Monumenta 2012: Daniel Buren, Excentrique(s)

Reviewed by Victoria Hobday

Daniel Buren, Excentrique(s). Paris, Grand Palais

Monumenta 2012: Daniel Buren, Excentrique(s). Paris, Grand Palais, 10 May–21 June 2012.

Each year an artist of international stature is invited to create a work for the hugely successful Monumenta installation project in the Grand Palais in Paris. The Grand Palais is an enormous space 45 metres high and covering 13,500 square metres. Last year it was the turn of Anish Kapoor, who created Leviathan, an enormous inflated aubergine-coloured curved form that fully occupied the space. Its organic curves, suggesting some overgrown vegetable, contrasted with, while complementing, the greenhouse-like form of the Grand Palais (Figs. 1–4). Its interior came as a breathtaking surprise. After being ushered in through a revolving door one entered an intimate space, surrounded by the womb-like inversion of the outside shape and where light from the outside traced the architecture of the enclosing building (Figs. 2–3).

In 2010 Christian Boltanski employed a different approach that was equally successful in exploiting this vast interior. He created a work that engaged with the human condition in a sophisticated way: clothing was laid out carefully on the floor in squares, set between speakers that played the sound of recorded heartbeats (Figs. 5–6). Behind was a huge mound of clothing almost three storeys in height. A crane with a claw would descend and pick up a number of pieces of clothing, raising them to ceiling level before releasing them to flutter down to the pile below (Fig. 6). This element gave movement to the work and with it a sense of the randomness of fate in the selection of individual pieces of clothing that were picked up and dropped in a repeated cycle.

This year Daniel Buren was invited, and as a greatly revered French artist his installation was eagerly anticipated. Buren’s work in the past has engaged with the concept of ‘interventions’, and has been concerned with the environment in which an artist or a work operates both physically and socially. Buren often use striped surfaces to indicate the in situ works that he produced, his most famous being a large public commission in 1986 for the cour d’honneur in the Palais Royale in Paris called Deux Plateaux (Fig. 7). Because of his concern for the relationship between a work and the space it which it is situated, Daniel Buren seemed the perfect choice for year’s Monumenta. Unfortunately the work he produced does not live up to expectations.

Excentrique(s) is a vast interlinked construction of circles made of plexiglas in primary colours supported by thin striped poles that runs the length of the building (Figs. 8–9). Buren moved the entrance to the exhibition from the ‘dominating and controlling’ main entrance to a side entrance that he had created at one of the ends of the length of the space. (This was explained to us by one of the many guides placed around the exhibition for this purpose.) The idea is to undermine the nineteenth-century architect’s control over the audience and to allow the work to be seen at its greatest length. Unfortunately, the effect is underwhelming: it is like a vast but gaudy bus shelter. The transparent coloured circles probably looked good on paper, but in the space of the Grand Palais they obscure the setting, especially as the work is only about 2.5 m high and so sits just above the heads of the audience. It is as if someone has lowered the ceiling of the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria to just above head height. While this establishes a domestic scale over a large area, it diminishes the grandeur of the enclosing structure.

Moreover, the centre of the work is muddled by the addition of four large circular mirrors on the floor that reflect blue panels on the glass of the building forty metres above that Buren has used to create his signature stripes (Fig. 10–11). There seems to be little connection between these two elements: the one seems to deny the volume of the space while the other draws attention to it. If these elements related to one another then it would make more sense, but instead they seem completely separate conceptually. Visible through the glass panels of the roof is a flag on top of the roof, which has been changed by Buren to one with stripes around a blank circle. But why? Evidently I missed the point; which makes it evident that it needs to be explained, as it lacks any visceral impact. The view is widely held amongst those I have spoken to who have seen the installation that Buren missed the opportunity to use the space in a dramatic and engaging manner. The work engaged neither with the audience nor the space. Perhaps the circles of coloured plexiglas for instance could have been repeated vertically, filling the height as well as the length of the building; or perhaps the panels could have been lit in such a way to generate reflections of the surrounding architecture. The introduction of other artists, musicians and dancers within the space serves to fracture even more what is a somewhat fragmented installation. It is a sad commentary on an installation when it is necessary to bring in entertainers to make it interesting.

Compared to the monolithic work of Anish Kapoor and the conceptually engaging work of Boltanski—or Buren’s earlier work—Excentrique(s) is a disappointment. The Monumenta project is immensely challenging for an artist, since a space as grandiose as the Grand Palais amplifies any weakness of conception of the single work that occupies it. Unfortunately, Buren has missed the mark.

© Victoria Hobday 2012

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