House on Fire: Sur le feu

The image shows what seems to be the top of a board game. The plate shows various paths and pitches with depictions of human figures next to them. In the middle of the board, two piles of cards are placed. It is an art work by Olivia Hernaïz.
Olivia Hernaïz, L’art et ma carrière, 2020.

Sur le Feu
May 31 – July 16, 2023
Académie des Beaux Arts, Paris

The funniest exhibition I have ever seen. 

I enter Sur le Feu a few hours after having read Seth Price’s Dispersion.[1] Price therein contests an Art Degree Zero, categorically ambiguous. Sur le Feu comes close: the exhibition comprises a sewing workshop, a Fanzinothèque, a games corner and a children’s playing ground. The center of the room on the ground floor stages an installation in form of a chaise lounge combining scouting vibes with hospital bed (Lucille Leger et Konstantinos Kyriakopoulos). 

Price writes that the Conceptual movement has been “almost too successful”, with a Conceptual vein in most art practices encountered nowadays. While the “classical Conceptual moment” as Price describes it, was concerned with linguistics, analytic philosophy, and the formal dematerialization of the art work, contemporary forms of the Conceptual privilege context, framing, and a constant renegotiation of the relationship to the audience.

In this sense, Sur le Feu is hyper contemporarily conceptual: it puts into question the where and what of the art work, the role of the artist, and that of the viewer. These questions, however, come in a fun disguise and carry a practical message – against an elitist, “conceptual”, i.e. overly rational, and representative understanding of art. One may term it practi-conceptualism. 

The image shows the drawing of a sleeping boy. The boy is shown in profile, sitting on a chair at a desk with a pen in his left hand. It is a work by Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié.
Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié, Jeune dessinateur endormi, 1784.

On the back wall of the ground floor hang massive prints of half-eaten chips, Kebap, ketchup and mayonnaise. No accusation of being elitist here. Next to the photographs, one can sit down and play L’art et ma carrière (Olivia Hernaïz), a sophisticated art-version monopoly. The playing board presents different careers in the arts, such as scholar, curator, artist, and gallerist, outlining the typical career paths and necessary steps. The choice is the player’s one, between more or less profitable paths.

On the right side of the room, one finds a book wall of contemporary art theory and poetry on feminism, criticism, colonialism, and animalism. Next to it, a DIY drawing section with tracing paper and copies of Old Master’s drawings ready at hand. Again, the attention lies on the practical. 

The contemporary works are complemented with objects from the collection of the Académie des Beaux Arts. In front of the Kebap-scenes, display cases with a silver coffee maker, a saucepan, spoon, forks, and a towel. At the exhibition’s entrance, photographs of male and female students from the end of the 19th century. While the household objects present an elegant counterpart to the food-war behind them, the students’ tongue-in-cheek facial expressions introduce the public to the right mind-set: Dare and play. 

My favourite hangout, #girl: Salon Parayzo (Liz Parayzo), a fully equipped, fundamentally pink manicure salon. Get your nails polished in an art exhibition, professional and ambiguous from bottom up. The poster above the adjacent playing ground – including HABA’s Wheely Bug – proclaims: l’art c’est vous.  

The second floor has the theme of a fair. Historical photographs, drawings, and prints from the collection show dervishes, costume designs, and expressive dancers from the beginning of the 20th century. The sense of play here is complemented by a socio-aesthetic reflection. The contemporary art works, on the other hand, seem hazardous and improvised. A DIY exhibition on a screen, various sculptures. These objects are fun for sure, but unfinished compared to the sketches by Karel Mander or Hans Baldung Grien. 

The image shows a book cover mounted on a wall through a wooden stack. The book is part of an installation in the exhibition "Sur Le Feu" at Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris, 2023.
Giorgio Gamben, Qu’est-ce que le contemporain? Installation View Sur Le Feu, Académie des Beaux Arts, Paris, 2023.

By times, the works are esoteric as in Hélène Garcia’s and Deforce Dumas’ colourful installation of tables, stools, curtain, and a video installation. Striking are Louis Lanne’s small-scale raisin works: something new is happening here, visually and materially. This aesthetically new is unfortunately lacking in most of the works presented. The concept or idea are not enough, they must find their proper form.  

The last room is dedicated to sleep and rest. In the center of the room stands a hammock with a lightbulb (Isadora Soares Belletti), next to it the photograph of a woman lying on a bed, and the two drawings of peacefully resting woman in pastel. The section titles “Rever au bord du feu” [Dreaming by the Fire]. The motto catches both the exhibition’s gesture and the global situation in 2023. 

What do we make out of this? The show is a fruitful and complementary gesture posing the question of what we ask from an art exhibition today. When visited during regular opening times, i.e. not at the vernissage, the reflective vein of the show may gain ground. But this exhibition privileges the crowd. To me, it is the most down-to-earth art experience in a long while. However, I rejoiced in Georg Baselitz at Thaddaeus Ropac a few days before.
It’s the playground against the temple. One should not outweight one against the other. Yet, (wo)man wants the marvel, myth, and monumentality.

[1] All following quotes taken from Seth Price, Dispersion (2016, first published 2002). Last accessed: July 4, 2023. .