Tuesday, 5 April 2011


An exhibition called “Circuit céramique” held recently in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will be my starting point to reflect on a trend that has always fascinated me: mixing contemporary artefacts with permanent historic collections.

One of the most well-known and controversial attempts is perhaps the Chateau De Versailles in France where 3 contemporary artists have been recently exhibited: Jeff Koons in 2008, Xavier Veilhan in 2009 and Takashi Murakami in 2010. When asked by  The Economist in November 2010 why to confront a Japanese contemporary artist with an iconic French site, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, director of the Versailles museum replies: “I think that the presence of contemporary artworks in an historical setting, as that of the Château de Versailles, awakens the glance of the visitor who passes through the royal rooms. It makes him reflect on the perenniality of the artistic experiment, on the relations that the artists of today maintain with the artists of yesterday. It also allows the visitor [to become more committed to what he sees and] to avoid this terrible disease often seen in museums and in monuments, which is the lethargy of the glance”.

Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami’s exhibitions have led conservative groups to launch websites and petitions that defend the preservation of Versailles as a symbol of French heritage, “not a place to display contemporary culture”, which in their opinion “spoils the site”. But both artists seemed to have genuinely been inspired by the historical site: “Contemporary art is so imprisoned in the present that juxtaposing new works with old ones allows you to rediscover a connection between history and the history of art. The baroque is the ideal context for me to highlight the philosophical nature of my work”, says Koons. "I am the Cheshire cat that welcomes Alice in Wonderland with its diabolic smile, and chatters away as she wanders around the Château” says Murakami.

Jeff Koons. Photo: Thibault Camus (AP Photo), AFP

Xavier Veilhan. Photo Google Images

Takashi Murakami. Photo: Cedric Delsaux

I personally believe that this kind of confrontation is always thought-provoking and I don’t think it spoils historic collections. You can always skip contemporary artworks, avoid some rooms and enjoy the site. Or come back when the exhibition is finished… And in a way, it is continuing the legacy of such places: on the Murakami exhibition leaflet, the Head of Events at Versailles writes that the Chateau “is a place known for its collaborations with some of the best creative people throughout history, including Molière, Lully, and Delacroix”. He compares historic sites as “mille-feuilles” (a French pastry made of overlapping layers), which were built over the course of decades, and sometimes even centuries, through creative interventions.
And as shown in the pictures above, juxtapositions are sometimes very successful: colours, shapes, materials are very different but they clash, they emphasize differences, they communicate. Something is happening. I agree with Aillagon when he says that Versailles was designed for celebration and is not “a place for penitence”. And both Koons and Murakami's art are joyful and colourful and fit well with the profusion of the quasi-baroque decorations of Versailles. For Veilhan, the crisp modernity of his pieces sharply contrasts with the surroundings, and makes a successful confrontation.
They, in a way, break the barriers between cultural heritage and contemporary art audience and it is a fantastic way to reach different audiences and create new opportunities through the juxtaposition of past and present.

In the Paris’ “Circuit Céramique” exhibition, contemporary ceramic pieces were spread over the permanent collection of the “Musée des Arts Décoratifs”, the French equivalent of the London V&A. A leaflet was needed to find your way in this treasure hunt, as some pieces were not easy to spot. A green line on the floor was therefore helping the visitor and added a fun element to the visit. In the “circuit” (journey) contemporary works were dialoguing with the surroundings and the historical objects. Relationships between forms, historical references and sometimes more unconscious, emotional links built up and the viewer was solicited to use his sensibility to establish the connections. Works and displays have been carefully chosen to stimulate the dialogue between pieces from different periods (from Middle Ages to Art deco) and contemporary works.
This juxtaposition was a real success as it attracted two very different crowds: amateurs of antiques and historical artefacts discovering the contemporary ceramic production and amateurs of contemporary craft rediscovering the permanent collection they probably would never have visited otherwise.

Here are some photos of juxtaposition I particularly found interesting:

Michel Gouery. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Kristin McKirdy. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Gabrielle Wambaugh. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Gabrielle Wambaugh. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Patricia Glave. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Xue Sun. Photo Isabelle Busnel

A stimulating experiment is to compare contemporary objects on their own (with “white cube” surroundings that generally characterize exhibitions in galleries) and the display in the museum:

Wayne Fisher’s “Disques” are organic and mysterious and they echo admirably the white fluffy sheets of the baroque bed, but at the same time look like living creatures crawling in the intimacy of the bedroom. 

Wayne Fisher, Disque, 2010. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Ruth Gurvich’s vases are inspired by Chinese ceramics. At first glance, the viewer is reassured: Asian vases sit well in the antiques display but when looked closer, onlookers discover they are made of paper. Forms, materials, and decorations…they seem familiar but they aren’t. The juxtaposition with antiques is brilliant as it emphasizes and destabilizes our perception at the same time.

Ruth Gurvich, Vases “pleurs” (2001/2002) and “Lightscape” (2010). Photos Isabelle Busnel

Sylvain Thirouin’s installation “Intrusions” is made of clay and represents manholes. I find them much more intriguing displayed in a Louis XIV living room than on a white floor as they are, according to the artist, a testimony of the past:  spread on the luxurious carpet, they make a striking contrast with their dull colours and raw materials.

Sylvain Thirouin, Intrusions, 2010. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Overall this exhibition resonated perfectly with my taste for displays mixing old and new which forces visitors to think outside the box and walk away from their comfort zone. But there is more: for me, “Circuit Céramique » is a great illustration of what contemporary craft represents nowadays. Previously, craft stood for the decorative arts and was synonym with hand made luxury goods for use and display (inside buildings or on the body). The contemporary craft scene is completely different and I agree with Bruce Metcalf in his very interesting overview of the history of craft (Bruce Metcalf website) when he says that with the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris created a new category of objects. According to Metcalf “they [contemporary craft objects] were theorized. They were both the product and subject of discourses”. He then states that “Craft continues to be a social movement, often intuitive and without leadership. I see craft as a collective attempt to relocate personal meaning in a largely indifferent world. As a teacher and observer, I constantly see how craft functions as a vehicle to construct meaning, and how it gives substance and dignity and grace to individual's lives”.

This is particularly obvious in this exhibition: contemporary ceramic objects might echo some historical artefacts in their materials, colours, shapes, textures but they strongly differ in their meaning and function. They are no more luxury interior décors or products of a trade but, quoting Bruce Metcalf’s words, rather “a combination of social awareness and respect for tradition”.

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