Poule!, on erasing spatial boundaries
By: Doreen A. Rios
Preparing the ground
Back in 2012, from April 20th to September 14th, the Jumex Foundation gallery held one of the most controversial exhibitions that Mexico City had ever seen: Poule!
Curated by the vibrant eye of Michel Blancsubé, in charge of the Archives Department of the Jumex Foundation since 2001, this show was a very firm statement on the way we approach art and the methods used by curators to assemble a path through an exhibition.
The exhibition featured 68 pieces, cautiously selected from a 2500 artwork collection, by 57 international artists focusing in those that hadn’t been exhibited before by the Jumex Foundation. Inside the selected artists we can find Francis Alÿs, Andisheh Avini, Dirk Bell, Jason Bereswill, Dike Blair, Francesco Vezzoli, John Waters, Hannah Wilke, Richard Wright, Iñaki Bonillas, Santiago Borja, Fernando Carabajal, Daniel Guzmán, Jorge Méndez Blake, Oscar Muñoz, Urs Fischer, Cao Guimaraes, Dennis Hopper, Robert Longo, Robert Mapplethorpe, John McCraken, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Sebastián Rodríguez Romo, Miguel Rodríguez Sepúlveda, Marco Rountree Cruz, Hedi Slimane, Eduardo Terrazas, Rosemarie Trockel and Tatana Trouvé. All of the pieces inside this exhibition belong to diverse contexts and flow through a wave of sculpture, photography, installation, video and painting.
A walk inside the exhibition
At first glance one may think that the selection looks pretty deliberate, however this is exactly the feeling that Blancsubé wanted to give us. To understand the goals behind this assembly we should start with the name: Poule!, this simple word means “hen” in French, but also refers to the sport ball-trap where it’s used to warn the shooter when an object enters his visual field, and – unlike many other exhibition names – it doesn’t stand for a particular art theory or political statement, it’s mainly a symbolic way of letting the audience know that this exhibition either makes no sense or it is ready to throw some plates and watch you shoot them.
In words of Michel “every artwork selected for this exhibition is an event that leads to desire. The desire of watching the piece, of sharing a moment with it. The desire of owning it, of wanting to throw it into the trash can. The desire, the pleasure, the seduction is what I aim for, I’m not interested in enlarging the big names.” (Blancsubé 2012).
This becomes very clear with the decision of not adding any kind of written information inside the exhibition and also with the distribution of the artworks themselves.
In Fig. 1 we can see the entrance hall of the exhibition, here the name of the show becomes clear: Blink once and a picture of Angelina Jolie laying in her bed, taken by Steve Klein, appears. Blink twice and we can see a shy Patti Smith portrait, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, emerging through the walls. Blink again and William Burroughs pops up holding a rifle, ready to shoot.
We are standing at the entrance hall and while it resembles the traditional arrange of the 1700’s French salons, it also establishes the pattern for the rest of the exhibition. As you keep on walking through the aisle you encounter the main room, filled with a series of objects juxtaposing into one another where every piece becomes a sentence and the only way to read through the whole story is by navigating it. The decision of not attaching any kind of label to the artworks makes it hard to determine where does a piece start and where does it end but it also gives the audience the power of weaving their own thoughts without any distraction.
In Fig.2 we can see a diagonal wall disrupting the space, creating a window for us to see through it while we stablish a dialogue with the pictures shown inside. By now, we can see that there’s no prejudice in adding bits of the popular culture because, as Yves Michaud said, “art has transformed its sanctuaries in media of mass communication” (Michaud 1985) and culture is completely embedded by it.
There’s a sense of provocative playfulness that creates a less serious environment for the audience and at the same time it looks back on exhibitions like those created in the 1900’s by the French movement, The Incoherents, where they selected irrational and iconoclastic pieces for creating exhibitions aiming to question the “authority” of art by challenging the audience to interpret what they saw without someone telling them what they should be looking at.
A good example of this, see Fig.3, is the way Blancsubé cleverly set the video artwork Tornado, by Francis Alÿs and Julien Devaux, right in front of the sculpture wINdORwALL, by Dirk Bell, and created a tight dialogue between the two pieces that seem to complement each other with their chaotic aesthetics. Or the ethereal environment created by the large format photographs of the sky, by Marine Hugonnier, surrounding a cigarette box subtly flying around the room (See Fig.2).
Examples like these can be seen throughout the exhibition and it’s the audience the one in power of adding and/or deleting these connections between pieces. If we could establish the initial rules for travelling across this exhibition they might look like this:
1.- Come in, choose the artwork that appeals you the most and approach it.
2.- Create an interaction with the piece and let it talk to you without boundaries nor predetermined ideas.
3.- Take one of the booklets and discover if what you’ve just seen is one, two or three pieces talking to you all at once.
Despite the seemingly random path that defines Poule! we can see a clear concept appearing over and over: the cut-up.
This technique first appeared in the 1920’s with the Dadaist movement, it was Tristan Tzara the first poet to use random words from articles and newspapers to put together a series of poems (See Fig.4). But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that William Burroughs and Brion Gysin popularized the technique and started a whole new interaction between words and shapes which also opened a new door for cinematographic post-production. Coincidence, or not, the figure of Burroughs seems to create an invisible web through every room of the exhibition and also a Dadaist essence roams around the corners.
In fact, we could say that Poule! works in a very similar way to the First International Dada Fair (1920) celebrated in Berlin (see Fig.5). The latter was held in reaction to the academic art exhibitions and not only aimed to deconstruct the idea of art, and how art should look like, but also to question the exhibition spaces and the distribution of artworks inside them. As we can see, the intention laying behind Poule! is very alike, and makes us wonder whether if the institutions in charge of art are, in fact, moving out of the elitist ghost that has haunted them since the very beginning of museums and galleries or if they have perpetuated it.
Moving back to the idea of the cut-up, Poule!, also works in a way that there are no “big names” nor a sense of superiority between the pieces. Just as the words hand-picked from newspapers and magazines, what is important is not the article they were taken from but the final assembly of the piece/event. This idea, which works – of course – hand in hand with the collage, gives us the most important goal of the whole exhibition: getting the audience to look at the bigger picture.
It is not the individual artworks that speak for themselves, but the complete experience given to every single visitor of the exhibition. The most important thing for Michel Blancsubé is to create an appealing and complex environment where the audience can create intimate dialogues with the pieces without any intruder.
The controversy behind Poule!
As one could expect from an exhibition like this, the curatorial approach was very controversial for the Mexican art circuit. First because most of the artists featured in the exhibition are alive and personally complained about the way their pieces were displayed; it seemed that the main focus of the artists’ displeasure was that they didn’t want their pieces to be close to others because then the message they are trying to get through gets corrupted.
However, we should ask ourselves if this doesn’t happen in any other, more traditional, curatorial exercises. Let’s look for instance to any exhibition regarding a specific place and time, for example: the German art of the twentieth century (1952) exhibition curated by Werner Haftmann, Alfred Hentzen and William S. Lieberman held at the Museum of Modern Art of New York. This example put together a series of artworks created, specifically, by German artists – such as Max Beckmann, Otto Baum, Rudolf Belling, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky and Hans Ulhmann – who worked with painting, sculpture and prints throughout the 20th century. Despite the fact that the exhibition enclosed a particular group of artists and the artworks were displayed in a very controlled way, they can’t help but to create links between one another, simply because of sharing the same room (See Fig. 6). Therefore, if the artworks can’t avoid communication between each other, not even in strict conditions like the example given, to claim that it is disrespectful not to give each piece “enough” space to speak individually goes against the whole idea of collective exhibitions.
On the other hand, the exhibition was also controversial for creating a bigger story guided by the curator because somehow it imposes a new power figure over the artists and the artworks themselves.
However, even if I personally believe that the curator should work more as a post-producer than a director, the whole exhibition was incredibly well received by the visitors. We must keep in mind that this exhibition space was built inside a juice factory in the very centre of one of the most dangerous places in the State of Mexico, which made very difficult for people to approach the museum in addition to the fact that, even though the entry in this gallery was free, the people living in this area had very little interest in art. It was a very clever way to gain audience and awaken an interest in what was going on inside this exhibition space because, due to the fact that the exhibition felt so playful and open, it was very easy for people who weren’t familiar with art to actually engage with this non-linear story.
Also, this was one of the last exhibitions held inside this space – few months after this exhibition ended, the new building of the Jumex Foundation opened its doors to the public– and this granted it the opportunity to put a symbolic end to unilateral exhibitions and created a space for exciting experiments regarding art and curation.
Last but not least
Without a doubt this was one of the most memorable contemporary art exhibitions held in Mexico. It represented a step back into basics by reorganizing the curators’ priorities in order to face a very demanding audience that won’t settle down for less than a rich experience.
Poule! was a poetic game through contemporary creation that aimed to change the state of apathy, consequence of the uber intellectual and elitist art/exhibition production, for a state of constant doubt. It created a mysterious web of connections that can only be made by the observant, it gave back the power of interpretation to the audience and, more importantly, it got rid of the egotism that surrounds art.
This exhibition was so ground-breaking that it personally affected me; it became the reason why I started exploring curatorial studies as a professional career. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one feeling a deep awakening while walking through that mesmerizing maze filled with secrets awaiting to be revealed. We, curators, should be pursuing a dialogue between the audience and the artworks, we should stand firmly and defend the experience of the observant.
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Cover image: Bradley, S. (2007), Factory ikon, photograph, viewed November 2016
Figure 1: Jumex Foundation (2012), Poule!, photograph, viewed November 2016
Figure 2: Jumex Foundation (2012), Poule!, photograph, viewed November 2016
Figure 3: Jumex Foundation (2012), Poule!, photograph, viewed November 2016
Figure 4: Tzara, T. (1920), How to make a Dadaist poem, article, viewed November 2016
Figure 5: Hausmann, R (1920), First International Dada Fair, photograph, viewed November 2016
Figure 6: Museum of Modern Art (1952), German art in the twentieth century, photograph, viewed November 2016