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How France became cool again

About the author

Jason Farago is an art critic and columnist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. After many years in London, Jason now lives once again in his hometown of New York.

(Thinkstock, Getty, Daft Punk, The Weinstein Company)

(Thinkstock, Getty, Daft Punk, The Weinstein Company)

After decades of decline, French art has begun a major comeback, argues Jason Farago.

“In the beginning there was no earth, no water, nothing,” boomed a voice in a gallery of last year’s Venice Biennale. “In the beginning there was nothing but shadow and only darkness and water and the great god Bumba. In the beginning were quantum fluctuations.”

Videos can be easy to skip past in large art exhibitions, but Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue sucked viewers in like a whirlpool. Its spoken-word anthropological rap, accompanied by a pumping bass line, spun out the creation, population and destruction of the universe. On screen, the artist projected rapid-fire images of lizards, turtles, primitive sculpture and Wikipedia screenshots, all shown in the context of pop-up windows on a computer screen. It was philosophical and mystical, modern and ancient, high-flown and vernacular – and it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Grosse Fatigue was the undisputed hit of Venice, where Henrot was awarded the Silver Lion for the most promising young artist, and it’s now the centrepiece of Henrot’s first American museum exhibition, which opens at the New Museum in New York on May 7.

And Henrot is only the latest of an avalanche of French artists who, after years in the shadows, are re-establishing ‘the Hexagon’ as one of Europe’s artistic centres. Philippe Parreno, a leading figure of 1990s art and co-director of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, has had recent solo shows not just in Paris but in Moscow, Basel and Turin. London saw Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster occupy the Tate Modern’s giant Turbine Hall with a post-apocalyptic installation of bunkbeds, film reels and oversized replicas of Calder sculptures. In Doha, Adel Abdessemed just presented a conservative-outraging show at one of Qatar’s many new museums, and installed his own giant Zidane sculpture on the corniche (it was censored).

Everywhere you go on the art world’s endless string of fairs and biennials the French presence is rising, though no city has taken to French art quite as much as Los Angeles; at some art-world parties there it can seem that half the smokers are speaking the language of Molière. Last month saw a robust second edition of Paris Photo Los Angeles, the west coast spinoff of the leading French photography fair. Notably improved from its first attempt in 2013, the fair was staged on the backlot of Paramount Pictures and let visitors stroll through a counterfeit, klieg-lit New York, where galleries staged exhibitions of international photographers but also historical and contemporary French names, from the gender-questioning Claude Cahun to the experimental Xavier Veilhan. The Hammer Museum at UCLA recently presented an exhibition of the romantic iconoclast Cyprien Gaillard, and later this year Pierre Huyghe, the most important French artist to emerge in the 1990s, will open a major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, after years adrift, is plotting a new future with a new French director, the studious Philippe Vergne. And next year comes the biggest French invasion of all: a new Los Angeles edition of Fiac, the Paris art fair that has matured these past few years into one of the best fairs anywhere.

Graceful decline

It’s undeniable that French art went through a rough patch in the last decades of the 20th Century. After two centuries when Paris was the uncontested centre of global art, the political and economic order that emerged after World War II made it almost inevitable that the United States would acquire a much greater weight in contemporary culture. Serge Guilbaut, the French art historian, saw it firsthand and devoted a book to the subject: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. While French artists never totally went away (the stripe-happy conceptualist Daniel Buren and the photographer Sophie Calle both won wide acclaim), the place lost a lot of its previous allure. At the start of the 20th Century, Paris was the only place to be if you wanted to be on the artistic frontline: Picasso arrived there from Spain, Modigliani from Italy, Brancusi from Romania and Chagall from Belarus. By the end of the 20th Century, if you wanted to move to an artistic capital you’d head for London or Berlin, if not São Paulo or Shanghai.

But something started changing in the 1990s. A group of young artists – Huyghe, Parreno and Gonzalez-Foerster most prominent among them – started making work that challenged expectations about art’s autonomy and often involved the participation of viewers or the creation of social situations: a carnival in a park, say, or a giant game of Pong that audiences could play on a light-up ceiling. The critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who now directs Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, grouped these practices under the term ‘relational aesthetics’ – and while the alliance was hardly seamless, it gave French art a brand that curators and collectors could understand. Other currents helped too, such as the foundation of the Palais de Tokyo, the “site of contemporary creation” (they don’t like to call themselves a museum) in Paris that’s now Europe’s largest contemporary arts space, as well as new private initiatives like La Maison Rouge and the Kadist Art Foundation

Art de Triomphe

Yet even while these new French artists have gained more acclaim than any generation since the 1960s, French art still feels like a bit of a specialty taste. Some of this might be down to scale. Paris doesn’t have the commercial heft of New York and London or the cheap rents of Berlin, and some of France’s excellent regional scenes – such as in Dijon, home of the contemporary art museum Le Consortium and the arts publisher Les Presses du réel – remain peskily off the art world map.

And some of it, I’m afraid, is due to an instinctual French-bashing on the part of some blinkered Anglo-Saxons. For far too many Americans and Brits (and, let’s face it, many French people too), French culture can only be a story of decline – even as insane housing prices have made New York and London, rather than Paris, the cities with real long-term cultural worries. In April’s American edition of Vanity Fair, for example, the British gadabout AA Gill tried unconvincingly to find in President François Hollande’s rumbustious love life proof that French culture had lost its shine. “When was the last time you enjoyed, say, a contemporary French film?” he rasped, as if The Artist had not swept the Oscars in 2012 and Blue Is the Warmest Colour had not become one of the biggest art-house hits of the decade. “Name a great French musician”: were we not all dancing to Daft Punk this past summer, and were they not bestrewn with Grammies just a few months before? There was a dated Depardieu joke too – somehow Bond girl Eva Green, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, and intrepid Nymphomaniac star Charlotte Gainsbourg were off his radar.

But the claim that French art is dead rang weirdest of all, considering that the most recent winner of the Turner Prize – the biggest artistic gong in Britain – went, for the first time, to a Frenchwoman. London-based Laure Prouvost was the most unexpected and exciting winner in years of that slightly moribund prize, which she clinched thanks to her immersive installations that incorporate fast-cutting films and strange, surreal narratives. Prouvost is not the only French artist to make her career abroad (Henrot, for one, now lives in New York), and to some degree she confirms that national boundaries are less meaningful than before for talking about art. Yet watching her videos, in which she whispers to her viewers in her rich, R-trilling Lilloise accent, you can hear a new contemporary French art speak with the confidence it’s earned.

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