Ben or the art of living according to Ben? This was the question Anne and myself asked ourselves while strolling around the rooms of the Maillol museum, a beautiful townhouse that opened its doors to the artist on the occasion of its reopening.
The exhibit begins on a light, playful tone – Benjamin Vautier (or, Ben) welcomes us joyously, talking about his philosophy and his passion.
Right off the bat, the writer of these short sentences announces that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, throwing his words here and there as if they were his own memory. Suddenly, we see the words:
Where you would expect to find an absolute mess, the Ben retrospective at the Musée Maillol is a show that has been carefully prepared according to an artistic path that’s as capricious as the artist is prolific.
The location itself fits Ben like a glove. This old townhouse, which was constructed around the lavish fountain completed by Bouchardon during the Age of Enlightenment, was also the residential address of Alfred de Musset, whose torments seem to make their presence felt throughout Ben’s work. If the scholar became by chance his closest confidante, the artist maintains that he is everywhere.
In the ‘50s, the basement of the townhouse contained a cabaret called the Fontaine des Quatre-Saisons, directed by the Prévert brothers: There, Boris Vian created Le Déserteur, Francis Blanche, Jean Yanne, Mouloudji, Barbara, and many other performance pieces. Eventually, Dina Vierny, a liberal and politically engaged woman, slowly took over the townhouse so that she could house her impressive collection of Matisse, Dufy, and, above all, Maillol. (Vierny was Maillol’s muse.)
Which all goes to show that the location is not only a festive and historic one, but particularly marked with creation, anti-conformity, and poetry – it’s no coincidence that, until January 15th, Ben’s work is the townhouse’s newest resident.
It’s refreshing to be guided with such brutal derision towards this very tame type of rule-breaking. Ben, who is over 80 years old, certainly knows how to lead: his polymorphous and cosmopolitan works speak to – interrogate, even – both children and adults. But he also must see beyond the humor and the irony, crafting a well-seasoned critique of a superficial, perfidious society that’s far too uniform. It’s a critique steeped in doubt, the stamp of an artist and the motivation that drives him in his quest for truth.
Viewers enter the exhibit in the lobby as if we’re guests in Ben’s apartment – or, more accurately, in his head. We ring the bell, labeled “risks and terrors.” Today, which is the opening day, the artist is present and receives us in a living room, which he has decorated with what he calls his “artistic references”: A Flemish painter, Jeff Koons, Matisse, and Yves Klein “du pauvre.” And then, since Ben’s birthplace, Naples, is filled with hundreds of churches, there is a little alcove devoted to death: As the exhibit’s plaque describes, “A space that is essential in communicating that death is stronger than art. Once you are dead, you have more problems in art. To signal death is to go to the end of art.” Next, we come to a room that revolves around games, identity, the ego, the superego, and above all, the gaze of someone who observes – the artist, the critic, the photographer. At the center of one quasi-psychoanalytic installation, Eros appears in his red room of pleasures with his stream of little sexual clichés that are simultaneously unassuming and funny: mirrors, little charms, tunics, suspenders, little hands, mules and amulets, feathers and nightgowns, neon lights and dildos…not to mention a pair of socks suspended in a mobile that reads, “Am I allowed to keep my socks, Miss?”
The next two rooms are arguably the most intimate: a sort of boudoir or anti-chamber that’s almost completely in a pastel monochrome, strangely peaceful compared to the surrounding activity. This space is across from an open window that showcases Ben’s works and Maillol’s sculptures – Maillol’s voluptuous nudes face his nude transvestite self-portraits (Yes, you can be nude and transvestite as long as you know how to wear a wig!), which take cues from Cindy Sherman and Vivienne Westwood. The two distinct collections come together to create a sort of “Invitation à Voyage” – where “tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, luxe, calme, et volupté.” Fascinatingly – and not to mention maliciously – Ben has placed mirrored objects around the window that shows Maillol’s sculptures. The objects can no longer reflect faces directly, but instead represent a meeting of eras, artists, and creations by putting them all on the same surface. Is it vanity or true courage?
The exhibit concludes in a room where the ego erases itself for the benefit of the world, of others, and of Ben’s concerns on the question of minorities. (His newsletters often testify to and linger sadly on events and places that the media no longer report on.) It’s a question of ethnicity, obviously, but also of doubt, disenchantment, and oppression. The exhibit also puts forward the idea that the presumed contradictions of the artist are reflected by (or, reflect) those of our world, which seems less and less understandable as events unfold around us. Depending on one’s mood, each visit to this exhibit is different. Nothing contradicts itself, everything feels complete, an entire dialogue. The principal theme is doubt, and each question, paradox, or anachronism conceals a moment of truth.
The first floor of the exhibition (must it necessarily be the beginning?) presents a more conventional piece – but one that proposes a more scientific, historical view, as provided by the curator at Musée Tinguely, Andres Pardey. It reproduces impeccably the chronology – from the first works (some banana-like forms) to his appropriations, gestures, and performances, including his Lettrism period as well as the influences ethnicity has on his work. The installation includes so much work that one would think you knew him. The eclectic piece would honestly not look out of place if shown outside a brothel.
We’ll try to go a couple more times, in order to see the films and the philosophical thoughts produced by Ben’s friend Michel Onfray – but also to re-experience the doubts, the anguish (especially the Alzheimer’s that plagues him), the pleasures, and the burning meditation of Ben…
In summary, everything in the exhibit tends to demonstrate the point to which this virtuous artist succeeded in becoming what he had been seeking for so long: The truth.
Anne Lesage and Florence Briat Soulie
Translated by Danielle Cohen Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.
Tout est Art ?
From September 14th 2016 to January 15th 2017
61 rue de Grenelle – 75007 Paris
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