Intense Proximité, Palais de Tokyo, Paris

As you might expect, the Palais de Tokyo being firstly, a contemporary art gallery and, secondly, located in Paris, its new show is supported by an overtly complex theoretical platform. Both traditions seeming somewhat preoccupied by considering art in relation with verbose conception descriptions.

Intense Proximité’ is both the name and the theme, of the 2012 Triennale, whose goal is to celebrate France-produced contemporary art. It is also the latest exhibition at the newly renovated and reopened Palais de Tokyo. ‘Excavated’ might be a preferable word as far as the gallery is concerned; the reopened space sees its size increased threefold to 236,000 square feet with the previously un-used lower floors being rendered fit for artistic purpose. Not that you’d know; the space still has a refreshingly-shambolic ‘fuck-the-health-and-safety-regulations’ style aura to it that is rare for a major gallery; unfinished flooring and snag-yer-cardie jagged brickwork abound.

The show’s theme, which (I think) can be decoded as advocating an ethnographic approach to art – one concerned both with other cultures and our own, inevitably means that the viewer has to refer to other texts. These other texts can take many forms such as a performance, of which the gallery preserves only a document, and which the visitor needs to imagine, or most frequently, needs significant explanation in the form of captions or catalogues to explain the artistic status of the works presented. Frequently, these can be bordering on gibberish: ‘[The work] moves in a spatio-temporal continuum that transcends space, borders, as well as physical and virtual geography’, the catalogue unhelpfully tells us.

Unfortunately, ‘Intense Proximité’ doesn’t always include the necessary material for casual visitors to fill in the background blanks. Unless, that is, they buy the exhibition guide. This comes in at ten euros, reasonable when compared to a fully-fledged exhibition catalogue, but still a hefty price to pay for, essentially, a collection of gallery captions, one that challenges the equally reasonable price of admission. Visitors not prepared to take the plunge (and lets face it, they shouldn’t have to) are consequently likely to miss out on the full impact of ethnographically-inspired works such as Timothy Asch’s The Ax Fight (1972), an unsettling film based on his fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s amongst the South American Yanomani Indians. They might also miss what is really interesting about Jean-Luc Moulènes’s, Les Filles d’Amsterdam (2004), a provocative work that sees Amsterdam sex workers photographed in intense proximity; the viewer is confronted with their face and sex organs au première plan. Equally David Maljkovic’s Out of Projection (2010) an interesting two-screen video work which interrogates the relationship between Peugeot’s concept cars and their retired inventors risks remaining under-appreciated.

Perhaps the best strategy to approach the cavernous underbelly of the Palais de Tokyo, at least on a first visit, is to do so without the safety net of a guidebook. The sheer number of works on display means that there is enough work on display that is immediately aesthetically interesting enough it doesn’t depend on an external explainer. Indeed there is a seemingly illicit thrill to be had in descending shadowy staircases and opening doors you aren’t sure you should be opening and discovering works by Annette Messager, her playful Motion/Emotion  (2009-2011) is included here and the obligatory Chris Ofili. Equally interesting and engaging are Claude Closky’s détournement of magazine advertising and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video/hologram work A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination (2012) which turns spam extortion emails into first-person testimony and Hassan Kahn’s contagiously delightful dance video Jewel (2010), hidden away in the basement.

There is probably far too much space packed with far too much art at Intense Proximité. Whilst this means that the impact of individual works frequently risks being undermined by being overshadowed, I’m not complaining. What slightly grates is being given too little context for many of the works. Luckily, the show is interesting enough to warrant repeated visits, and the investment in an exhibition guide. Just about.

Intense Proximité runs at the Palais de Tokyo until August 26th, 2012.

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