PARIS: Part way through the opening of FIAC Hors les Murs, last Tuesday, it started spitting. VIP guests, artists and invited press blinked up at the clouds and walked their wine glasses to awnings or trees. The extramural component of the Paris art fair, which marked its 46th edition Oct. 17-20, sprinkled 21 contemporary works around the grounds of the Jardin des Tuileries. The FIAC pieces lounged in the autumnal light, in furtive dialogue with the garden’s historic objects.
Noel Dolla’s 2019 work “Nympheas Post Deluge II” immersed 500 colorful umbrellas in the garden’s shallow octagonal pool, creating the impression of water lilies, thus Monet.
Moataz Nasr’s 2018 installation “Sun Boat” is comprised of a ring of 350 vertically installed bread paddles (used to slide bread loaves or pizzas in and out of ovens). For those propitiously placed, the paddles seemed to encircle the Luxor Obelisk towering nearby in Place de la Concorde.
While waiting for stragglers to return from Hors les Murs, journalists were invited to eyeball some of the FIAC pieces installed at the Place de la Concorde. The works there included a pair of small mid-20th-century houses designed by Jean Prouve. While standing within one of these, squinting at a small library of books on Prouve’s oeuvre, you heard shouting, sirens and polite explosions approaching.
A parade of hollering men in fireman’s gear strode past, some with lit flares in hand. One firefighter pushed a toy fire engine, which every few paces wailed a weary siren.
“Is this a performance?” you asked a bystander shooting a video of the men on this mobile. “Are Prouve’s houses about to burst artfully into flame so these actors in fireman costume can save them?”
The bystander raised an eyebrow. “They are firemen,” he said patiently. “They come to Paris asking for better pay. Pensions. Like that. They get tear gas and water cannon.”
Retreating, you find a Lebanese colleague clutching her mobile.
“Isn’t it glorious cool?” you grin, recalling the curtain of desert air that descended on Beirut the night before. “You saw?” she asked, holding up an Instagram image of singed cars and burnt brush. “Lebanon is burning.”
FIAC is now among Europe’s biggest art emporia. Local legend has it that when FIAC director Jennifer Flay took the rudder 15 years ago, she found a fair languishing in the suburbs. Flay depicts the fair’s recuperation in terms of conversation.
“Like other leading art fairs we have galleries, collectors and the public visiting from all around the world,” she told The Daily Star by email, “but we have to present a meaningful connection to our locals, as well as participating in wider conversations about culture. Through FIAC Hors les Murs and FIAC Projects we’re able to provide Parisians with chances to have a surprise encounter with work from internationally renowned contemporary artists as they walk home from work, or enjoy a day out with their family.
“Providing a platform for buying and selling art of course underpins our activity, but what I’ve tried to ensure ever since I started at FIAC [in the] 2004 edition, is that these transactions happen at all levels of the market. As well as the market leaders we encourage the next generation of galleries to participate ... galleries that may not otherwise be able to participate in an international art fair.”
Indeed several FIAC events are devoted to enjoying art rather than buying it. Take the FIAC Projects exhibition at the Petit Palais, curated this year by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel. She and her team assembled 30-odd sculptures and installations within the Petit Palais and on the pedestrianized Avenue Winston Churchill - which runs between the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais, FIAC’s principal venue.
The works on Winston Churchill were among the most playful.
Vivien Roubaud’s 2019 installation “Sucre cristal no 3, ecoulement laminaire, courant alternatif, atmosphere modifee,” assembles the machinery needed to create an all-day-long cloud of candy floss and to propel it skyward.
Also from 2019, Jean Denant’s “Du rocher souriant jusqu’au ciel un continent commence” (from the smiling rock to the sky, a continent begins), is comprised of volcanic rocks that have been sheered in two, their exposed interiors coated in a layer of mirrored, polished stainless steel. Passers-by found Paris’ cloudy sky reflected from the rocks’ polished interior surfaces. If you placed yourself properly, they framed inverted vistas of the Grand Palais and upside-down images of colleagues trying to photograph the sky in a shorn stone.
Most adults don’t have much opportunity for such play, of course. The extreme economic polarization wrought under late capitalism, the attendant mass migrations and political blowback - commonly framed as “populist” and “anti-globalist” - provokes questions about what positive role international art fairs like FIAC can play in this climate.
“These are changing times,” Flay wrote, “and artistic responses to international turmoil can offer a vital channel of communication between communities. An art fair like FIAC is a place where international voices can promote understanding between people at a local level.
“One such work this year is a large billboard from Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, which reads ‘Quand il y a un, ca va ....’ (‘when there is one, it’s fine ...’). This refers to a terrible recent story in French politics, but also speaks to the racist rhetoric that is a growing problem across Europe. This work has a kind of response in the large neon work by Sylvie Fleury, on the side of the Petit Palais, which lights up with the words ‘YES TO ALL.’ Culture enables a different type of cross-border collaboration and dialogue, and we are thrilled to be part of a market that is now opening up to new voices and artistic viewpoints.”
There was much talk of dialogue at FIAC. During her tour of FIAC Projects’ exhibition, Lamarche-Vadel said she found a strong link among the contemporary and historic works sharing the galleries.
“Everything started with what’s up there,” she gestured to the domed ceiling where one of its four frescoes served as the screen for a looped laser projection of a rotating skull, Matt Copson’s 2019 work “Death Again (part 2).”
A peculiar feature of Copson’s light show is that its skull is nearly impossible to capture in a photo. Each effort revealed only a fragment of the laser’s colorful line drawing.
“Copson’s momento mori happens in dialogue with the fresco behind it, called ‘Thought,’ painted by [Albert] Besnard [1849-1934],” Lamarche-Vadel smiled. “You can see this middle-aged couple being welcomed by Death and behind them you can see The Truth appearing.”
Lamarche-Vadel’s show is ripe with wit. The most amusing and resonant piece in this conflict-obsessed era is also among the more mature - “Coups bas libres,” the 1986 mixed-media work by the artist collective Presence Panchounette, active 1969-1990.
The work recreates a boxing ring, its canvas splattered with splotches of red paint a-la Jackson Pollock. Facing one another in the ring is a pair of gigantic snails.
The title, Lamarche-Vadel explained, loosely meaning “Below the Belt,” is a play on words, gesturing both to the rum-based cocktail and to the Cuban boxers the artists admired.
“You can see these animals are about to fight upon an abstract expressionist canvas,” Lamarche-Vadel smiled. “This says it all.”
At the end of the tour, the curator turned her face back to Copson’s laser show.
“These lasers are usually found in nightclub performances,” she added. “For Copson, it’s very important to mix immemorial topics like this with something vernacular, to bring us back to real life. His momento mori tells us things are gonna change. Things are gonna mutate. Things are gonna transform.”