French Fried

October 29, 2021
• Paris

I KNEW I WAS LATE when the Instagram notification popped up on my screen. At 6 p.m. sharp, @hansulrichobrist was live from Palais de Tokyo, where Anne Imhof’s performers were starting their four-hour-long eschatological march. As I made my way inside, the procession had already dispersed, letting tension and impatience build up before the first act: a vulturous Eliza Douglas perched on a railing, engaging in a pared-down duet with her machinic double, an orbiting sound speaker.

The cheat codes to the German artist’s meticulous crowd control apparatus were swiftly delivered to me by a black-clad Vittoria Matarrese, cocurator of the show: where to stand, when to move, who to look out for. A friend would later remark that spotting the performers in Imhof’s Gesamtkunstwerk, titled Natures Mortes, was deceptively easy: They were the ones not wearing a mask. (A corollary would turn out to be true that week when looking out for dealers at FIAC and its many epiphenomenal events: The lower the mask, the more exposed the nose, the more adjacent the gallery to the second market.)

Natures Mortes’s VIP opening on Monday of Paris’s art fair week marked its symbolic start, as huddled masses went straight across the English Channel from Frieze to Imhof’s collective exorcism ritual. “Donda, but for Europeans,” whispered someone in the crowd as a performer soared overhead, arms extended. The previous Saturday, some galleries had decided to kick-start the week: Balice Hertling invited Ser Serpas to take over their current space as well as one a few blocks away, where they’re relocating. The latter venue, its walls still raw and bathed in zenithal light, hosted monumental if frail assemblages of discarded furniture collected from city streets and assembled during Serpas’s energy drink–fueled “private performances.”

None of the fairs had started, but the tone of the week was set. As Fischli and Weiss once said: “Balance is most beautiful just at the point when it’s about to collapse.” On Tuesday morning, Lafayette Anticipations unveiled their much-anticipated Martin Margiela exhibition. Attired in a chocolate brown suit in keeping with the favored palette of the Belgian designer-turned-artist-but-having-always-been-one, director and curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel described the show’s labyrinthine route with another Delphic utterance: “the path will be steep and the detours numerous.”

Instead, we encountered something like Institutional Critique for Dummies, constructed one ersatz follicle at a time: furry bus stops and gray-scaled hairballs, framed, backlit, and labeled so as to take belated aim at curatorial strategies long dissolved. One hour later in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, Paris Internationale inaugurated its seventh edition. Returning to the fair’s characteristic hôtel particulier setting (last year’s edition was held in an empty supermarket), 136 galleries, twenty of which were participating for the first time, played by the new rules in a swanky four-story mansion: solo or duo shows only. Welcome exceptions to the mostly overserious displays included Crevecoeur’s presentation of geometric mouse traps and their cat-faced mannequin overlords alongside Piranesian architectures for chain-smokers (Ad Minoliti and Naoki Sutter-Shudo); Piedras’ comically perverse and slightly spastic wonderland of severed limbs and anthropomorphic insects (Constanza Giuliani and Liv Schulman), and Von Ammon Co’s serotonin-depleted recreation of a suburban teenager’s bedroom (Alex Bag and Tony Hope)—all of which revived the fair’s rowdier past and appetite for all-over installations.

Dinners were had, people crammed into sweaty basements. A party for an Italian magazine almost ended with its glass floor cracking open, threatening to drag an entire art world down to Hades. Spared having to write that untimely epitaph, I headed to FIAC’s grand opening the next day. As I recounted the near-collapse of the previous night, an artist offered his take: “broken glass, broken dreams.” With the Grand Palais undergoing renovation, the forty-seventh edition of the fair had been relocated to its ephemeral habitat right next to a certain iron monument (and recent cult Balenciaga motif).

As I arrived, several gallerists were busy watching FIAC live tours on their laptops, so I waved from afar, stopping to discuss the cut-outs spelling “Burberry” (Natures Mortes’s corporate sponsor) in the trees near the exit of Palais de Tokyo with Air de Paris’s Florence Bonnefous. Fairtigue was starting to set in, even if the tidy, identically sized booths and the brightly lit wooden structure, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and not unlike a Scandinavian church, made for a surprisingly tranquil experience.

With next to no video or sound pieces in this year’s group show–heavy edition, the solo presentation of young Geneva-born artist Gaia Vincensini in Gaudel de Stampa’s booth stood out. In its center, a human-sized ceramic-and-wood vault ornamented with manga-eyed beings was, per its title, a “Trojan horse,” commenting on the freeport art industrial complex while attempting to find a place inside it. A few seconds later, a collector reached out to touch the work and its chain broke into pieces. Spell finally lifted, it was time to call it a week: one of a certain splintering beauty, fragile and transient, but definitely no Années folles this time around.

— Ingrid Luquet-Gad