Sydney Morning Herald Column

Philippe Parreno

Published February 2, 2017
Image courtesy of Australian Centre for the Moving Image

There’s something fascinating about Philippe Parreno, but it’s not necessarily the art. It’s his mind. Having sat through two-and-a-half hours of short, oblique films at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, I came away feeling amazed by the kind of mind that could devise such a strange, obscure spectacle.
Perhaps “spectacle” is the wrong word, for there is nothing less spectacular than a short film by Parreno. In fact it’s rather boring, in the mildly pleasurable way Roland Barthes once characterised boredom. It’s not such a bad thing to lie around on a carpet in a darkened gallery watching quirky little movies, while silvery balloons in the shape of fish float around in random fashion.
In such an environment, where all the conventions of art are staunchly refused, everything becomes a part of the work. The viewer becomes a component. So too do the gallery assistants that periodically announce the name of the next film, or walk around giving the fish balloons a tap. Another aesthetic highlight on this particular day was a colleague who had unconsciously adopted the same pose as the man in a suit sprawled on the beach in Charles Conder’s Holiday at Mentone (1888). In Conder’s painting the sleeper seems to have been stupefied by reading the Red Page in the Bulletin. My friend was KO’d by Parreno’s numbing, mini-movies that never seem to go anywhere.

Image courtesy of the Australian Centre of the Moving Image
Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Among artists, Parreno (b. 1952) is a philosopher, an obsessive theorist who questions every convention of the art museum. The very antithesis of a populist, he is a hermetic intelligence that would rather confuse than please the general public. One might imagine this would make him a rare sight at those galleries and museums that seek to draw big attendances. Au contraire! Parreno is now one of the most sought-after artists in the world.
In 2013 he was allowed to transform the entire Palais de Tokyo in Paris into one vast installation. The director, Jean de Loisy, praised him for ‘upending’ the very notion of an exhibition. Parreno followed with a similarly ambitious project at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Only last week I was at the Tate Modern, looking at his installation, Anywhen, which occupied the entire, cavernous Turbine Hall.
It made me realise that Melbourne had gotten off lightly with only a film screening and a few balloons. In Paris the entire 60,000 square metres of the Palais de Tokyo had been transformed into a confusing environment in which audiences were dazzled by bright light, sent wandering in the dark, and confronted with a series of filmic and performative events. There was no clear beginning or end. Parreno described it as “a self-referential semiotic system gone crazy.”
In London a huge screen played a constant stream of films while lights twinkled on the walls, noises were relayed in from outside the building, and rows of speakers periodically descended from the ceiling. The sequences were allegedly controlled by a flagon of yeast, whose biological processes had been wired up in an artful way to give direction to the various parts of the installation.
ACMI has the films, the balloons and the rippling lights, but it is simplicity itself by Parreno’s standards. The artist has made his name by treating the exhibition as the artwork, where the context of display is as important as the piece itself. His work has long been associated with “relational aesthetics” – a term coined by French theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud, to describe art that doesn’t allow the viewer to be merely the passive consumer of objects arranged in a room.
Bourriaud’s definition of this ad hoc movement is: “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”
Yes, this sounds suitably vague. One could argue that every exhibition is “relational” to a larger or lesser degree because viewing an exhibition is already a well-established social activity. Yet there is a significant difference between a room hung with paintings and the restless installations Parreno devises.
Image courtesy of the Australian Centre of the Moving Image
Image courtesy of the Australian Centre of the Moving Image

So-called “relational aesthetics” seems completely in tune with the historical mission of the avant-garde – as defined by theorists such as Renato Poggioli – which is to see the institution of art wither away into the fabric of everyday life.
The novelty with Thenabouts is that this is the first time Parreno has shown his complete cinematic oeuvre of 28 short films. Most of these pieces have turned up in one venue or another over the years, as the artist has a habit of recycling fragments of his career in different contexts. As context is everything to Parreno, what’s old is always new again.
The gallery assistants who have been installed in a glass booth, from where they announce each work, have also been instructed to show the films in any order they like. They are performing the same role as the micro-organisms in the yeast in the Tate exhibition. The major difference is that it will probably take the yeast a lot longer to get bored.
So what does one get in this randomised cinematic feast? After two-and-a-half hours I’m struggling to remember. There was one about the hotel suite at the Waldorf Astoria that Marilyn Monroe occupied in 1955; one about a Chinese boy sleeping in a dingy room; some moody shots of landscape; an anime character that announces her own hollowness and cheapness; and so on.
Film stills from: Philippe Parreno, Marilyn, 2012, Runtime: 19 minutes 49 seconds, Color, Sound Mix: 5.1, Aspect Ratio : 2.39. Courtesy Pilar Corrias Gallery
Film stills from: Philippe Parreno, Marilyn, 2012, Runtime: 19 minutes 49 seconds, Color, Sound Mix: 5.1, Aspect Ratio : 2.39. Courtesy Pilar Corrias Gallery

It feels almost pointless to try and analyse these films. They are so disparate and fragmentary one becomes acutely aware of their ephemeral nature. As Parreno puts such an emphasis on the context of display it hardly seems right to review these snippets as if they were narrative movies. The conventional, well-made film wants to manipulate our emotions with dramatic devices and sympathetic background music. Lion, for instance, unambiguously wants us to feel moved by the protagonist’s search for his real family. The majority of viewers are only too happy to take the bait.
Parreno has no such ambition. His films do not play on our emotions. They are intellectual exercises that invite us to puzzle out their significance. But by making no concessions to our pre-conditioned desire for stories they provide no special lure for a mass audience. In his installations Parreno is always trying to hand control over to an impersonal mechanism, such as a flask of yeast or a pre-programmed piano keyboard.
Parreno seems to enjoy standing outside of the hulking mainstream making small incisions into its flanks. His full-length film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), showed every move made by the famous footballer in the course of a game. The movie slyly parodies the football mania that holds most of the world in its grip because regardless of what is happening in the match, all we see is Zidane.
We have become accustomed to the idea that everything in a film is meaningful in some way, but Parreno doesn’t accept this. Perhaps because life itself is not always (or hardly ever?) meaningful. He has said that he finds the idea of a world without logic to be very appealing, but logic is a difficult habit to kick. If one were to puzzle out each of Parreno’s cinematic fragments it would always be possible to discern a logical pattern.
The result of Parreno’s attempts to explode the conventional idea of an exhibition is that he doesn’t undermine the aesthetic experience – he aestheticises everything. It’s as if a balloon filled with aesthetic gas were pricked and the vapours released into the entire gallery. We are surrounded by the stuff: an experience that is titillating for those in the know, and stultifying for others. It devolves into a form of dandyism, in which style is more important than content.
For this reason I can’t help thinking that relational aesthetics doesn’t represent the future of art – it’s a fad that allows its adherents to believe they possess a much finer sensibility than the masses who flock to football matches and Hollywood movies. But for how long can one deny narrative and enjoy an art of random fragments? Even the greatest connoisseurs of pleasurable boredom must eventually feel the need for action.
Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until 13 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28th January, 2017.