Looking Back 2017: Paris

At once stagnant and dynamic, politically tense and blissfully buoyant, the French capital was a strange place to be living this year

Paris was a strange place to be living in 2017: at once stagnant and dynamic, politically tense and blissfully buoyant. The state of emergency, in place since the terrorist attacks of 2015, was both easy to forget and impossible. If Marine Le Pen raised fears that France would fall for fascism, Emmanuel Macron’s eventual victory at least provided a stay of execution.

Such complexities provided fertile ground for art of a politically charged nature. The artist Kader Attia’s new venue, La Colonie, opened at the tail-end of 2016 with the desire, he told me, ‘to repair the fragmentation of society and to be part of the real’. Existing in opposition to what Attia describes as ‘the activists of the vernissage’, La Colonie hosted vital discussions, symposia, and other events throughout 2017. The African art book fair in October was a particular highlight.


Haig Aivazian, ‘440 sunsets per 24 hours’, 2017, installation view, Kadist, Paris. Courtesy: Kadist, Paris; photograph: A. Mole

Haig Aivazian, ‘440 sunsets per 24 hours’, 2017, installation view, Kadist, Paris. Courtesy: Kadist, Paris; photograph: Aurélien Mole

But the finest political work of the year was by Haig Aivazian. His summer solo show, ‘440 sunsets per 24 hours’, at Kadist culminated with a performance-lecture, World/Anti World: On Seeing Double, that took as its starting point the three explosions outside Stade de France during a football match in 2015 and branched out to encompass three states of emergency or exception: the beginnings of war in Algeria in 1955; the Paris banlieues during the riots of 2005; and the war against Isis in 2015. ‘Colony’, ‘ghetto’, ‘distant warzone’: Aivazian’s contention (following Giorgio Agamben) is that such states are not in fact exceptional, but the structural conditions upon which democracy rests.

Yet Aivazian’s lecture was not a polemic, nor an academic thesis; it threaded together a wide range of apparently disparate subjects – the history of public lighting in Paris, Nike football adverts, Israeli military technology, a Rihanna concert – to form a complex interweaving of ideas and histories. In centring all of these on the stadium and its surroundings, Aivazian suggests that places too are woven from multiple threads. To tease them apart takes time and care.


Lawrence Carroll, from the series ‘White Oval Paintings’, 2014–17, housepaint, dust on canvas on wood, 39 x 47 x 3 cm. Courtesy: © Lawrence Carroll Studio, Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne/Paris/St. Moritz; photograph: Nikolai Saoulski

Lawrence Carroll, from the series ‘White Oval Paintings’, 2014–17, housepaint, dust on canvas on wood, 39 x 47 x 3 cm. Courtesy: © Lawrence Carroll Studio, Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne/Paris/St. Moritz; photograph: Nikolai Saoulski

Artists were not the only cultural workers engaging with politics. At the annual Communicating the Museum conference, which took place across three sweltering days in June, the focus was on education as a central component in the social mission of the contemporary museum. Inspiring projects with children and refugees demonstrated the ability of cultural institutions to shape the world for the better, at least in a small way.

More subtly political were several excellent shows in the Marais, the gallery epicentre of Paris. Galerie Karsten Greve had an especially strong year with exhibitions of lesser-known (and instructively less successful) still-lifes by Giorgio Morandi, time-worn paintings by Lawrence Carroll, ecologically urgent sculptures and drawings by Claire Morgan, and the rhythmically broken lines of pencil, crayon or horsehair by Pierrette Bloch, whose death in July was a true loss.


An-My Lê, November 5, Sugar Cane Field, Houma, Louisiana, from the series ‘The Silent General’, 2016, inkjet print, 100 x 142 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery 

An-My Lê, November 5, Sugar Cane Field, Houma, Louisiana, from the series ‘The Silent General’, 2016, inkjet print, 100 x 142 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, London/New York/Paris 

Nearby, An-My Lê’s landscape photography at Marian Goodman and Tarek Atoui’s sound works at Chantal Crousel both shone. So, too, did the exhibition ‘Animer Le Paysage’ (Animate the Landscape) at Musée de la Chasse et la Nature, the highlight of which was Sonia Levy and Alexandra Arènes’ collaborative piece, Belval Kakosmos (2017): a four-screen installation stemming from research in the Ardennes forest that attempts to introduce life (both human and non-human) into the traditionally inert purview of cartography.


‘Casa Miller’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: photograph: Aurélien Mole

‘Casa Miller’, 2017, installation view, Galerie Allen, Paris. Courtesy: Galerie Allen, Paris; photograph: Aurélien Mole

Further north, at Galerie Allen, freelance curator Arlène Berceliot Courtin conceived ‘Casa Miller’: a group show that was both erudite and sexy, at once reticent and revealing in its satin-wrapped promises. The exhibition’s starting point was a vintage erotic photograph by Carlo Mollino, a modernist architect who, it was discovered after his death, produced hundreds of such images in an apartment designed solely for that purpose. Works by five contemporary artists (Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, Florian Bézu, Edith Dekyndt, Marie Lund, Céline Vaché-Olivieri) touched on ideas of desire, objectification, and the soft dark drapery that curtains the private from the public.


‘Jardins’, 2017, installation view, Grand Palais, Paris. Courtesy: Grand Palais, Paris

Meanwhile, several of the best museum shows were unashamedly intellectual. In Paris, ‘Dioramas’ at Palais de Tokyo was winningly weird while ‘Jardins’ (Gardens) at Grand Palais dived headlong into histories of art, design and human categorisation of nature. (Highlights included the herbaria of Paul Klee and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and gorgeous photographic works by Anna Atkins and Paul Dobe.) Outside the capital, ‘Après Babel, Traduire’ (After Babel, Translate) at Mucem, Marseilles was a fascinating, if flawed, exploration of the politics of translation, curated by philosopher Barbara Cassin, whose text-heavy approach was rendered topical by concurrent fears over the future of Europe. The excellent accompanying catalogue was probably a more successful articulation of Cassin’s ideas than the exhibition itself.


Alexandra Navratil, Modern Magic (detail), 2013, 162 slides, 2 slide projectors, faders. Courtesy: the artist and Dan Gunn, Berlin

Alexandra Navratil, Modern Magic (detail), 2013, 162 slides, 2 slide projectors, faders, included in ‘4,543 milliards’, 2017, CAPC, Bordeaux. Courtesy: the artist and Dan Gunn, Berlin

A little less academic, but no less rigorous, was ‘4,543 milliards’ (4,543 billion), curated by the Barcelona-based Latitudes (co-founded by frieze contributing editor Max Andrews) at CAPC, Bordeaux. Subtitled ‘The matter of matter’, the exhibition provided a material, geological and political response to the building’s former life as a warehouse for colonial commodities and, by extension, the complex entanglement of culture, money, politics and ecological impact. Marble from Trump Tower (Amie Siegel’s Strata, 2017) was exhibited alongside partially-burnt documents rescued from fire at the Bordeaux municipal archives and a 1939 mock invitation to the ‘Museum of Standard Oil’, actually MoMA’s new building, issued by then-publications director, Frances Collins (unsurprisingly fired soon after). Combining archival materials with work by 30 artists, big ideas with specificity and nuance, this was exactly the kind of exhibition I would want to return to again and again. If selection of the next artistic director the Venice Biennale were a democratic process, I’d be voting for Latitudes.

Main image: Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (detail), 2015, two-screen installation, solar panels, batteries, projectors powered by solar energy, dimensions variable, included in ‘4,543 milliards’, 2017, CAPC, Bordeaux. Courtesy: the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland and Labor, Mexico

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His first book, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, was published by Influx Press in April 2017.

Most Read

In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018