Selective Perception

The Bass Museum's exhibit offers the challenge of reactivity

With its unfurled red carpet, jutting boom microphones, flashing lights, and the sound of screeching reporters jockeying for an interview, Malachi Farrell's Interview (Paparazzi), makes a raucous declaration that France's National Foundation for Contemporary Art (FNAC) has arrived in highfalutin style.

"Shortcuts Between Reality and Fiction: Video, Installations, and Paintings from Le Fonds National D'Art Contemporain" at the Bass Museum unveils nineteen major works by artists represented in what is considered the most significant collection of contemporary art in France, marking the organization's debut in the United States. All told, FNAC has amassed more than 80,000 works in its collection.

The burly exhibit features works by Pierre Bismuth, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Claude Closky, Malachi Farrell, Thomas Hirschhorn, Pierre Huyghe, Anne-Marie Jugnet, and Alain Clairet, Bertrand Lavier, Orlan, Alain Sechas, Barthélémy Toguo, and Xavier Veilhan and offers a survey of avant art produced in France since 1990.

Cocurated by Catherine Francblin and Jean-Marc Prévost, the exhibit toys with innovative depictions of critical perception. Entering the Bass's second-floor pavilion, visitors are confronted by what appears to be an interactive press conference. At first glance, Farrell's piece, with its police barricades, microphones fashioned from paint rollers, and slapdash cameras whirring noisily on tripods, conveys the sense of a blockbuster movie premiere or a Tinseltown awards ceremony.

Along the red carpet in front of a barrier, hundreds of discarded rolls of film and empty film canisters are scattered behind the steel railing as if recently dropped by battalions of paparazzi. Bulbs pop loudly like bloated lightning bugs, voices clamor for the spectator's ear, and one is peppered by questions such as "Sir, sir, sir, are you for or against the death penalty?" But instead of a celebrity catwalk, the artist has fashioned the experiential point of view of a media-strafed politician caught in a public ambush, making a clever commentary on how the press wields power.

Another artist offering his rub on institutional authority is Xavier Veilhan, whose realistically fashioned sculptures titled The Police are a tableau of featureless gendarmes loitering around the gallery. The white-gloved officers stand in a variety of poses and can be mistaken for museum guards from a distance. One of the pintsize patrolmen (Veilhan's officers are elfin in stature) is creepily posted in front of the museum's bathrooms and fractures the spectator's sense of orientation when the Lilliputian is encountered in the desolate hallway.

Another of the artist's pieces, The Orator, a color photographic triptych, depicts four men clad in towels and bathroom slippers, as if ready to relax at a public bathhouse. Some of them sport long, flowing beards as they gather in a close grouping at what seems to be a train depot. One of the men stands on a circular platform and is caught fulminating dramatically and stabbing skyward with his right index finger. Although the gathering appears utterly banal, one senses an underpinning of tension as the volatile speaker spits daggers at the hypnotized trio.

Nearby, Pierre Bismuth's Jungle Book grates playfully with dubbed soundtracks from the 1967 Disney film based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. The artist has mixed different language versions of the movie and has each of the characters speaking in tongues in a modern-day sendup of the Tower of Babel, where the gibberish flowing from the flat-screen TV forces active engagement with the imagery.

Bertrand Lavier cribs a 1947 comic strip featuring Mickey Mouse, in which he visits a museum of modern art, to subvert the relationship between a work of art and the exhibition environment, creating a grand-scale depiction of a contemporary gallery. His installation, Walt Disney Productions 1947-1984, consists of nine Cibachrome photos styled as paintings and derived from the Disney cartoon panel inspiring the piece, as well as a large blue biomorphic sculpture resting atop a maroon column. The space where the work is shown has been incorporated into the piece and features sunflower yellow and asparagus green walls with a spongy blue floor heightening the work's energetic sense of fantasy.

Creating fictions using the space of her own body, Orlan's provocative photographs from her Reconfiguration: Self-Hybridization series mutate her mug into bizarre images of Native American or pre-Columbian culture. Known for her Bride of Frankenstein-meets-Kid 'n' Play fright wig, Orlan once had a plastic surgeon insert two silicone balloons into her forehead during a satellite broadcast beamed into art centers worldwide, effectively converting the operating room into a performance studio.

Professor Suicide, a hilarious installation by Alain Sechas, delivers a convincing argument that the artist is a wacko. The mixed-media work represents a dopey balloon-headed professor surrounded by a handful of students seated in a semicircle at his feet while he stands before a blackboard. As the teacher waves a knitting needle like a conductor's baton while a Haydn Quartet serenades softly in the background, the video projection makes it clear he is giving the students a lesson in suicide.

Thomas Hirschhorn's isolated, squalid installation, Virus-Ausstellung (Virus Display), is a marquee-stealer that alone is worth a visit to the Bass. Hirschhorn has a history of deploying politics and philosophy in works that are constructed of what can be described as Home Depot media. He purposely employs cardboard, packing tape, plywood, plastic sheeting, and aluminum foil to create sprawling installations as raw intrusions into the sacrosanct exhibition space and as a commentary on the West's exploitation of the underdeveloped world.

Virus Display uses cheap materials to create shabby vitrines, display cases, and plinths, illuminated by naked fluorescent bulbs and all connected by tinfoil-wrapped power cables winding from display to display.

The display cases contain scraps of cardboard covered with felt-tip pen doodles, suggesting bacteria or viruses, and are often shown together with postcards of suffering refugees, bombed-out buildings, masked guerrillas, naked fashion models, and advertising images culled from mass media, perhaps suggesting capitalism is the viral system to which he alludes. On one side of the room, Hirschhorn has installed what appears to be a decontamination chamber that is sealed off and inaccessible, and may hint at biological terrorism or deadly government experiments run afoul.

The piece also features two videos shown on a pair of weathered and stacked TV sets. On the top screen, a sinister fellow wearing a suit and ski mask lectures about the nature of viruses. Below, another guy shot from the neck down shakes wildly as if already infected.

This unflinching statement is not only a powerful metaphor for affluent Western societies diseased by festering contradictions, but also hands-down the show's won't-be-fucking-denied pièce de résistance and a credit to FNAC's vision.

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