Centre Pompidou picks the fruits of its curatorial success

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Fruits of Passion” displays contemporary works that were acquired during the last decade by the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM), Centre Pompidou. The exhibition begins, though, with the final threads of modernism — the period shift away from 19th-century realism and the subsequent reductionism to artistic essentials that began with Edouard Manet and ended up in the late 1960s and early ’70s with Minimalism and color-field painting.

The reference points for the latter movements are found in works such as Cy Twombly’s “Untitled” (1969), with its the graffiti-like gray surface, and Robert Ryman’s “Chapter” (1981) of subtly daubed white-on-white painting. The late 20th century’s return to geometrical abstraction is seen in the horizontal stripes of Agnes Martin’s “Untitled” (2002), and the vertical ones of Daniel Buren’s “Photo-Souvenir” (1985-86), which, while supposedly calling attention to the internal architecture of the museum as a space for display, also appears as stark modernist wallpaper that carries with it the threat of high modernist abstraction being reduced to mere decoration, repetition and conformity.

Modernist painting was ostensibly exhausted by the early 1970s, its internal logic of progressive flatness having terminated in one-color canvases and clean-cut geometrical abstraction. Extremities had been established, with realism at one end and abstraction at the other, and anything thereafter having to sit between them. “Contemporary” became the designation for all that came after, though modernism could still inspire.

Farah Atassi’s “Workshop” (2011), for example, uses the building blocks of geometrical abstraction such as squares, rectangles and triangles. They are arranged, however, to representational ends — into configurations of buildings and chimneys within a painterly three-dimensional space. Though conceptually at odds, the artist is heir to high modernists such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Fernand Léger.

While modernism was primarily concerned with painting and to lesser degree sculpture, the “contemporary” designation was less specific. Arguably the most elegant example of such is the inclusion of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “Shadow Play (Paris)” (2011). Set on a lengthy table, children’s toys and figurines are affixed on small rotating platforms. Lights shine forth, resulting in chains of magic-lantern-type shadows cast on the wall behind. The piece reflects the imaginative worlds of infants at play, as well as the artist’s fascination with kitsch imagery deployed in high-art settings, and the fusion of found objects and sculpture with theater and the origins of photography.

It is the contemporary works that the exhibition catalog calls the institution’s “Fruits of Passion” — high modernism by contrast appears rather cool. With the exception of Anri Sala and a few others, however, many artists of this show are unknown in Japan, giving rise to contextual issues of interpretation and language. It is perhaps amusing that the exhibition title in Japanese is transliterated into katakana via English translation — “Furūtsu obu pashon.”

Elsewhere in the show, language and its (mis)understandings are ever more crucial. Jason Rhoades’ installation “Chatte de Beaubourg” (2004) is a chandelier made of four cart wheels, from which hang words written in neon signage. One of the hanging words, “l’abricot,” is translated literally to the English word “apricot,” without any recourse to the French slang reference to female genitalia.

Similarly, “la moule,” while correctly given as “mussel,” is also a vulgar slang word for vulva. “La cite d’amour” means not simply “city of love,” as the catalog notes, but is a reference to Paris. “Soupirail,” more cryptically, means a “basement window” and it is this, a reference to glass windows. But if one letter is eliminated from the English word, you arrive at “widow,” a pointed reference to the French erotic notion embodied in the work of 20th-century artist and joker, Marcel Duchamp, whose famous French windows installation, titled “Fresh Widows,” refers to recently widowed, and therefore particularly amorous, women.

The conceptual bent in this exhibition is strong, so its visual element is sometimes less compelling than what might be expected from one of the world’s leading art institutions. While the experience of art throughout history has primarily addressed the eye, however, the culminating work in the show seeks to make a point that the “contemporary” should also engage other senses.

Ernesto Neto’s “We Stopped Just Here at the Time” (2002) is visually alluring with its pendulous sacks hanging from what is described as a “soft painting” fixed to the ceiling. The protuberances contain a number of spices, including cloves, cumin and pepper, so the work also stimulates olfaction and memory. As the title suggests, scents have a way of confusing the senses and re-experiencing a distinctive smell can often transport an individual back in time to another place or situation. But be warned: Posted on the wall is a sign indicating that for some visitors the spices may affect more than just the senses — it could, physically, leave them quite uncomfortable.

“Fruits of Passion: The Collection from the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till March 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/eng/home.html