Catch me if you can! Chasing Napoleon at the Palais de Tokyo

I went chasing Napoleon yesterday at the Palais de Tokyo – that’s the “oh-I’m-so-contemporary” art center in the West End of Paris. Slippery sucker, this Napoleon, let me tell you. So elusive to the point of being completely absent. No sign of him. Kind of like the singer in Ionesco’s bald Soprano.

“Chasing Napoleon”. A good title. Could be the name of a movie. Apparently Marc-Olivier Wahler, the (fairly new) director of the Palais de Tokyo, had had this title in mind for years for an exhibition and finally got the chance to put it to use. In my mind, it conjures images of testestorence driven, adrenaline car chases, spectacular takes, special effects… Well, that is if it weren’t the title of an exhibition in this temple of Art That Nobody Ever Gets that is all into the post-minimalist, post-conceptual, neo-Clever thing (as in nearly empty and you have to read a lot if you want to stand a chance at understanding what it’s all about).

And yes, true to form, Marc-Olivier Wahler has once again concocted an exhibition that is 99.3% sure to confound the average visitor. But if you get into it’s really cool.

I got into it. Not entirely on my own I must admit. Some clever, short guy with glasses lead a group of us around and really made the whole thing come to life. No idea who he was, probably should’ve asked, but I’m sure he’s got a some snazzy role. He used to work at the Pompidou. I got that much about him.

Anyway, like I was saying he really knew how to set the scene. Quite literally. “Think of this exhibition as a movie, with the title adding to the general atmosphere. Atmosphere is a good word when talking about contemporary art. Better than explanations. There aren’t always any.”

Up to that point everyone agreed.

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"Drain" by Robert Gober. Exhibition view of "Chasing Napoleon" at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris

PICTURE – Woman chasing Napoleon right up through Robert Gober’s drain (yes, like a kitchen drain) installed on its on in the middle of the great, curved wall in the Palais de Tokyo’s main exhibition space.

The year 1977 is given as the starting point to the exhibition. That’s the year that

  1. Theodore Kacynski, soon to be known as the killer Unabomber, had already begun living in a small cabin in the middle of Montana in anticipation of the “collapse of the technological system.” (He is found guilty of sending sixteen mail bombs which kill three and is now serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Colorado.)
  2. Outsider artist Paul Laffoley (born 1940) finishes a cycle of paintings entitled “The Renovatio Mundi”. These are brightly colored, very densely figurative paintings that portray complex visions of theoretical, meta-physical and spiritual systems – as conceived by the American artist, who is apparently convinced of his departure from the physical world and his passage through the “fifth dimension,” all in the timeframe of a 1961 electroshock seance.
  3. Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth (1938-1998), who had gained notoriety in the 1960s by making art with foodstuffs, is continuing work on his long-term project of compiling photographic images of all houses of the icelandic city of Reykjavik (33,000 slides compiled from 1970 to 1975 and from 1990 to 1995) – Well, why not, I ask you?
  4. And finally, and this is where the plot thickens, it is the year that the USA passes the Community Reinvestment Act designed to make it easier for people to become homeowners in modest and low-income communities. It encourages and protects banks granting high-risk loans …. a.k.a subprimes! aha!
Robert Kusmirowski's "Unacabine" (2008), exhibition view of "Chasing Napoleon" at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2009.

Robert Kusmirowski's "Unacabine" (2008), exhibition view of "Chasing Napoleon" at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2009.

PICTUREApparently this is what the cabin looked like that the terrorist that was to be known as “Unabomber” lived in, afraid of the end of the world, and inspired by American writer Thoreau’s two-year sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond in rural Massachussetts. Thoreau!s retreat from a “nervous, restless, bustling and superficial civilization” inspired anarcho-primitivists to return to nature. (Btw, Thoreau’s cabin apparently didn’t have a roof so he could hear the birds sing and enjoy their company)


So three people (two of whom are insane) that, prior to this exhibition, had absolutely nothing to do with each other are linked by the cosmic haphazardness of time and provide a dramatic narrative background to an exhibition that albeit “chasing” doesn’t have the pretention of “catching” anything – which in way is precisely the point. You can’t harness art, parcel and flat-package it like a set of Ikea Billy shelves. It’s so much more ambiguous to the point of at times being as intangible as the Tom Friedman‘s plain white pedestal which carries nothing except for … a curse! (“Untitled. (A curse)”, 2009) … as inaudible as Dave Allen‘s 2002 recording of Erik Satie’s* ironically entititled “Flabby Preludes (for a dog)” played back at 18kHZ and thus inaudible to the human ear and, yes, audible to dogs! Similarly, there are other startingly banal and hence mindbogglling-to-the-layman artistic propositions as a hole in the wall by Scottish artist Ryan Gander (“Nathaniel Knows”, 2003-2009) and a collection of bird sounds by Hannah Rickards (“Birdsong”, 2002).

But combined, with the overarching subprime-meets-end-of-world-unabomber-while-madman-paints-and-a-german-guy-takes- pictures-of-a-bunch-of-houses theme, poetically wrapped up in a catchy exhibition name, all these pieces come together and somehow do convey something quite powerful – if one is willing to spend the time it takes to “get into it”.

And when one looks closely there are definitely some highlights that are not to be missed such as:

  1. Christoph Büchel’s “Spider Hole” (2006). Interesting from a purely formal and material point of view and highly relevant in this exhibition’s context as it is the replica of Saddam Husseins unlikely hiding place.
  2. Charlotte Posenenske’s two sculptures from her series “Vierkantrohre, Serie D” (1967). Discrete, clever, good.
  3. Robert Gober’s above pictured “Drain” (1989), and
  4. Dieter Roth’s Reykjavik Slides (1973-1975, 1990-1993)** a truly remarkable undertaking rendered by the presentation of the complete collection of the 33,000 diapositives in 3 glass cupboards, neatly classified by street name and eight, side-by-side projections
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Christoph Büchel, "Spider Hole" (2008)

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Dieter Roth "Rekyavik Series" (1970-1975; 1990-1995)

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Dieter Roth "Rekyavik Series" (1970-1975; 1990-1995)

*For more about French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), see http://newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=2138

* For more about Dieter Roth and his retrospective at the MoMA, NY in 2004 see and scroll to the bottom of http://www.artsjournal.com/artopia/2004/04/

“Chasing Napoleon”, group show at Palais de Tokyo, Paris from 16 October 2009 until 17 January 2010. Participating artists (in alphabetical order): Dave Allen, Micol Assaël, Christoph Büchel, Dora Winter, Gardar Eide Einarsson, David Fincher, Tom Friedman, Ryan Gander, Robert Gober, Robert Kusmirowski, Paul Laffoley, Ola Pehrson, Charlotte Posensenke, Hannah Rickards, Dieter Roth, Tony Smith, John Tremblay

Palais de Tokyo
13, avenue du President Wilson, Paris, 16th arrondissement
open: noon-midnight
admission 6 Euro

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