Death in Paris

Two major institutions stage contemporary memento mori, and a talking cake warns humanity of the impending apocalypse.

“Damn you and all your species. You are hanging onto the edge of civilisation with nail-shaped petits fours like the ones you got served with your green tea,” said the fancy cake in the café of La Bourse, the Pinault Collection’s new museum in Paris. Photo: F. Astesani.

“God is change” is the main tenet of Earthseed, Octavia Butler’s fictitious religion revealed in her early 1990s novel Parable of the Sower. As I quietly sit with Butler’s book in my hands in the café of La Bourse, the Pinault Collection’s new museum in Paris, the truth at Earthseed’s core gets a whole new meaning. No doubt that God is change here too. It is just an entirely different kind of change, the one that clinks and shines in the rounded shape of coins. Indeed, this is no big epiphany. But perhaps because my vision is shaded by the apocalyptic images of Butler’s novel, a sci-fi dystopia set in 2024 where a world destroyed by climate change rests in the armed hands of corporations, the absurdity of the setting in which I am reading shines brighter in my face. 

The mastodontic renovation of the former Bourse de Commerce by Japanese superstar architect Tadao Ando maintained the building’s original layout, which wraps itself like a doughnut around a giant glass dome. Just below it, a ring of marouflage canvasses from the late 19th century celebrates the history of global commerce, making it a true temple to capital and colonial history. In dialogue with the paintings, the rotunda below hosts Urs Fisher’s Untitled (2011), a group of monumental wax sculptures that slowly burn, melting throughout the exhibition: a slow decomposition in the name of impermanence, transformation, and creative destruction. 

Fisher’s is undoubtedly a great piece, but its sense seems distorted by this fictive juxtaposition with the values expressed in the canvasses above the figures’ waxy heads. I am confused… what, precisely, are the values that Fisher’s work re-calibrates and re-purposes when seen in the larger context of La Bourse’s megalomaniac celebration of private wealth? Through Fisher’s work, Monsieur Pinault pretends to believe that his power is soft and will one day burn like candles. But if this was not just met as a fun little joke, then couldn’t he have perhaps saved some of the tons of cement now shaping his new imperialist-chic institution? 

With these thoughts in mind, I feel the urge to drink up my roasted rice green tea before everything – not just Urs Fisher’s sculptures – implodes around me. While in my mind Butler’s images tear apart these spaces like the Upside Down from Stranger Things, my breast-shaped dessert lazily points its flat nipple at me, as though a severe finger: “Damn you and all your species. You are hanging onto the edge of civilisation with nail-shaped petits fours like the ones you got served with your green tea.” In the eyes of a fancy cake, we are, it seems, a bunch of fools. 

Cake knows, however, that I can enjoy the last crumbles of privilege as I gobble it up and take off towards the Palais de Tokyo to attend Anne Imhof’s new performance in her highly celebrated exhibition Nature Morte. With apocalyptic thoughts in mind (which I have time to nurture while waiting in the long queue), I am geared to meet Imhof’s famous doomed youngsters in Adidas tracksuits. But throughout the performance, with its Christian iconography 2.0, even Armageddon looks like a cool if only slightly passé magazine cover. Things get more serious for me when I drop the performance to wander freely around the show, with the admittedly powerful soundtrack of Imhof’s ‘opera’ in the background.  

Urs Fischer’s wax sculpture slowing melting in La Bourse; Anne Imhof’s performance at Palais de Tokyo. Photo: Peal.

The artist has worked impressively with the exhibition’s architecture, devising a structure of glass and steel walls that both shapes the space and supports other artists’ work. She has also put together a remarkable collection of artists with many good pieces. The show’s highlight is, without doubt, the nine panels forming Sigmar Polke’s Axial Age (2005–2007). More than at any other time during my day, I finally feel the hint of an aesthetic quiver. Here, the show’s existential ambitions seem to be caressed – at last.

Like many of the pieces in Nature Morte, the Polke is borrowed from the Pinault Collection. I loop back to the feeling of doom that I sensed amongst the many beautiful artworks displayed at La Bourse. Within walls oozing private equity, David Hammons’s political and poetic works, for example, are completely out of place and become subtly lifeless. This is a museum that cannibalises what it pretends to celebrate, burping up neatly designed exhibition leaflets. Curiously, both Fisher’s work in the rotunda and Imhof’s show at Palais de Tokyo deal with the memento mori, a symbolic trope reminding us of the inevitability of death. The centrality of this theme in both projects leads me to think that La Bourse is a kind of masterpiece in itself: a clear and monumental expression of capitalism’s death drive. 

The following day, I feel relief upon entering the chaotic spaces of Centre Pompidou. As opposed to the fascistic organization of La Bourse, where guards signal around like flight attendants, I cannot find a floor plan or get any indication as to the whereabouts of the show I am here to see. I walk about for a while like a chicken without a head. Not finding the exhibition I am after means revisiting some of the museum’s collection and, as I bump into Marcel Broodthaers’s great Salle Blanche (1975) and enjoy a detour in Arte Povera, forgetting why I am here. Once back on track, I find the small Saul Steinberg exhibition I was looking for, a precious gem of brilliant humour and poetry. I also visit the Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective, which tickles my romantic side with its narratives of the interconnectedness of life and art.

Outside, there is Paris. The sun shines and the air is prickly. Brownish water runs through the gutters, cleaning the city of its muck. There seems to be some life around, after all.

Georgia O’Keefe, Pelvis IV, 1944, olie på masonit, 91,5 x 102 cm. Photo: F. Astesani.