Friday, 7 January 2011

Fresh Hell, Palais de Tokyo, Paris

There is a utopian thread running through Adam McEwen's Fresh Hell exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. Is this to be understood in spite of its title, or in its spirit? After all, isn't Orpheus, in a sense, the first utopian? Orpheus who, by the power of his song, crossed to the underworld and raised hell, therein becomes the first artist to travel to undiscovered countries, the first for whom art is a demand for the impossible.

British-born, New York-based artist, McEwen has been given carte blanche by the Palais de Tokyo, the third in a series to do so, after Ugo Rondinone and Jeremy Deller. He has used the space to assemble a vast panoply of works, spanning centuries of aesthetics from medieval busts of the Kings of Judah to recent work by Sarah Lucas and David Hammons, to express a kind of scattered, associative cognitive map of his own influences and desires. McEwen, the former newspaper obituarist who entered the world of fine arts with a series of fake celebrity death notices (Macauley Culkin, Rod Stewart, Jeff Koons, &c.), has entered his own private underworld and brought back for us his prized Eurydices, refusing, all the while, to look back.

In the determined expressions of the runners in Bruce Nauman and Frank Owen's (1975) film, Pursuit, their bodies strangely eroticised, their gaze fixed passionately on some impenetrable point in advance both in space and in time; in the dogged dignity of Gino de Domenicos, as he pursues his impossible projects, to fly, or to make a pebble cause square ripples on water; in Jessica Diamond's insistence that the world is not enough, as she scrawls “Is that all there is?” above a line drawing of the continents. In all these works we find precisely that utopian striving, that leap into the impossible that Ernst Bloch defined nearly a century ago. “The category of utopia,” wrote Bloch, “possesses the other” into “overtaking the natural course of events.”

Works like Georg Herold's (1994-2010) Hängendes Labyrinth, which invites its audience in, offering a space “to meditate... a symbolic pilgrimage towards a holy place”; the obsessively detailed Indian ink maps of imaginary landscapes drawn by Henri Michaux under the influence of mescaline; produce other worlds and alternative spaces, while the pneumatic tubes that crown the exhibition's entrance evoke as much the literary utopias of the late nineteenth century as more recent dystopias in print and on film, such as 1984 and Brazil.

Just as prevalent, however, across the exhibition floor, is a certain aesthetics of failure. The empty stalls of Michael Landy's (1990) Market look forward to his later works, Break Down, in which he ceremoniously destroyed his own life and works, and the Art Bin (2010) he installed in the South London Gallery. Martin Kippenberger's The Good Old Time (1987) presents something resembling a great leather rubber dumpster, a body bag for some vast, obscene object.

Perhaps, then, McEwen's vision of hell relates to what is now presumed to be the inevitable failure of all utopias. Herold's labyrinth is, after all, just a maze which leads nowhere, and Nauman's runners sprint through blackness, without destination, their purpose but a charade. It is the great stone heads of the Kings of Judah which first greet us upon entering, intended perhaps as a warning, or cautionary tale. These thirteenth century statues, originally part of the décor of Notre Dame cathedral, were decapitated by Jacobin revolutionaries in 1793 in their systematic attempt to erase all traces of feudalism. With their crowned foreheads, the figures were presumed to represent French kings not Biblical figures, so McEwen resurrects them as victims of a desecration born of misguided fervour.

For all McEwen's cynicism towards the grand recits of modernity, he remains, nonetheless, a believer, one of the hopeful striving for the impossible. Is it not the case, after all, that the message of Jonathan Borofsky's (1984) Object of Magic, and of Walter de Maria's (1966-7) High Energy Bars, is that the art still can and must demand the impossible? Through this very demand – this magical status of art, object of a ritual fascination – it can transcend its lowly thing-like being and become something possessed of strange powers; move the underground and, like Orpheus, raise hell.