Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 2016
Philippe Parreno H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS Park Avenue Armory, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: June 11–August 2, 2015
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Philippe Parreno. H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS (2015). Installation view. Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

Philippe Parreno’s exhibition H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS at the Park Avenue Armory offered New Yorkers a comprehensive view of a practice that has, since the 1980s, used cinematic and scenographic devices to merge art and reality. Building on his recent retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the installation construed the cavernous Armory space as a “street” lined with twenty-six of Parreno’s characteristic lightbulb marquees, and culminated in a set of bleachers that rotated to face three suspended screens. Onto these were projected four films made since 2000: Anywhere Out of the World (2000); June 8, 1968 (2009); Invisibleboy (2010–15); Marilyn (2012); and one new film, The Crowd (2015), which depicts a hypnotized group of people in the Armory transfixed by a film of a menacing natural event that they do not understand, and which does not seem contained by the screen. The films are accompanied by a non-repeating sequence of music from live and player pianos, the flashing light bulbs of the marquees, and collaborative works such as Tino Sehgal’s Ann Lee (2011), which features disconcerting performances from robotic preteen actors impersonating a digital Manga character. Parreno’s gesamtkunstwerk holds a mirror to an audience that is both subject and object of the totalizing scenographic spectacle staged with cinematic devices old and new.

Parreno (b. 1964) is a member of a generation of artists that include his sometime collaborators Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, and Sehgal who developed an art during the 1990s built primarily on experiences rather than objects. Applying the umbrella term “relational aesthetics,” critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud argued that the primacy of affect in these practices mimicked the shift in Western industrialized countries since the 1960s from manufacturing to economies based on the provision of services and experiences. As life experience is increasingly commodified and mediated, relational artists pursue fiction as a ground for a recalibrated realist practice. As Tom McDonough and others have argued, relational art bypasses rather than continues a previous generation of artists’ critiques of representation (for example, Martha Rosler or Cindy Sherman) and explores spectacle as a source of new and potentially volatile affective relationships.

Marilyn illustrates Parreno’s syncretic combination of the real and the cinematic as well as his juxtaposition of old and new technologies. The film is an updated nineteenth-century phantasmagoric séance set in a re-creation of the three-room suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan where Marilyn Monroe lived in 1955. Marilyn brings the troubled actress’s journals to life in sumptuous 2K digital, as the camera pans across the dimly lit suite and a voiceover reads Monroe’s searching but ultimately banal descriptions of the décor. Closeup shots of a pen writing in her cursive script give the impression that Monroe is trying to anchor her mind in its surroundings. An incessantly ringing telephone and a soundtrack by Arto Lindsay suggest the threat posed by the outside world to a psyche famously split by its public image. Just as viewers begin to feel that Monroe has been restored an empathic interiority, however, the writing begins to go haywire, repeating and overlaying itself with impossible precision. The camera tracks out to show an automated robot holding the pen and a high-tech film set with an extensive apparatus of dollies, cameras, and computers. On my viewing, this self-reflexive cinematic reveal did not end the séance for Monroe, which continued from the film into the Armory hall. As the bleachers rotated, the audience shifted toward the canopied lights, which began flashing in sequence with booming voice recordings from Marilyn’s journal. It was as though Marilyn’s spirit was transposed from the automaton in the film to the mise-en-scène of the Armory, now construed as a large-scale phantasmagoria of light and sound.

Originally, phantasmagoria were popular proto-cinematic spectacles in the nineteenth century that used magic lanterns, smokescreens, and multifaceted lighting effects to summon ghosts and demons as well as absent loved ones and historical figures for credulous audiences. Introduced in post-Revolutionary France, phantasmagoria conjured republican martyrs and mythified recent history with a mystifying plethora of images and symbols, and this did not escape the notice of Karl Marx, who seized on the spiritualist shadow play as a metaphor for the immaterial life that commodities acquire as social hieroglyphs. Walter Benjamin extended the metaphor to describe the role of spectacle and fetishism not only in social relations but perception itself, arguing that commodity objects received “‘illumination’ not only in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition, but also in the immediacy of perceptible presence. They manifest themselves as phantasmagorias” (Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939),” in The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002, 14). Objects, in other words, had become so mystified by exchange that material and spectral presence had fused in the eyes of the subject.

The critical history of phantasmagoria brings into focus the relationship of Parreno’s Marilyn to a famous earlier body of work, namely, Andy Warhol’s extended meditation on Monroe and her death, which has arguably done more to mythologize the actress than her own films. And like Parreno, Warhol’s practice is rooted in the apparatus of cinema. Shortly after Monroe’s death in August 1962, Warhol used a publicity shot from her film Niagara to repeat a photo-silkscreened image of her visage across a variety of canvas formats ranging from easel-size portraits to tondo diptychs. Monroe’s image skitters across these paintings with varying degrees of resolution, as the use of a squeegee dragged across clogged silkscreens created changing impressions on an imperfect grid. For instance the Hirshhorn Museum’s Marilyn Monroe’s Lips (1962) fragments the Niagara image and abstracts Monroe’s features, synechdochally encapsulating the essence of her cinematic allure in both color and in black and white, suggesting the rupture of body and image that exacted such a terrible toll on her person and psyche. With Monroe gone, Warhol’s series reads less as a séance for her ghost than a pathetic attempt to reembody her image in the comparatively slow medium of paint on canvas, to restore physicality to phantasmagorical presence via what Leo Steinberg called “the matter of representation” (Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, London: Oxford University Press, 1972, 91).

While the materiality of Warhol’s images highlight the physical costs of Monroe’s celebrity, and has subsequently poisoned simulacral interpretations of his work with a realist pill, Parreno’s elaborate cinematic devices are used to project her image deeper into the phantasmagoria’s mystifications. Even with his revelation of the writing automaton, the actress remains unknowable physically and psychologically, and representation’s encroachment into reality is redoubled, not pierced. June 8, 1968, a filmed reenactment of the train transportation of Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington, DC, based on famous photographs of bystanders taken from the train by Paul Fusco, continues Parreno’s fictionalization of the real. Much as in Marilyn, here the present seems to be haunting the past as the train passes actors in late sixties period dress posed amid a landscape of undisguised contemporary buildings. These spectators return the gaze of the viewer as they struggle to comprehend the movements of history as it rolls past them.

Is history a train or a shadow play? By referencing aborted futures of the 1960s while blocking any sense of nostalgia or loss, these works project the hypnotic gaze of the present onto the past without suggesting the possibility of a cognitive connection between moments. The Crowd—Parreno’s site-specific film of Armory visitors, and the symbolic anchor of the show—also evokes the 1960s association of altered psyches and alternate values. Yet today this mesmerized gaze is marketed through an instrumentalized technological sublime of animated gadgets, social media, and virtual reality, and Parreno’s film can only gesture toward a cosmic catastrophe that is distanced by the screen. Hypnosis is an apt metaphor for the current feeling of togetherness in altered states of non-comprehension, yet it does little to confront the real dangers that present-day phantasmagoria only seem to distance from perception.

Liam Considine
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, Pratt Institute

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