A woman wearing a tight pencil skirt and four-inch heels strides confidently along the cobblestones of Place Vendôme in central Paris. She suddenly trips on something, bending down with that slight kink to the hip you need in order to squat down in stilettos. On the ground by her feet is the object that caused her to stumble: a small, red starfish made of bronze, stuck firmly to the stones. She looks up in confusion at her companion, who laughingly points out across the square, where hundreds of similar invertebrates lie scattered just a few meters apart, lighting up the space like small stars against a backdrop of beige sandstone.
These starfish make up Elmgreen & Dragset’s temporary installation To Whom It May Concern, created in connection with the art fair FIAC held last week in the Grand Palais. Whereas the rest of FIAC’s outdoor projects take on more classic, firmly delimited sculptural forms and are placed within the nearby Jardin des Tuileries, Elmgreen & Dragset’s minimalist installation of a hundred bronze starfish of varying shapes and sizes is rather more modest and subtler in nature. Not only are the starfish small and scattered horizontally out across the vast, octagonal place – they are also down on the ground in an urban space where everything else is designed to draw the eye upwards – particularly the huge column that dominates the view.
Raised by Napoleon to celebrate the battle of Austerlitz, the column in question is clad in bronze reliefs symbolising the French people. Legend has it that they were made out of cannons taken from every army in Europe. At the very top, looking out across the grey roofs of Paris, stands the emperor himself, held aloft by the people who chose him as their leader after the French Revolution had put an end to monarchy. Ever since the monument was completed in 1810, it has been toppled over and raised anew repeatedly in response to the various political winds blowing across France. First during the allied forces’ occupation of Paris in 1816 and most recently during the Paris Commune in 1871. The symbolism of the column and its repeated tearing down and re-erection is clear: the French people can be brought low by force, but it always gets up again.
This is the symbolism that Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation speaks into, albeit in a rather more subdued and less phallic manner. The starfish is a strange and wondrous creature: it has no brain, but is nevertheless able to move, sense and respond to its surroundings through instincts and reflexes. It can survive even very severe amputations of one or more arms, regenerating its limbs and full mobility in the aftermath of attacks. In recent decades, however, the starfish has come across a new challenge: today it faces extinction due to pollution of the oceans.
Looking out across the installation in Place Vendôme, it looks as if the Seine had risen, submerging the entire first arrondissement under water, then retreating again to leave the square unharmed, but covered by small, still-living starfish that cling to cobblestones, lampposts and curbs. Thus, the small creatures serve as a reminder to take climate change seriously while also pointing to the necessity of remaining optimistic about the Paris Agreement despite the setback suffered this year due to the withdrawal of the USA.
This sense of optimism resonates directly with the Parisian self-image. After the terrorist attack in 2015, Paris picked up its old motto again. Having been largely forgotten for many years, it can now be found on posters and shop fronts throughout the city:Fluctuat nec mergitur, which can be translated from the Latin as ‘She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink’.
President Macron is fond of referencing this motto in his speeches, echoing his own popular En marche! movement ahead of his presidential election last year. We see signs of this self-same optimism in the video in which the president urges the climate experts of the world to come to Paris to resolve the issue, and in the defiant spirit with which the Parisians responded to the terrorist attack by sitting outside the very pavement cafés that had recently come under fire, turning the act into a political statement.
All this is to say that there is a connection between the reliefs on the Vendôme column, the starfish at its foot and the climate policies being issued from the Élysée Palace a few hundred metres down along rue Saint-Honoré. The French people always overcome the challenges they face, just as Paris will endure – even if the city is attacked or the waters rise. Forward, starfish!