The Downward Spiral: The Mirror in the Palace
In his column Dean Kissick writes about Neïl Beloufa's controversial show "L'Ennemi de mon ennemi" at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. What does it tell us about protest in our "byzantine circulatory system of images"?
During the private view of Neïl Beloufa’s “L’Ennemi de mon ennemi” (“the enemy of my enemy”) at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, a picture was shared online of one of the exhibits: a found photograph of the American artist Parker Bright protesting the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of the corpse of Emmett Till in last year’s Whitney Biennial, which had been cut out and printed onto a mirror. When he saw this, Bright took to Instagram to complain and set up a crowd-funding page, “Help Parker to reclaim his image” so that he could travel to Paris and protest, explaining, “Black voices continue to be silenced and then appropriated, and my mission is to make sure that my voice and others are not silenced and co-opted.” He’s since travelled to Paris, where he met with Beloufa and curator Guillaume Désanges and began a conversation with them, but long before that, on February 16th, the first day of the show, Bright’s image had already been removed and replaced with an empty mirror. In this sense, the protest was successful before it had really begun. The mirror was redacted in less than a day.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of May 1968, we have an artist travelling to Paris to protest an image of himself protesting another image, and this says a lot about how representation functions today: reality has become a byzantine circulatory system of images, which are stripped of their contexts and over which we’ve lost all control. Beloufa’s mirror was an appropriation of an Instagram featuring Bright, who in turn found out about it from a selfie featuring Beloufa’s work: a circulating image from a show that’s about the circulation of images. Of course, Beloufa has long been interested in complicated ways of presenting moving images. He’s made halls of spinning screens that fragment and scatter his videos, and projection screens that dance around on tracks. In Palais de Tokyo, he’s assembled hundreds of objects, pictures and texts which are regularly moved around the space by robots using tracks carved into the floor and according to a series of algorithms.
"we have an artist travelling to Paris to protest an image of himself protesting another image, and this says a lot about how representation functions today"
“L’Ennemi de mon ennemi” is a gigantic, expensive, vaulting curatorial project that feels more like a biennale than a solo show. It’s a museum of recent history, including works by many other artists, documentary photographs, materials from protests, historical artefacts and reproductions of monuments, all of which are grouped into thematic displays. For instance, “GC-7-A-B: Nécroréalisme” is a vitrine of found images of dead bodies from various conflicts around the world. Other exhibits include an immersive bomb simulator borrowed from the Holy Defence Museum of Téhran; Joseph Beuys’ anti-American protest pop song “Sonne statt Reagan” (“Sun instead of Reagan”) from 1982; and a model of Le Pavois of Algiers, a 1928 monument for Algerians who died fighting for the French in World War I that was later, in 1978, walled in with concrete by artist M’Hamed Issiakhem and detourned into a monument for freedom (Beloufa is himself French-Algerian). In the picture of Bright’s protest, he wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Death Spectacle” scrawled across the back; Beloufa’s museum suggests that 20th and 21st century history is perhaps best understood as collection of Death Spectacles and protests.
Clearly an artist making a show of protests can hardly complain about protests against himself. However, a couple of loopholes did seem to have been built into the exhibition’s premise in advance. Firstly, Bright received a letter of apology from Beloufa and Désanges claiming that the piece was “not an artwork”; like the rest of the show, it might be considered somewhere between documentation and artwork. Secondly, the offending image was removed almost immediately, and these displays were always supposed to change over time. Beloufa has described how he “wanted the exhibition to self-criticize, self-destruct, to leave the viewer free to construct their own view, their construction is as valid as mine”. The show has found itself mired in some controversy – and perhaps it was asking for it, perhaps this was even the desired outcome. Similarly to how the robots curate the displays according to their algorithms, today’s networked consciousness was always likely to react to such an Instagram-ready provocation as Parker Bright printed onto a mirror.
For me, there’s also something very French and post-structural about this gesture: the protest against the Death Spectacle reduced to a simulacrum of resistance, a signifier placed into a coded mirror, which is, on the very first day, replaced by an empty mirror – the only mirror in the show – which reflects our own images back at us, implicating us in all this horror but also showing us as just another image in a sea of images. It’s the practice of a highly considered, philosophising conceptualist colliding with that of a rawer, more impassioned and sincere activist. I would have liked to have listened in on their conversations in Paris. I imagine they were great. At heart, they seem to share many of the same concerns: Bright thinks Beloufa is a problematic artist; Beloufa also thinks that he’s a problematic artist, and that all artists are problematic. More to the point, they’re both opposed to the ways in which the ruling classes manipulate images, narratives and artworks to their own ends. They’re the enemies of one another’s enemies.
“If there once was a time when artists came up with images that the powers that be didn’t want to see,” Beloufa says, “the powers now incite, desire, consume, and paradoxically represent freedom in this way. So, how to make something which is unusable?” His solution is to build this grand Borgesian search engine of discomforting images: a violent yet meticulously classified history of the world which suggests how histories of the world are written in order to support the powerful and legitimise their power. Bright’s solution is to show how even a small act of direct protest can have a huge cultural impact, as his protest at the Whitney last year surely did. Since the rise of biennale culture after World War II, large historical commissions have, for the most part, been replaced by grand curatorial strategies, but Beloufa and Bright suggest two strategies by which artists might continue to assert themselves today: whether by becoming a curator themselves – a more radical, more imaginative kind of curator – or by protesting within the institutions.
"L'ennemi de mon ennemi"
Palais de Tokyo
16 February – 13 May 2018
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second Wednesday a month. Last month he wrote about going crazy for crypto and how the blockchain's promise of immutable truth turned into an opaque cultural spectacle.