I knew nothing about the student uprisings in Paris in May of 1968 prior to stopping by Zilkha Gallery, and what little I know now comes from limited reading afterward. Neither a visit to Andrea Ray’s exhibition, nor twenty minutes of reading, is likely to inform me greatly about this important historical moment. Take that for a disclaimer before reading on.
In very broad overview, it appears that the conflict was fairly typical for its time; liberal college students had gripes against a conservative establishment and held a variety of protests. The universities at first intervened, but were then overwhelmed. The government’s subsequent interventions were so heavy-handed as to turn the public away from the conservative, traditionalist establishment, and toward the liberal causes and interests of the students. This, I now read, apparently resulted in a broad cultural shift away from conservatism in France. May of 2008 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Paris student uprisings, not a bad time for some to reconsider them, and for others, like me, to learn about them.
In the handout accompanying this three-part exhibition, Ms. Ray asks, “Could the Paris model of community, social and political agency be employed in this country at a time when deepening crisis is coupled with fear and apathy?” Parallels between Paris in 1968 and America in 2008 are rather painful on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe the abundance of online outlets for bloviation has bled away the impetus to take to the streets, or depressed us into apathetic torpor. Regardless, there have been few times in history when Americans have had so much worth protesting.
The first component of Désire I encountered was Rehearse, in the cavernous concrete Main Gallery. Picture a long room, glass on the left, gray concrete floor and wall to the right, perhaps fifteen feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long, ceiling far overhead. Along the floor, parallel rows of low gray boxes, looking like tall square pedestals lain on their sides, are arranged like pews in a chapel. At the front are two very large black-fronted speaker cabinets, poorly crafted. Voices ring from the speakers against the cold walls, actors reciting a dramatic script.
Ms. Ray’s literature states that “The audio component of Rehearse is loosely based on (writer and director Marguerite) Duras’ screenplay for the 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour and conveys the impossibility of speaking of war – as discussed through the discourse of love and metonymic desire.” For me, competent acting made Hiroshima’s somewhat tedious love story bearable. I found the audio acting in Rehearse quite difficult to listen to. One female voice in particular carried the heavy over-enunciation you sometimes hear in certain poets who apparently savor every phoneme like fine wine. After a few minutes I had to move on, keeping the memory of the stark dramatic read in mind.
The remaining two components of Désire were situated at the far end of Zilkha Gallery. Fifteen blurry photos of empty Paris intersections filled three walls of the end chamber, each photo perhaps 18 x 24 inches – again, I’m estimating. Titled Occupied, this series shows streets that students blocked during the Paris uprisings. Their absence, and, for me, the absence of any living person in most of the photographs, gave a haunted feeling to them that was only accentuated by their blurriness. In some cases civic architecture filled the astigmatic distance, giving the sense of lost or distorted political identity. A kind of longing permeates these images, independent even of the artist’s intended meaning, and I found myself returning to them again and again. In considering them now, I sense a longing for a culture that, even if only a short jog away, seems somehow to be irretrievably lost.
These images surrounded on three sides The Gift, a finely crafted piece consisting of a long dinner table and chairs made out of flawless plywood, with six beige-colored speakers sunk into the table’s surface. From Ms. Ray’s literature:
“At her dinner parties on rue Saint-Benoît, Duras often served a homemade soup. The Gift, then, is a recorded dinner party. It is the result of an actual dinner party at the artist’s home at which she served a “conceptual soup” to honor Duras’ memory. The conversations at the dinner party were recorded with a microphone at each seat. They are replayed in The Gift on individual speakers at each place setting.”
This visually enjoyable piece is clearly symbolic; the perfectly right-angled chairs would be murder to sit in, let alone enjoy a meal. All sawn angles are pure and perfect at ninety degrees. Plywood – you use it to cover shattered windows, or to protect them from shattering, or to hammer together impromptu structures when time is of the essence, yet this plywood has clearly seen no violence. The sense of an invitation to join the table is mitigated by the aforementioned torture seats and by the places being filled with voice-emitting speakers. Nonetheless, for a while, anyway, I wanted to be a part of the conversation.
And yet it was all so cold. The conversation occurred at the same temperature as the dining set’s mathematical perfection. Six (apparently) people extemporized (again, apparently) over politics and the Paris student uprisings with the chill reserve of the white-bread upper-middle-class. Voices at times rose to the mid-level passion appropriate to polite dinner conversation, and were mingled with the sounds of eating, utensils clinking against porcelain, mouths chewing, sipping, breathing.
The square edges and coldness of The Gift returned me mentally to the difficult enunciations of Rehearse, and back again to the empty intersections of Occupied. I found myself regretting the absence of warm, living and acting people, and the distance we stand now from the volatility, if not the danger, of a world that, even as late as May of 1968, had youth, greenness, potential.
Désire is on view at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University until May 25.
Image from The Hartford Courant