Traces of the Sacred

Centre Pompidou, Paris

Closed August 11, 2008
by Lillian Davies

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      Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps Reveal the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967
      Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension supports
      59 x 55 x 2 inches
      Courtesy Centre Pompidou

      View Gallery

      Like an Attali Report, but Different at the Kadist Foundation last month suggested the power of the Foundation’s independence from government funding. Its freedom from economic and political restrictions appeared to enable the Foundation to present an exhibition critical of France’s government and social structure. This month, Traces du Sacré (Traces of the Sacred) at the Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture, provided an opportunity to test the hypothesis that government-funded institutions tend to present more diluted, less provocative exhibitions.

      Part of the former French President Georges Pompidou’s cultural agenda, The Georges Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture was established on January 3rd 1975, less than a year after his death. Construction of Italian architect Renzo Piano’s monumental design had begun in 1972, during Pompidou’s administration, and was ultimately completed in 1977 while President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a more liberal leader, was in power. An official symbol of French artistic production and a major venue for international exhibitions, the Center hosts a program of solo and group shows while also housing the National Collection of Modern Art.

      This summer, Alfred Pacquement, Director of the National Museum of Modern Art, together with Jean de Loisy and Angela Lampe, curated Traces du Sacré, a veritable blockbuster featuring 350 works by almost 200 international artists “from Goya to Jonathan Monk.” In the catalogue, Pacquement poses the question: “In a ‘disenchanted’ society where art may resemble no more than an object of entertainment, where culture is mediatized, economically evaluated, and often ends up consumed like a product – and where the artists themselves channel these phenomena into their art and sometimes take part in them – do traces of the sacred remain in artistic creation?”*

      Pacquement suggests that the systems of religion and the language of the sacred could offer means of salvation from dominant social, financial and media networks. Seemingly aligning his agenda with that of the Kadist Foundation, Pacquement claims to present art that resists social, financial and media influences. But whereas the Kadist Foundation exhibited sharp politically reactionary work in Like an Attali Report, but Different, Pacquement defers to a more general theme. And ironically perhaps, it was the Pompidou’s huge budget and extensive marketing campaign that initially defined Pacquement’s response to this question to the public. Promoted through a city-wide advertising blitz and mobilized by a network of international sponsors, the platform for Traces du Sacré seems to rest squarely on the “phenomena” that Pacquement disparages.

      However, the ambitious scope of the exhibition also reflects an earnest consideration of the status of the sacred in artistic creation, brave in its investigation of one of the few remaining taboos in contemporary secular society. Ideologically transcending matters of material and finish, Pacquement’s embrace of the sacred seeks to elude the dominant commercial model that often defines the art world. Navigating an exploration of the sacred from within a society whose politics are so fervently secular, Pacquement is also steering away from the French political and social status quo.

      Setting a wide and often ambiguous stage for a consideration of the sacred, Pacquement and his team broke Traces du Sacré into twenty-two different categories, including “Sacred Dances” and “Apocalypse.” Terminology gets especially tricky in the “Spiritual Paganism” section, although a mask by DADA founder Marcel Janco is a playful (if not comically misinformed) inclusion. The show opens with Bruce Nauman’s spiralling neon text, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967)—an appropriate indictment of expectations. Of course artists that were explicit in their attention to the spiritual in art—Wasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian (and his follower Theo Van Doesburg), Frantisek Kupka and Oskar Kokoschka—are well represented in the show. But the premise is complicated by the inclusion of artists who have not necessarily placed themselves within a discourse on the sacred. For example, in the first gallery, Damien Hirst’s black fly-covered triptych, Forgive Me Father for I Have Sinned (2006), is a stronger example of the artist’s strategies of self-promotion and the commercialism of the Brit Art phenomenon. While Hirst’s title references Christianity’s language for divinity, the work feels more superficial than sacred.

      Essentially functioning as a survey show, the exhibition sweeps across key moments in post-Enlightenment Europe. Edvard Munch’s 1906 portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, which hung opposite Hirst’s work, appropriately echoes the composition and colors of Munch’s The Scream (1893). Picturing Nietzsche with a furrowed brow and dark locks cutting through a wavy ochre sky, Munch depicts his heavy and exhausted body as it leans against the railing of a dramatically foreshortened stretch of bridge. Meanwhile, Christ and Buddha (c.1880), a painting by French artist and member of the Nabis group Paul Ranson, juxtaposes the darkened silhouette of a seated Buddha with a radiant rendering of the crucifixion. The canvas is further embellished with dark green palm fronds and a half of a deep blue visage, the long undulating earlobes betraying the artist’s references to Eastern sculpture and hinting at the rise of Orientalist painting in late 19th century Western Europe.

      With broad strokes, Traces du Sacré draws in rarely seen works, but also evinces serious gaps. Robert Smithson’s little known religious-themed paintings are featured: Jesus Mocked (1961), a red and black figure on canvas, and Green Chimera with Stigmata (1961), a featureless face framed by stigmata-marked upraised hands. Nearby, an entire room of the show is dedicated to Swedish artist Hilma af Klint’s deeply meditative abstract canvases from the early 20th century. But despite the strong representation of Klint’s work, many of the show’s glaring omissions are female—Ana Mendieta, Wangechi Mutu and Chiho Aoshima. Their exclusion also reveals the Euro-centric agenda of the exhibition, almost entirely overlooking work from Asia, Africa and South America.

      Just following the opening of Traces du Sacré, the outspoken French critic Olivier Cena assessed the exhibition as “conceptually weak and extremely confused. On a surface which appears very exiguous, divided into small rooms, three hundred works are piled up, as in the living rooms of the 19th century.” Lamenting the absence of “mystical artists” like Fred Sandback and James Turrell, Cena predicted that “one will be especially astonished by the presence, on such a topic, of so many inanimate works.”** Perhaps the real fault with Traces du Sacré lies in its over-ambitious claims on the scope of presentation and breadth of audience. These aims are embedded in the original mission of the Pompidou Center, and are maintained today by cultural leaders including Alain Seban, President of the Pompidou Center. Seban recently explained that through Traces du Sacré, “the Center assumes its fundamental mission”: inviting artists to “open sensitive paths to the largest possible audience for a more intimate comprehension of the issues of our time.” With a charge to address a wide audience on major topical issues, the Pompidou’s political position inhibits the creation of specialized or unorthodox exhibitions.

      However, the curators of Traces du Sacré seemed to have backed away (if only slightly) from this universalist approach, finding a more modest end to the show with Jonathan Monk’s Sentence Removed (Emphasis Remains) (2000). Producing an opening for individual interpretation in an otherwise somewhat didactic exhibition, Monk’s gesture (and the curators’ generous presentation) invites viewers to pursue a personal interpretation of the sacred. Beyond merely witnessing studies of the sacred, the audience ascends from its role as spectator to that of thinker, interrogator and perhaps ultimately, instigator of radical thought. A red neon spiral mirroring the baseline for Nauman’s statement in Mystic Truths, Monk’s work relies on the traces of the sacred, and quietly recalls the words of French poet René Char, “it is only the traces that make you dream.”***

      *Writer’s translation throughout.

      **Oliver Cena, Telerama no. 3045 (May 20, 2008).

      ***René Char, Oeuvres complètes (Complete Works), Paris: Gallimard (1983).

      Lillian Davies is a writer living in Paris. She is a regular contributor to Artforum and Editor in Chief of Uovo Magazine. She earned her B.A. in Art History at Columbia University and her M.A. in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London.


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