Byline: Robert Murphy
PARIS — In a city that prides itself on decorum, it’s not every day that artists huddle around a television cheering a soccer match while guests at the opening of their exhibit in a fancy gallery sip champagne and politely ponder their work.
But “Sex and the British,” running through July 15 at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in the Marais, is not your average Paris exhibit. It’s the type of show that can touch a raw nerve in even the most unflappable Gaul.
“It’s the first time this type of work has been shown in Paris,” claims Max Wigram, co-curator of the show with Norman Rosenthal, the director of London’s Royal Academy of Art.
Certainly, the British artists in the show — including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Angus Fairhust, Sarah Lucas, Gilbert & George and Tracey Emin — are not news in London or New York.
In the British capital, their controversial work is a headline-generating machine. Last year in New York, they packed a punch when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art if it went ahead with “Sensation,” the first group show featuring young British artists in the U.S. But only now are England’s contemporary artists beginning to making a mark in France.
“I think it’s because this work is fundamentally opposed to the atmosphere ruling over French art now,” explains Wigram. “The French approach art intellectually, while this exhibit is more visceral — even guttural.”
The show’s title is enough to raise an eyebrow here.
“‘Sex and the British,’ isn’t that an oxymoron?” purred one Parisienne at the opening. “What do the British know about sex?”
That the British dare assert any mastery of the subject amounts to a gentle slap in the face of the French, who love to boast their superiority in the art of love.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that there’s more sex in Britain now than in most countries,” says Wigram. “What’s interesting about the show is how different artists use sexuality in their work.”
Much of the sexual component in the show borders on the pornographic: There are explicit videos, photos and sculptures using sexual devices.
“Erotic, even pornographic, work is amongst the most interesting at the moment,” says Ropac, who runs the gallery hosting the show. “Artists have always retreated into the dark corners of existence. And what the English are doing now is cutting edge and explicit. On the other hand, the French are more brainy and bloodless.”
Offering proof of that premise, Wigram compares the show to “Voila,” the larger city-funded exhibit at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. “‘Voila’ is indicative of what’s going on here now,” he says.
Focused on the passing of the 20th century, the show, which runs through Oct. 29, is a humanistic meditation on the individual in the face of history.
“Although it grew out of a set idea, we wanted to represent individual artists and their own vision,” says Suzanne Page, museum director and co-curator of “Voila.”
A common thread running through the show’s more than 60 artists, ranging from Andy Warhol to Gerhard Richter and Douglas Gordon, is the cataloging of human existence. For example, Hans-Peter Feldmann mounts 100 photos of different people aged one to 100, and Gilbert & George show a video of the two rummaging through archives of their lives’ work.
Interestingly, the duo is also featured in “Sex.” But while they pore over their past dressed in suit and tie for “Voila,” in the Ropac exhibit they don their birthday suits in a series of photo montages.
“[The French approach] is so much more detached than what we show,” says Wigram. “The British approach gets under the skin of life, while the French remains detached from it.”
Whereas “Voila” could be called brooding, “Sex” immediately elicits a strong reaction — be it revulsion or fascination. For instance, the Chapman brothers offer a replica of a severed head whose nose is sculpted in the form of a phallus. In an accompanying video, the head is used in the sexual practice of two women.
“France is still sleepy, but it’s on the verge of changing,” says Wigram. “I think it’s difficult to create or show such controversial work here because the quality of life is so good.”
Coming from a Brit, those are fighting words.
“You have to be careful about what the British say of the French,” cautions Page in reference to the countries’ longstanding rivalry. “I don’t really consider myself typically French, but neither do I think the French approach art too intellectually. My approach is to consider art as art, and to privilege emotions and sensations.”
Still, Page acknowledges that “Voila” isn’t on the same page as “Sex and the British.”
“When you look back at this century,” she says, “which started with such high hopes for humanity, and you see how inhuman the century was, it’s hard to take a purely fun approach. The idea of the exhibit is to find something human. The pretext was heavy, but I think the result is light. It’s a more ambiguous way of treating art — we wanted to leave viewers the opportunity to formulate their own interpretations. This exhibit is not about kitsch.”
Then, almost instinctively, she backtracks.
“I don’t mean that kitsch isn’t interesting. We’re just addressing a different subject.”