre has represented an institutional response to the perceived problem of museum elitism. In the fall of 2008, under the guidance of director Jos Auzende, the Pompidou’s “in famous carousel” program (of which Keiji was a part) proposed to address once again the stratification of its audience by offering four evenings of “live art.” With musicians and musically ­minded performance artists appearing in four different venues, including three art museums, “in famous carousel” sought to reinvigorate the longtime mandate of the Pompidou Centre: to democratize culture.

Still, the act of democratization cannot come at the expense of the free will of its beneficiaries. Eight of eleven people seated near me quit, including a very classy man on my left who suffered not from “church giggles” but from a severe case of museum guffaws, the deeply amused, body-racking type of laughter that some kinds of cultural acts occasionally bestow upon a lucky viewer. I dug my index fingers deeper into my ears and squeezed my palms tightly to my head. Maybe searing aural pain democratizes us all.

*

French president Georges Pompidou himself proposed the building of the Pompidou Centre in 1969, and although he didn’t live to see its completion, his widow, Madame Pompidou, offered critical political assistance during the construction process. Once the call for architectural entries opened, 681 project proposals were submitted to the Pompidou Centre jury for consideration. The site was enormous, an urban tabula rasa: two full city blocks on the Right Bank, with more than 100,000 square meters of building space in a partially razed Parisian slum ironically named the Beaubourg, or “the Beautiful Borough,” squeezed between the now very trendy Marais and the shopping district, Les Halles. (Even more ironically, the name “Beaubourg” has become a metonym for the Pompidou Centre, despite the fact that the Pompidou is considered, by many, anything but beautiful.)

Architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, then in their early thirties, submitted a provocative, flamboyant proposal. Their design featured the building’s utilities and services in ducts and tubes on the exterior, an ocean liner of a building situated in an irregularly shaped, slanted public piazza to serve as “a breathing space for the neighborhood,” a museum that would house a modular interior for the exhibition of alternative forms, sizes, and shapes of art. Un-French, said the French press when the Beaubourg jury announced the commission. “It is here, it is ugly, it is ruinous, how can we get rid of it?” wrote Rene Barjavel in Le Journal Du Dimanche, who went on to suggest that the building should be given as a present to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Critics worldwide joined the row. Writing in Artforum in April 1975, Annette Michelson called Beaubourg “the last ‘museological’ example of capitalism’s imagination in its final phase.” “A giant, expensive mechanical toy that has gone berserk and taken over two city blocks,” said Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post. Anthony Burgess called it “a $200 million Erector Set,” in the New York Times (he who in 1962 had decried the soul’s conversion to a clockwork orange).

But architectural anomalies breed affection with time, so long as their idiosyncrasies are copied elsewhere; the more anomalous the building, it seems, the more likely the design may end up aesthetically prescient. The inside-out industrialized complex—“Beaubourg was intended to be a joyful urban machine,” Piano has said—celebrated the rough interiors of city warehouses and light urban industry, the kinds of open plans that became chic in cities worldwide in the 1970s; the kinds of spaces colonized by squatters and artists and ultimately co-opted for co-ops by young urban­ professionals. In a way, thirty-one years later, Beaubourg reads as a paean to the urban loft, and to “loft culture,” if such a thing exists.

The French revulsion wasn’t merely aesthetic. As John Russell noted in the New York Times on August 7, 1977, “It was not so much that Parisians found [Beaubourg] ugly—though many of them did and do—as they had a moral objection to it.” Moral, in this case, meant national: the French were protecting their Frenchness. Six lawsuits tried to stop construction, and editorials bemoaned with querulous antipathy the demise of all that was French, the classism and xenophobia excused as cultural protectionism. As Dominique Jamet commented in L’Aurore: “We do not dream in the factory; there are no dream factories…. Is this why we have been deluded, and why we have deluded ourselves, into hoping the factory Beaubourg will improve the level and quality of French cultural production…?”

The English-born Rogers and the Italian-born Piano knew how un-French the whole affair was. Years later, Piano described the team of architects and engineers as having been “a sort of foreign ­legion—we were building the biggest monument in France, and almost all of us were foreigners.” During construction, to hide the fact that the signature steel girders had been made by the German firm Krupp rather than forged in France, Rogers and Piano contrived to spirit the building’s fifty-meter-long girders through the city in the middle of the night. The architects engaged a special train; they trucked in the materials between 3 and 5 a.m.; they sent a scout truck ahead of the convoy, to secure the city’s vulnerable, historic manhole covers with sheets of steel “laid and then lifted with a giant magnet.” To this day, despite Beaubourg’s enormous success, with its lively combination of street artists busking in the piazza and streets of art criss-crossing in the long galleries, not every Parisian approves. As a professorial friend at the Sorbonne commented to me over lunch at the Faculty Club, “I don’t like that kind of thing.”

Some of the fervent responses to the Pompidou Centre may be understood as politically hinged, given that the complex was commissioned only a year after the 1968 Paris riots (events that symbolize the heyday of Western European street unrest as well as the last moment in the limelight for French officials who had served in World War II), a period marked by the revolutionary transfer of political and cultural power. To be sure, while Beaubourg became a contentious issue between French Communists and Socialists at the time, its radical design horrified critics across political party lines. Pompidou’s folly represented all sorts of perceived perversities: international in scope, anti-grand (as though the plumbing were being celebrated), happily ugly, more brut than haute, and decidedly un-Louvre. Most important, the architecture confidently laid claim to an aesthetic future in which France was not leading the way.

*

Keiji Haino was one of four performers present on Halloween. The opening act was Internet2, the stage name of twenty-six-year-old Carlos Carbonell, who comes from Barcelona. In his solo show, he sings, plays the clarinet atop runs and riffs sampled and dubbed, shows videos—and choreographs all of the sounds and images by stepping and stomping upon a homemade “walking piano” constructed mostly of cardboard and aluminum foil. Internet2 does all of this while wearing a hooded cape made for him by an ex-girlfriend, as he explained during the afternoon sound check: “If I do not cover myself, I am always scared.”

The video portion of Internet2’s performance projects iconographic figures in what he dubs a “musical fantasy.” In the central recurrent image, the Pope appears with electricity sizzling between his open, beneficent hands; with Ian McKellan as Gandalf; an automated Indian boy; an African shaman; and Carlos himself, enrobed. The figures are characterized by a caption: “From five continents, from five masters, I learned mystical powers in leading the fight against fascism.”

The musical portion of Internet2’s performance is rather jaunty. With clips from Baroque melodies laid atop syncopated electronic beats in a kind of synth-pop, the various songs (there are lyrics, though mostly spoken or breathed) have a surprisingly catchy appeal, less obtuse than their visual complement. Carlos is happy to note that the work is original, to the extent that he borrows and remixes in original form, and to identify his influences broadly, from his beloved High School Musical to favorite orchestral tunes that he speeds up by a factor of three. Although he calls himself “99 percent a composer,” he’s conscious of the relationship between performer and audience. In a preconcert interview, when asked what he would like to ask his audience, he grinned and said, “Well, maybe I would also like to ask to the girls if you find the rocky star thing, like—do you think I’m sexy?”

What interests me most about Internet2—and about the second on-stage performer that night, a London-born, sitar-plucking Bengali club singer and DJ named ­Bishi—is their very presence on stage at Beaubourg, and the curatorial philosophy of “in famous carousel” that informed the Halloween program. Neither of these performers had ever played in a museum of art (or a seated, theater-style auditorium); they had been removed from their contexts and relocated to a different cultural space. Jos Auzende, the director of “in famous carousel,” had done so consciously. Thus one can argue that bringing Internet2 and Bishi into Beaubourg is an historically aware, idealized curatorial strategy, a programming venture consistent with the Pompidou’s mandate from 1969.

At the same time, one can see the Parisian audience’s discomfort with the unpolished Internet2 and the electronica pop of Bishi, the aspiring Top 40 star, and argue that the promotion of club performers in a concert venue in an art museum was a failure precisely because the program invigorated a kind of latent snobbery. Those who came to be tortured by Keiji Haino seemed especially resistant to democratizing, their high-art/low-art standards ostentatiously on display—­although democracy has never been class-free, as every new election reminds us.

What’s the job of an art museum? Here’s a gross overview. Traditionally—at least in the West, buoyed by the Greek philosophers—an art museum was expected to house the great works of a culture, to help a people remember the past, to remind a people of its civilization’s notions of beauty, and to safeguard treasures (often stolen) from decay, conquest and/or destruction.

What is a “great work of art”? Many people would argue that the answer to this question depends on who gets to say. Historically, the church first got to decide what great art was, and then monarchs did, and then the academy; and then, with the museums slow to accommodate modernism, the market began to determine what mattered. More recently, education and outreach have been added to the conservative-­ship of the art museum; from children’s programs to the introduction of the docent, the art museum has begun to serve local constituencies educationally, in ways formerly reserved for Great Books or college. By teaching taste while curating civilization, the contemporary art museum has re­entered the family business of making culture rather than merely housing memories.

But in the twenty-first century art museums have changed again, with “starchitects” designing or renovating destination buildings (thanks be to Bilbao), crowds pouring money into art tourism (thanks be to coffee tables, for hoisting up coffee-­table books), politics informing diverse curatorial strategies (thanks be to the culture wars, elephant dung, and Rudy Giuliani), ­spectacle and blockbuster becoming essential curatorial terms (thanks be to King Tut), and interior spaces corresponding to a uniformity of “non-place” (thanks be to airports and shopping malls, and Marc Augé). With these changes, art itself is understood differently: changing the rules changes the game.

Of course, viewers themselves have changed too. People can no longer afford what they desire: consumer culture teaches us that what we want should cost more than what we have, and even if we get something, we need to want something else we can’t afford. Which wouldn’t matter so much, except that millions of people visit the mega­-museums annually, with attendance figures six or eight times what the institutions have projected. So a kind of mass ingress continues to shape museum culture, ­viewers voting with their feet and wallets; and yes, democracy is in play as a result, the give-and-take between the institution and its attendees representative of democratic ideals.

But “democracy” isn’t what it used to be, in the mega-museum. To begin with, geographic boundaries have been effaced by the phenomenon of non-place (as I’ve argued in these pages and elsewhere); the experience of art-viewing could be anywhere, and in effect, is. Add to all this the notion of cultural capital and tourism, the lack of a Keynesian free-market economy in the museum world, and the use of spectacle to broadcast aesthetics; significant pressures are being placed on “democracy” at the level of the art-viewer’s experience.

*

According to official accounts of the Pompidou Jury’s selection process, in an anecdote repeated by architect Rogers on his website, jurors in the early ’70s agreed that the key element of the winning Pompidou Centre design was the piazza:

This piazza, providing breathing space for the densely populated neighborhood, continues into the building as the forum, a sort of covered public square with neither steps nor thresholds to separate it from the exterior, with a façade entirely of glass that insists on the continuity between inside and outside.

Rogers asserts egalitarianism, the people’s museum defined by the architects’ wish to efface the physical boundaries of the entryway. The experience of differentiated space produces a shift in a person’s political identity, one of the only ideas upon which contemporary geographers like Edward Soja and Marc Augé agree. We move from one space to another and change who we get to be as a function of the differences between those spaces: in principle, a public piazza that imperceptibly becomes a museum (or as imperceptibly as the architecture can accommodate) asserts the public nature of the museum’s interior.

It’s worth thinking about Rogers’s description of the glass facade in relationship to the curatorial practices of “in famous carousel.” Here is Auzende:

More in touch with contemporary reality, music is changing its modes of expression, its ways of dissemination and its sources of sensibility. In the era of large dematerialized and global spaces (a world unifying), overpowering images, technological mastery, “divinized present time,” instant information, some artists invent hidden fables, unknown cosmogonies, forgotten folklore.

What strikes me most about Auz­ende’s statement is that until we come upon the phrase “hidden fables,” the description could be of a museum of contemporary art, including the architecture. Which isn’t to say that such “dematerialized and global spaces” are intrinsically resistant to individual feeling, or anathema to an experience of a work of art; we still have a nearly sacramental moment when standing in the “non-place” of such a museum; a Rebecca Horn wingèd sculpture is no less profound or compelling. But the contrast Auzende offers, of “hidden fables, unknown cosmogonies, forgotten folklore,” seems to me a broad vision, the notion that an individual’s public experience of music can be shared with other individuals. In this regard, the tribalism is more global than national, and more democratic than hierarchical; music, Auzende asserts, has the ability to break down social constructs.

Auzende’s statement shares with Rogers and Piano a politics; she invokes the Beaubourg’s axioms. Picture Paris from the air, the great city’s formal right angles and rigid social dynamics consistent with its urban plan, the rectilinear nexus a map of power. Now imagine a spinning wheel laid atop this grid, spun together by the four venues of “in famous carousel”: the Jeu de Paume, the Palais de Tokyo, Point Éphémère, and the Centre Pompidou. The grid and the carousel seem symbols for different kinds of urban experience, and different kinds of power, one hierarchical and the other egalitarian. As such, “in famous carousel” asserts a radical critique of Parisian cultural authority. Radical, but not chic.

Consider too the case of “in famous carousel” and the audience Auzende cultivates, the class war waged by the curatorial strategy. In a sense, the war’s dated—snobbery is a tradition, after all—but it’s also a new war, fought within and against the museum itself. With its four venues, “in famous carousel” effects change in its idea of “culture” with a lowercase c. Music, especially live music presented as art, has the ability to transcend political boundaries; even music met with an­tipathy is music heard. It’s an old lesson, taught anew by every radical work of art: the avant-garde redefines our taste, no matter our distaste. Even in this case, where the radical nature of the program wasn’t in the art itself but in the curating.

The question remains, though, what kind of viewer does the museum create? Who are these culture shoppers, these art-made democrats? Are they the self-styled, internationally minded noise-performance cognoscenti who came to be screamed at by Keiji? Are they the viewers who left when Keiji went pneumatic? All of the above, I’d have to say; we were all ac­cidental democrats in the House of Art. Thankfully, viewership still has prerogatives, as an individual and intimate experience with a single work of art remains possible; some people­ enjoyed being there, to hear and not just be seen.

Art makes us global citizens, in a sense, members of a “world city”—a term introduced by John Friedmann in 1986 to describe the nexus of power in cities where global capitalism has superseded nation­hood. Even though capitalism wasn’t amok on Halloween night in the Pompidou—with only a small stack of CDs for sale on a ­table, but no T-shirts or ­posters—we were citizens of the moment, nation­hood abandoned.

Although the Keiji fans didn’t behave very globally, if one can make an adverb of an evening. Indifferent and boorish, the too-cool-for-school crowd giggled and talked through Internet2’s set—granted, Carbonell did bungle a somersault upon the walking piano, a move that knocked his laptop off-line for almost ten minutes and invited restlessness. But the audience could just as easily have been a crowd of Romantic fanatics waiting for the Chopin to start, and to hell with the great Catalan singer Ovidi Montllor. In this way, the rude behavior of the hipsters seemed flat-out provincial, the world-awareness their taste endorsed compromised by art-snobbery.

Still, and most important, they weren’t “French snobs”—they were just snobs, their boorishness neither national nor xenophobic. A mega-museum operates locally and globally, fulfilling traditional roles in the local culture—some of which may reinscribe class conflicts—while pro­-
moting a global vision beyond tribalism. Which I think is exactly what happened, the snobbery incidental: the people’s museum had gone global.

In the basement concert hall of the art museum, listening to live music, the dislocation of the audience was communal. We were individually isolated in a venue made interchangeable with any other by “in famous carousel” (admittedly, a physical confusion furthered by the smoke machine burping faux clouds); we had become a crowd made by an art museum, not so different from the crowd jostling upstairs to see the Joseph Beuys sculpture. In fact, we were part of that “upstairs crowd” too—one that might well have evinced similar kinds of ratiocination. We had handed over our tribal identities upon entering this non-place, voted with our feet and our wallets for an individualized experience of art-out-of-context. Even with our noses in the air or our fingers in our ears, we were global citizens in a new democracy.

*

The Pompidou Centre’s museum is named the Musée National d’Art Moderne, an appellation that conspicuously omits the word “contemporary.” With the finest permanent collection of modern art in Europe, a treasure trove rivaled only by the holdings of MoMA in New York, curators of the Pompidou have pursued an acquisitions policy based on donations or purchases, eschewing art on loan from major collectors or other museums. By contrast, the Tate Modern at Bankside depends upon long-term loans—a fact that one only discovers, according to Pompidou curator Sophie Duplaix, by reading the cards on the gallery wall at the Tate—a policy of which Duplaix is highly critical. Her implication is clear: a museum’s job is to safeguard its national culture.

Nevertheless, as Duplaix implies in “A Rich Collection of Contemporary Art” published in the museum’s own thirtieth-anniversary catalogue, the Musée National d’Art Moderne’s commitment to contemporary French painting, sculpture, and installations has not kept pace with other types of acquisitions. In effect, the Pompidou has done a ­better job of diversifying its collection than the more tribally minded Duplaix would have it.

Which leads me to think about the rhinoceros in the hall. At the long end of the Pompidou’s fourth-floor gallery stands French sculptor Xavier Veilhan’s Le Rhinocéros (1999–2000), a life-sized bright red rhino made of polyester, resin, and varnish. I spent a lot of time charmed by this rhinoceros—watching people pose their art-viewing partners or their children for cell-phone photos next to it—and thinking about Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros, the 1959 French comedy widely considered an archetypal work in the Theatre of the Absurd.

In the play, all but one of the people in a small French town inexorably metamorphose into rhinos, the political subjugation, individual conformity, and emotional upheavals of pre-war France symbolized by the transformations of the characters. In the museum, the au courant French artist Veilhan’s red rhino, itself a kind of homage to Damien Hirst (albeit sans stinky fluids), offered comic relief for those art-viewers who had successfully trekked to the end of the “art hangar,” as the gallery was once dispiritedly called. Once there, viewers were greeted by an icon of absurdist Gallic culture; they had earned their delight. But these art-viewers hadn’t turned into rhinos, nor had their children: the days of French subjugation to fascism and group-think are gone, satirized by the culminating monumental self-awareness of Veilhan’s work.

Is a museum, by insinuation, another kind of zoo? The rhino might be read to comment on the nature of collections and exhibition practices, the odd-toed ungulate joyfully fabricated, neither alive nor dead. But it’s also a mechanically rendered Pop rhino, positioned as though ready to charge the long hall of culture.… In its jocular, celebratory way, Veilhan’s work stands monumentally as a bastion of a ­people’s museum, a long history of art made available through what critic Fredric Jameson would call “blank parody.”

*

Democracy in the twenty-first century costs more, and exacts more from us. One must wait in three different queues to enter the Pompidou: the bag check, the long looping ticket line (admission: ten euros), and the escalator that leads to the ticket-taker’s line. Even still, there’s no art to see until the “caterpillars” have been ridden two stories higher, mechanically ascending Rogers’s and Piano’s escalators-in-tubes affixed to the building’s exterior. This one-way system of entry and passage has come to dominate many mega-museums—although at Beaubourg, the “flow” of the building doesn’t lead ultimately through the gift shop, conspicuous consumption and branding a little less inevitable here than in other museums. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to go through—literally—before encountering a single work of art at Beaubourg, the exhibition spaces hidden from sight.

It’s true, in a way, that the building’s a kind of hangar. There’s even an airplane in one of the galleries, Cai Guo-Qiang’s amazing 2004 sculpture Bon Voyage: 10,000 Collections from the Airport, the suspended wooden armature of an enormous jet decorated with scissors, penknives, and other implements confiscated at airport security.

There’s also a kind of pretentious fussiness that borders upon the officious, as in the mounting of a small Richard Serra light and fiber work entitled Plinths, 1967. ­Serra’s neon tube fixed to the wall and partially wrapped in fibre de verre partially illuminates three rough glass tubes leaning together against the wall and a fourth lying on the floor. The sculpture has a mini-monumental quality, consistent with its title; perhaps the whole work’s no more than ten or twelve feet square; the light is subdued, the forms intimate. Quite oddly, here and elsewhere, museum personnel have stuck lines of white tape to the floor, a security demarcation that includes the bold legend ne pas franchir/do not cross. The sculpture cannot be seen without the museum’s pedantic, meaningless cry: the security tape seems emblematic, to me, of what too often stands between the viewer and the art at Beaubourg. If treating citizens equally badly remains a mark of a democratic institution, Beaubourg qualifies.

In this regard, visiting Beaubourg is somewhat like visiting MoMA, with its long ticket lines, coat check, and twenty-dollar entrance fee for adults (where students over sixteen are still charged twelve dollars, more of a deterrent to young artists than a money­maker). Consider by contrast the Tate Modern, where the viewer enters the building through a descending piazza, like Beaubourg’s, also to be met by ­security—but immediately inside, one may well be greeted by the enormous spiders of Louise Bourgeois in the stunning Turbine Hall, or by a dramatic installation by Olafur Eliasson. And there the galleries are easily accessed, admission-free. The art at the Tate Modern might be on loan, but it takes no more than five minutes—and no money—to enter the gallery and see the work. Although first there is a bag check at security, of course, to remind us of our anonymity and vulnerability; today, the Threat Level matters.

Which is to say that being a global citizen in a new democracy, being part of a crowd made by the museum we’re visiting, isn’t all pretty and Pre-Raphaelite, as we step easily into a beautiful painting and remember what we think is Beautiful. We’re also being made more alone in our art-viewing habits, more isolated in public, our cellphones set on vibrate like Star Trek phasers set to stun. Global, yes; innocent, maybe not. We’re watching everybody else watch. We’re moving in the direction noted on the card. We’re supporting the postcard factory, the shopping-bag mill; we’re keeping the makers of thumbtacks and Scotch tape and DIY ­reddi-frames financially afloat. We’re collecting our desires, we’re being taught what they are; we’re global and diverse; we’re the individual, awe-struck products of the new art museum. 

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