Article by Alena Sokhan // Apr. 10, 2015
One can find a magical reality at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, in the exhibition Le Bord des Mondes. The exhibition, which translates to ‘At the Edge of the Worlds’ in English, reanimates art with a sense of curiosity about the world, with artworks that are puzzling and elusive themselves. All the works shown are ones that would be labelled art by default: all things (or more often, not-things) that have value and are significant but not quite for science or anthropology, nor do they have practical purpose. These works are identifiable as art because they slip through categories and are labelled art because they are not something else, putting into question what art is and what purpose art serves, if any at all.
Works at Le Bord des Mondes transgress the conventional limits of artworks and question assumptions of authorship. For instance, ‘S.A.P.E.’ is not a tangible work in any proper sense, nor created by an identifiable artist. ‘S.A.P.E.’ is an ideology (sapology), an aesthetic and socio-political movement that emerged in the Congo in the 1960’s through a practice of dressing. ‘S.A.P.E.’ is presented through a film, a fragment of a ‘S.A.P.E.’ prayer, and a few examples of outfits. More than any one of these objects, the creative, experiential and performative energy of ‘S.A.P.E.’ is displayed in between these examples. Much like this, the work ‘Game of States’ disregards the expected objecthood of the artwork, and is created by several generations of collective and anonymous artists. A political strategy game between several fictitious countries, ‘Game of States’ was played in secrecy since 1945 in apartments in Poland or through letter exchanges. The game involves multiple plot twists, fake accidents, media manipulations, spies, allowing its practitioners to reinvent their reality – a political environment over which they had no control – into an artwork.
One charismatic part of the exhibition that highlights the slippery status of the works is the collection of ‘Chindogu’ by Kenji Kawakami. ‘Chindogu,’ or ‘almost useful objects,’ are described as a form of political resistance against an economic, social, and artistic mentality that only recognizes and values productivity and consumption. Theoretically speaking these objects could be used, but are in actuality unusable, like the mop attached to a baby onesie (so the floor can be mopped while the baby crawls around), or the roll of toilet paper that can be worn on the top of one’s head (for easy accessibility to a large quantity of tissue for nose blowing).
The assembly of these works as art brings out their creative marginal state, between insight and nonsensical indulgence. George Widener attempts to calculate patterns in history – searching for logic in the contingent dates of catastrophes so as to predict future ones. Widener’s work was shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof in 2013, in a solo exhibition that was lacking a lot of the magic Widener’s work has in the Le Bord des Mondes exhibition. On its own, Widener’s work appears less convincingly as art, resembling calculated doodles and a kitschy sensationalization of strangeness. At the Palais de Tokyo, on the other hand, the viewer is asked to consider the works despite the fact of his ‘disability’ – asking how they make more sense than being simply the product of an individual’s obsessive number game.
Sometimes it is not immediately evident who or what is responsible for creating the artwork. Widener’s work could be the product of a number of things – his being a ‘savant’, his delusion, or real patterns in the world. It is similarly difficult to locate the source of art in ‘Kuskoy,’ a short film that follows a village of Turkish people. These people have developed a means of communicating in the remote and rugged environment that they live in by chirping like birds, with each noise translating to a Turkish syllable. The film shows the whistling communication of the villagers: children as they dash around the mountain paths and shots of older, wrinkled faces calling out to each other in a bird language. The film is not quite a documentary, with no narrative and no explanation, simply showing the melodic and enchanting sounds of the villagers.
Walking through the twisting path of the exhibition, viewers encounter one of Theo Jansen‘s ‘Strandbeest’, or ‘beech creature’ works, which are maybe more familiar than the others. It is strange to see the ‘Straanbeest’ presented in this way, with the focus placed mainly on the craftsmanship of this work rather than its remarkable mechanism and wind-propelled motion. Seeing the ‘Strandbeest’ up close and motionless allows you to see the sinewy joints and rough handwork that humanizes the otherworldly creatures.
Many other works leave a flurry of impressions and spark conversation. The exhibition shows artworks from the margins of our familiar space and which retain the capacity to fascinate and astound, a remarkable quality in a world where, after environmental catastrophes and Kardashians, hardly anything will excite us, it seems.
Alena Sokhan is working on her Masters in Media and Communications at the European Graduate School. Her research interests lie in the topics of Queer Theory, Critical Theory, Film and New Media Art, and Economics.