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June 29 2012

Artist Talk: Hans-Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Philippe Parreno at Fondation Beyeler

On the occasion of Philippe Parreno’s solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, the Fondation organized an artist talk with the French artist, who became known for his work that combines different media such as film, sculpture, performance, sound and text. At Fondation Beyeler, Philippe Parreno presents two new films, C.H.Z. (“Continuously Habitable Zones”) and Marilyn, which are accompanied by a choreography of sound and images that includes two of his typical Marquees, a room with drawings, a water lilies installation created by sound waves, and a DVD with a soundtrack by Arto Lindsay that erases itself after a one play.

In this conversation with the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno talks about the current exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, future projects, and his work in general.

The above video is an excerpt. The full-length video (45:53 min.) is available after the jump. Coming soon: an interview with Philippe Parreno and an exhibition walk-through with statements by Sam Keller, curator Michiko Kono, and Philippe Parreno.

Artist Talk: Hans-Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Philippe Parreno at Fondation Beyeler. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (Switzerland), June 15, 2012.

PS: The videos are also available at the Fondation Beyeler’s website and YouTube channel.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.
> On YouTube:

Complete Artist Talk (45:53 min.):


December 05 2010

Philippe Parreno – review

Serpentine gallery, London

On 8 June 1968, a train carrying the body of Robert F Kennedy set out from New York to Washington. Thousands of mourners lined the route. At first, the coffin wasn't visible, but the pallbearers propped it up on chairs in the observation car when they realised just how many schoolchildren, firemen, housewives, factory workers, farm hands and all were waiting to pay their respects – in the end not just thousands but almost a million.

One of the passengers that day was the Magnum photographer Paul Fusco, who skimmed reams of images of the crowd from the slow-moving train. Families with banners, soldiers saluting, children waving, parents weeping and embracing: it is a mass portrait of anticipation and grief. But it is also visibly altered by Fusco's presence, as the mourners catch and respond to his lens.

The French artist Philippe Parreno has done away with this mutual exchange of looks in a dramatisation cast with actors, loosely based on Fusco's archive. In June 8, 1968 none of the figures stationed by the track is aware of the camera. All stand motionless, silent, staring at the moving spectacle, whatever it may be, and this touches on the film's profundity. Each face reflects mortal solemnity. The baseball player becomes a sentinel. The worker stands transfixed. There are no crowds, only these lone souls numbered by the gliding camera. As the soundtrack sweeps between silence, bird song and mechanical shuddering, the viewpoint rises and even lifts free of the track. It is a superb evocation of dreaming.

But more than that – which is, after all, in the nature and gift of film itself – there is the most unexpected sense of consciousness disembodied, travelling. All these bystanders are looking at something that cannot be seen, an invisible presence; in a sense, it is the very truth of that day. But the film drifts through time and place in exceptional ways and its last moment far exceeds documentary reality.

I've written at length about this film as it seems to me a small masterpiece. It is also a rare instance of some hardcore art theory – the relational aesthetics with which Parreno is associated, by which art should indicate, as part of its content, an open and democratic relationship with the audience – put to the service of poetry.

Parreno is careful to construct a viewing area of just the right proportions so that we are on the same scale as the on-screen figures. We are as they are, all of us witnessing the departure. And at the same time, we seem to see through the eyes of the dead.

No rigid viewpoint, no single angles, carefully considered relationships and ratios: these are all part of Parreno's approach. He is probably most famous for his collaboration with Douglas Gordon on Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, a mesmerising homage to the grizzled football star composed of footage shot from 17 different cameras each trained solely upon the player during a match between Real Madrid and Villareal.

That film was a feat, its portrait of this Coriolanus-like athlete, all grace crossed with saturnine brutality, developed without any conventional narrative structure (you never saw the game played out). And June 8, 1968 feels like a new form too, an elegy with no fixed subject.

Indeed it is quite possible to appreciate this seven-minute film without any prior knowledge of the funeral train, especially if you have entered the Serpentine gallery at an inopportune moment. For the whole show is conceived as a theatrical experience, with ushers, sound and lighting moving you from one gallery to the next. As one film ends, window shutters open electronically and the soundtrack dies away, cross-fading with the overture of the following film. Parreno has solved the classic problem of art film and video shows most astutely: none of the works is on a loop, everything is screened in sequence. Audiences finish one film before they begin the next.

It is a pity that the experience opens with a much-exhibited fantasy called The Boy From Mars, which has nothing to do with either, because it is such a slippery work. This has a David Lynch look to it from beginning to end, with its dead-of-night landscape sporadically illuminated by what appear to be UFOs rising in the sky like golden bubbles, its shrouded motorbikes and unnamable canvas structure glowing with uncanny amber light. Winds set up, a monsoon comes down; clearly we are not in America after all.

In fact, the structure was part of an eco-art project built by Parreno in Thailand and powered by buffalo. But those values are not implicit in the film and the buffalo appears to be led, quite cruelly, by the nose. What strikes is the constant shift between hooves in the mud, displacing star-bright water, the night sky above and that unidentified orange glow.

Real or unreal, that seems to be the underlying question. Alas, this show also includes No More Reality, in which French schoolchildren have been persuaded to chant those words while carrying placards round in a tedious circle, as if inviting the question of whether the protest itself is real, which hardly needs an answer.

For what emerges after precisely 30 minutes at the Serpentine – Parreno is both strict and kind with time – is just how unashamedly aesthetic his art really is. The gallery suggests that he is trying to redefine the exhibition experience, and perhaps that is so. In theory, one ought to be able to hear the noise from Hyde Park leaking into the gallery, to see snow falling both within and without. In practice, the audience drowns out all the external sound when moving between galleries and the fake flakes outside (depending on the weather) may be overwhelmed by genuine snow. Reality can really disrupt your relational aesthetics.

But the snow inside is something to behold. It is part of a very poignant film, Invisibleboy, the last and most recent work here. This shows an illegal Chinese child secreted in some nameless gap between walls on a wintry night in Manhattan, sleeping alone among piles of junk as the workers slave downstairs. Whatever he was dreaming in actuality, visions of quivering soft-toy critters start to appear on screen, scratched on the film stock itself so that they too are not quite legitimately there.

The instrumental soundtrack builds and builds until the child rises and gropes his way to the window where he must not be seen. Outside, the snow is falling, just as it is for the audience as the film ends and the shutters open. This artificial snow is not just pretty, it is hyper-real and entirely moral; for the film's truths are continuous with our own modern reality. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 01 2010

Reel to reel: Philippe Parreno

The new four-film show by the Algerian artist behind Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait coerces his audience from reel to reel, dramatically altering what it means to view video art

Snow drifts at the windows of the Serpentine Gallery and the glass is fogged, as though invisible children were clamouring against it. I write this on a day when real snow has fallen – and the ice on the Serpentine lake is authentic enough (just ask the waterfowl sliding and waddling on it). But the snowflakes in front of the gallery churn from a machine on the building's pediment, and the ghostly breath has been etched by acid on the windows. The idea that real and fake snow might fall as one, and that cold breath from inquisitive passersby might mingle with etched mist, somehow has a magical synchronicity.

Philippe Parreno's Serpentine exhibition is a delight. The Algerian has bought together four short film and video works – the longest lasts 10 and a half minutes – very different in tempo, subject matter and approach, for a show that might best be described as a single ensemble piece. As one film ends in one gallery, the blinds at the windows rise, while in the next space they descend and the lights go off.

This is not the first exhibition to attempt to locate works in such a theatrical setting. Albanian artist Anri Sala did something similar at the Couvent de Cordeliers in Paris in 2004, plunging the medieval convent into grey crepuscular light and lining the place with grey felt walls to create a backdrop for several very different works. But Parreno's show goes further. The whole exhibition is a kind of journey the audience has to follow. The experience feels communal, and I think this, too, is intended by the artist. He seems concerned with how long people spend looking at a single work: here, only one work is available to look at any time. The artist coerces us into going with him.

Parreno's film No More Reality opens the show. In 1991, he gathered together a group of schoolchildren in their playground in Nice and filmed them chanting "No More Reality! No More Reality!" The slogan was their own, as was their decision to chant in English. The colour is bleached, the sound poor. It is an old Betacam recording, further degraded through being reshot on the artist's mobile phone. It's like a memory of some bright but distant summer, and the chant itself recalls innocent childish enthusiasm and a kind of impossible idealism. The voices echo through the empty galleries like a kind of empty hope – or a declaration of what one finds in art galleries.

The second film, The Boy from Mars (2003), takes us to a tropical compound under a lowering sky. It is dusk, or dawn, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Water buffalo wander in the half-light. Lights climb the sky as though we were beneath some busy flightpath, and stadium lights flare beyond the trees. An improbable technology is at work in a windswept hangar: an electricity generator powered by the buffalo themselves, hauling at some suspended weights. The power they generate also provided the electricity for Parreno's camera. The lights in the sky form a new constellation. The animals wallow in the pond, unconcerned, leaving squelching footprints in the saturated earth. A bovine eye looms in the lens. You can almost smell these creatures, along with the ozone in the heavy, prickling air. Who, you ask, is the boy from Mars? A witness to a dream? There is no plot. It is all about place, weather, a situation that might be fictive – except it really happened.

The next room shows June 8, 1968 (main picture), in which we are aboard a train carrying the body of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, who has just been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, from New York to Washington. Crowds line the track as the train goes slowly by; they seem to be looking directly at us, but we look back, seeing what Kennedy never saw. Yet all is not as it seems: the journey is a re-enactment, restaged in California in 2009, and the crowds are hired extras. Parreno has mounted a camera on the observation car.

Overhead, the sky is an impossible blue. Clouds of pollen blow across the pastureland. We pass girls in summer dresses; an old black woman with a parasol; a couple picnicking in a dappled glade beside the track. Black baseball players stand and look behind chain-link fences, and a boy leans on his bike as we clatter through small towns and under vivid skies. At one point the camera lingers on a girl in a dinghy, rocking on placid, silent water, the blue filling the screen; at another, we pause before a magnificent tree on a grassy Californian hillside. The tree seems like a witness too – but to what? History, perhaps. You want to capture these images and hold them, and look at them again. But they're gone.

When Parreno and Douglas Gordon filmed Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in 2008, 17 cameras followed the football player throughout the match. In a great catalogue essay, Michael Fried brings together his memory of Kennedy's death, Zidane's absorption in his game and obliviousness to the attention he is getting, and the way the trackside spectators follow our fictive journey on the train through California. He weaves in his own preoccupations about art and film, Diderot and Kant, and what it means to be a spectator and a subject of art. Fried has been writing about such issues for almost a half-century. It is a compelling text.

Parreno's latest work, Invisibleboy (2010), is a portrait of a young illegal alien in New York's Chinatown. Spectral monsters including giant rabbits are scratched directly onto the film stock – the creatures of the child's imagination, hiding in amongst the coats and under the sink, inhabiting the cluttered apartment where he lives and running like quicksilver in the gutters of a Chinatown alley. In Zidane, Parreno and Gordon used Mogwai's post-rock to great effect, and here the soundtrack is by Montreal band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The music (Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls) has great urgency and drive, and somehow manages to be at once paranoiac and elegiac.

The whole of Parreno's show presents itself as a metafiction, and it is impossible not to weave a narrative with its complex images and the world Parreno has created. Something similar happened in Pierre Huyghe's new film, The Host and the Cloud, which closed last weekend at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris – a short film that arrested me for two whole hours. As it happens, it had a rabbit in it too, though that one was a hi-tech alien avatar. Parreno has collaborated with Huyghe in the past and there remain concordances between their works – not least the question of what is real and what is staged, and how we as spectators negotiate not just their works themselves but also the conditions under which they are shown. It is never just a matter of plonking yourself down and losing yourself. But then it never should be. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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