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by Maurice Ulrich

Speaking up

Translated Wednesday 24 June 2009, by Henry Crapo

Exposition: In Strasbourg, Silences, a selection from the collection of Marin Karmitz, reveals a profound questioning concerning art and its place in our times.

Producer and distributor, Marin Karmitz is an unmistakable figure in French cinema, without whom numerous essential films from these recent decades would never have reached the theaters. From the fact that he is a user of these films, through his network of movie houses, the MK2, one may permit oneself a pinch of doubt concerning the nature of his combat against a house such as the Méliès in Montreuil [1]. Born in Rumania, arriving in France at the age of 9, he is extremely sensitive to anything involving discrimination or anti-semitism. A former militant of the extreme Left, he was put in charge, by Nicolas Sarkozy, of animating a Council on artistic creation, which caused rumors to circulate that he was a parallel minister of culture. Presently seventy years of age, he is also an exacting collector of contemporary art. It is for this reason that the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg wished to organize with him an exposition of which he would be the commissioner: Silences, in a space conceived by Patrick Bourchain.

Breaking the Silence of the Painting

It was evidently not a question of showing the entire collection of Marin Karmitz, of which the fame remains relative, compared to that of other collections of which one often hears. But the works exhibited in Strasbourg display a veritable engagement in the art of our times. In an interview with the critics Joëlle Pijaudier-Cabot and Estelle Pietrzyk, he evokes the conditions under which this collection was born: "In the nineteen seventies, there was a veritable splintering of painting into new practices, such as installation, video, or performance. Suddenly, a certain number of artists began to speak up in favor of a totally new method, unknown until then, breaking the silence of the painting by introducing words, sayings, and writings directly into their work. If one studies the dates of these transformations, the question of historical context becomes rapidly an issue: the second world war, the discovery of the concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima, provoked an initial response by artists, at least by some among them. But the events of 1968 throughout the world, the revolts of students in the US, the war in Vietnam, the war in Korea, the dictatorships of Latin America, the Red Brigades and the Baader group gave rise to another political voice. I relied on this speaking voice of artists, interesting myself in the different forms in which it dressed itself. The artists that I chose had in common that they made propositions to the world, propositions with a universal message."

It is not surprising, therefore, to find in the exposition a figure like the film director Chris Marker, a totally emblematic figure of those days, celebrated not only for his films like La Jetée (the Jetty) but for his cut-and-paste documentaries like Le fond de l’air est rouge". The video work presented here [in Strasbourg] is inspired by the poem of T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men. On a set of screens you see images of wounded men, faces of women, and texts, war is everywhere, it is pain and devastation, it is these faces that almost freeze into stone. The method is also linked to the period of years. It is the method of "cut up" practiced in the literature of William Burroughs and others who, as in the cadavres exquises [2] juxtapose words and images. But other works, perhaps more elliptical, have a considerable force. Mario Merz, one of the great names in Italy for the Arte povera, was at work at the end of the sixties in the creation of igloos put together from basic materials. The igloo presented here is made from sheets of glass, more or less well assembled. It totally inverts the idea of an igloo, replacing the feeling of shelter, of security, by that of wounding, of danger, with suggestions of blood.

Imitations of Happiness

The Beach, by Martial Raysse, in 1962, is a major work of the new realism. A space with sand, with photos of fashion models seeming to emerge from bath sheds, a buoy in the form of a dolphin, another in the shape of a duck. You have to be very naïve indeed to take his as an image of happiness and as an elegy to the leisure and consumer society of which one spoke often in those years, except for the fact that it is such an imitation. But exactly what is an imitation of happiness? The Dead Class of Tadeuz Kantor, also a dramatist and stage director, is a spine-freezing work. A dozen fashion models in resin, dressed in black blouses, are seated in the rear seats of a schoolroom. They have bare feet. And here we have some sentences from Tadeuz Kantor in 1978, before the jury for the Rembrandt Prize, "It is not true that modern man is a spirit that has conquered fear ... It is not true ... Fear exists... It is not true that the artist is a hero or brave and intrepid conqueror who has placed himself squarely in the face of fear."

We should speak of numerous other works. By Joseph Kossuth, Annette Messager, Bruce Nauman, Juan Munoz, Giacometti, Robert Gober, On Kawara ... We close our visit to this exhibition Silences [3]
pausing before Speaking up (Prendre la parole) by Christian Boltanski. An assembly of persons dressed in black hoods, weakly lit, who murmer words that are supposed to make them alive: "I am a beautiful woman, I have a sports car, I am cultured, I am nervous, I have a beautiful life, ..."

[1The Méliès is a municipally owned and managed theatre in Montreuil. Tempers have been high since 2007, when Karmitz went to court to prevent the Méliès from doubling the number of its projections halls from 3 to 6.

[2For instance, the site An Exquisite Corpse is "a collaborative experiment in the creation of visual art through the tapping of the collective unconscious..."

[3Silences, until 23 August 2009, the Gallery of modern and contemporary art of Stasbourg, 1, place Hans Jean Arp, 67076 Strasbourg.