The work of a daring artist is both high-tech and primitive


ON AFTERNOON before the official opening this summer of Luma Arles, an impressive new art center in the south of France, a triangular swimming pool in the corner of one of the ground-floor galleries began to overflow. The visitors were more amused than disturbed because the water infiltrated inexorably on the parquet floor. Even when the circular blue carpet in the center of the room turned soggy and dark, viewers suspected it was part of the show. The gallery was entrusted to Philippe Parreno, a French conceptual artist whose work challenges notions of what an art exhibition can be. Mr. Parreno watched in silence as the water spilled out.

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Born in Oran, Algeria, and raised in Grenoble, one of the most technophile cities in France, Mr. Parreno, now 57 years old, stood out in the art world at the start of the 90s, when the Internet took off. Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, remembers a work he produced in a summer garden at Villa Arson in Nice. It was made entirely of artificial fireflies that no one could see during the day; they were only visible at night when the museum was closed. Andrea Lissoni, who worked closely with the artist at Tate Modern, recalls a first exhibition in New York City in which fish-shaped balloons filled with helium were dropped into a gallery, to be arranged and rearranged by visitors. The resulting excitement, especially among children, contrasted exuberantly with the gloomy reverence generally considered normal in art galleries.

As different as they are, the two shows demonstrated the artistic preoccupations that Mr. Parreno says have gripped him over the past 30 years. These include an obsessive focus on time rather than objects; the use of various media (whether film, sound or performance); an enthusiasm for working with collaborators rather than alone; the exploration of artificial intelligence and even organic materials such as yeast as artistic “agents” that help shape his works; and a preference for site-specific projects rather than exhibitions that can travel from gallery to gallery. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Parreno’s insistence on the fact that public intervention is a key element of any exhibition.

For his next turn

Over the decades, his work has become more and more complex; for some it has become incomprehensible. In the installation he created in 2016 for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Mr. Parreno gathered a body of data about the building, including the temperature of the galleries at different times of the day, recordings of the sounds made. by the industrial piping that runs through it, and the speed of the wind on the roof. All this was relayed by computer and fiber optic cables in a large vat of living yeast placed behind a glass at one end of the hall.

The energy created was used to subtly change the atmosphere in the room. Visitors found themselves subjected to roars, recordings of the hissing of the nearby river and the slamming of boats on the shore, as an assortment of Mr. Parreno’s films were shown on screens that moved up and down. low on cables hanging from the ceiling. “It was a space within a space,” he says now, “and in that space you had another space. He insists that the sounds and the screens were controlled by the yeast. One reviewer compared it to “extraterrestrial intelligence.”

This kind of art is not for everyone. But for those who want to understand the ambitions of the French artist, his installation in Luma Arles is a good starting point. It has two parts: an 80-minute film by Mr. Parreno and a screening based on audience reaction. Visitors are invited to sit on benches arranged in a circle, itself mounted in the middle of the floor. Every now and then the circle spins, first in one direction, then in the other. Window blinds move up and down depending on the amount of sunlight outside. A drone floating at the ceiling records the reactions of the audience and reproduces their whispers in the room. “The whole is a learning process,” says Parreno. “Because the audience always reacts differently, each screening is unique. “

The film, meanwhile, is made from reissues of several earlier pieces. From a sequence on the biology of the cuttlefish, for example, or the journey of the train carrying Robert Kennedy’s body from Los Angeles to the East Coast after his assassination, Mr. Parreno presents a whole new tale that seems n to be nothing less than the story of life.

The first images show starry darkness on the edge of a galaxy far beyond it. From there the viewer is transported around the surface of the sun, across the heavens and down to Earth where an insect-eyed creature (the cuttlefish from a previous film, “Anywhen”, premiered at the Tate Modern) seems to emerge from a swamp. Humanity evolves and congregates in dense cities, living in squalid apartments in Chinatown or the plush interior of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and all along America’s railroad sidings. The “other” is omnipresent, in the form of the immigrant, the foreigner and various characters with different voices, all played by Nina Conti, an English ventriloquist. The effect is surreal and bewitching.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the Luma itself is a grandiose tower that overlooks the old town of Arles, visually reminiscent of a confident, pre-pandemic world. In contrast, Mr. Parreno’s installation – tech-heavy but reshaped from earlier works, done in collaboration with others, telling stories about a fragile humanity – fits the moment. The infiltration of the infinity pool in the corner of the gallery was found to be the result of a faucet accidentally left by a worker. But Mr. Parreno’s magic is such that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was all part of the story.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “The Man Behind the Curtain”


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