Locating the Gaze

Cecilia Bien on Dislocations at Palais de Tokyo, Paris

April 1, 2024

Dislocations, 2024, installation view

Paris maintains an ambivalent position in the contemporary art world, marked by various cultural institutions that promote national patrimony amid ongoing attempts to meaningfully come to terms with its colonial histories. While international galleries and art fairs have recently opened outposts in the city, are its main art institutions recirculating national narratives, or are they moving towards the internationalism and discursive concerns that one encounters in contemporary art’s global hubs? The latest group of exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Cecilia Bien writes, represents an intentional effort to assert Paris’s standing in contemporary art through engagements with decolonial thematics. Yet, as Bien argues, transforming the city’s perception in the art world requires at least paying lip service to discourses and artistic practices around diaspora and identity that circulate prominently in the field. The four exhibitions now on view begin to do this, shifting an emphasis from the city’s affinity for luxury economies and national heritage into an earnest attempt at a political reckoning.

Dislocations, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, February 16June 30, 2024.

Four exhibitions centering marginalized voices that engage with border, cultural, and institutional politics opened together in February at Palais de Tokyo. All are set to run until the end of June, longer than the programming cycle de rigueur. The large-scale ambitions of these simultaneous exhibitions are, according to museum president Guillaume Désanges, intended to amplify perspectives normally excluded from dominant culture while also to remind audiences of “the power of art and its capacity to be with, against, besides, behind, below, and above the real.”1 Visitors first encounter Signal, Mohamed Bourouissa’s epic mid-career survey on the main floor. Downstairs, three smaller exhibitions reference topics introduced by Signal, including identity, representation, imprisonment, and restriction. These exhibitions are Past Disquiet, an archival exhibition documenting collectivity in exile and as resistance; Toucher L’Insensé: Approaching Unreason, an evocation of grassroots struggles and micropolitics by way of radical psychotherapy clinics and Franz Fanon’s work in Blida, Algeria—which, curatorial coincidence or not, is also Bourouissa’s city of birth; and Dislocations, a group exhibition aiming to honor artistic endeavors in the face of war, forced migration, intensifying border conflicts, and the trauma inherent in displacement. 

In his introductory text to the suite of exhibitions, Désanges remains in a comfort zone of vague poetics, within the safety of contemporary clichés like empathy and solidarity, rather than risking a claim that might reflect the incisive potential of artworks in all four of the exhibitions. I let this slide with the provisional sense that diluted language can be a deliberate way for the museum to disrupt its tradition of elitism. In this case, it can also be a way to make the exhibitions accessible to the Palais’s anticipated public of 70,000-80,000 visitors during the four-month run time. This audience is similar to that of many art institutions, ranging far beyond the critical scholar and more toward the recreational art museum visitor, who understandably may need a reminder of or introduction to the resounding themes for today’s discursive exhibition.

The motifs described in Désanges’s text materialize as formal tropes with which the contemporary art audience has become intimately familiar: soil mounds, plants, video screens set within the plants, and “poor materials,” as the curators call them—domestic readymades including found and repaired textiles, archival posters hanging from the ceiling, photos mounted on wallpaper with an ocean-scape, and a lot of text-based works. Generic scenography aside, the grand gesture of these four exhibitions—all drawing on profoundly urgent yet not-new themes from contemporary art world discourse—deserves recognition for critiquing contemporaneity in a city where hierarchies of aesthetics are still very much constructed by bourgeois elitism.

Mohamed Bourouissa, Signal, 2024, installation view

Toucher LInsensé, 2024, installation view

The exhibitions Toucher L’Insensé and Dislocations are situated next to each other, which I interpreted as an intentional pairing of strategies that highlight reparations and rehabilitation for those othered by colonial structures. In Toucher L’Insensé, the artworks on view were made by mental health patients as well as contemporary artists working with them. These patients have been dehumanized by constructs of sanity formulated by versions of mental health that fit a colonizing model. Meanwhile in Dislocations, the artworks were produced by artists in response to colonialism’s symptoms of racism and xenophobia. Eschewing skin color, nationality, and even class, the othered subjects represented in these two exhibitions are marginalized by the same superstructure whose power dynamics reject cultural and existential differences that do not uphold the dominant narrative. Despite this structural affinity in the exhibitions’ concepts, subjugation as a consequent force affecting the exhibited artists is only apparent in Dislocations. This distinction is tangible in the somewhat optimistic tenor of Toucher L’Insensé, which shows that art produced at the margins and out of oppressive conditions can catalyze emancipation, whereas in Dislocations, making art is framed as an act that can merely exist despite oppression. In the latter’s case, it is up to the audience to decipher how art made in these conditions might have agency on its own.

Tucked in an inconspicuous space downstairs, Dislocations presents the work of fifteen artists and was produced in collaboration with Portes ouvertes sur l’art, a Paris-based organization that provides a platform for artists “in situations of exile.”2 Several of the wall texts offer slippery definitions of migration that confuse self-exile—to move and live abroad by choice—with what it means to be forcibly displaced. The selected artists also have varying relationships to their “backgrounds”—the vague term used in the exhibition text in order to avoid having to grapple with the complexities of identity—which are named as Afghanistan, France, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, and Ukraine. Any theoretical relevance beyond these nation states as buzzwords ostensibly used to perform diversity remains ambiguous.

Nge Lay, Beautiful thorned path, 2023, installation view

The first artwork one encounters in Dislocations is Myanmar-born artist Nge Lay's Beautiful thorned path (2023), a mattress that appears to be held together by glue and exaggerated stitches, framed in iridescent gold lamé. The frame is emphasized by the work’s placement against a black wall creating a kitschy visual effect, its shining color referencing Myanmar’s nickname as the “Golden Land,” a moniker that, according to the artist, was created as propaganda by the military government.3 Lay previously worked in ephemeral mediums like performance and photography while living in Myanmar in order to be able to flee if sudden political turbulence made it necessary. In 2021, after the military regained power in a coup d’état, she fled with her family to Paris and has since worked with more physical materials. The crude sutures in Beautiful thorned path thus might be interpreted, as I did, to allude to ruptures intrinsic in displacement, the tearing and repairing of bare necessities for survival. The mattress can symbolize home and what it means to move, or perhaps is a reference to theories of rest as resistance. Instead of these possible access points, however, the artwork’s wall text points visitors in another, universalizing direction, suggesting that “the entire work reveals wrinkles and scars, traces of life traditionally excluded from the canons of feminine beauty.” 

With these words in mind, and following the subsequent route of the exhibition, I hoped that a connection between expectations of femininity and the trauma of displacement would be developed or revealed. After a few other textile works where the wall texts pointed to the act of sewing—such as in Fati Khademi’s travel bag embroidered with planes, bombs, and explosions—I was disoriented by the inclusion and description of Cathryn Boch’s work. Born in Strasbourg and based in Marseille, Boch collected stories about womens experiences of migration that she encountered in her research, though it remains unclear what kind of engagement this involved. She retells these stories by sewing the womens words onto boat sails, using the strain of the thread on rigid fabric as a metaphor for the tension in migratory crises and wars. Boch absorbs these stories as if the migrant women would be voiceless without her, bestowing upon herself the authority to choose which ones to appropriate as anecdotes in her work, aiming to “speak with” and not “for” these women. Yet none of the voices she incorporates are credited or at least mentioned as wishing to remain anonymous. The wall text instead emphasizes that Boch’s sewing work is “a gesture traditionally assigned to the domestic sphere but reappropriated by feminism,” reaffirming a nagging sense of an alternative curatorial motive.

Majd Abdel Hamid, installation view

Ali Arkady, installation view

Several of the artists included in Dislocations have sought asylum in France, such as Rada Akbar, who was evacuated by the French government after the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan, and Ali Arkady, who had to flee Iraq due to threats to his life after he photo-documented war crimes. Others, such as Majd Abdel Hamid, based between Beirut and Ramallah, have come to Paris via residencies like Cité Internationale des Arts, which, as visitors learn from the wall text for the work of Fati Khademi, often hosts artists from “countries of exile”—assumed to mean countries with active political conflicts. Along with Portes ouvertes sur l’art, these organizations are apparently also sites where a curator making an exhibition about exile can source artists to fulfill a thematic imaginary without ever having to leave France. The limitations of such a curatorial method, which may be well-meant but can nevertheless come across as shallow, is evident in some of the texts, which read as prescribed narratives of who and what the artists, all of whom are emerging, should identify with in order for their experiences of displacement to be legible to the viewer. In such cases, subjectivity is easily forfeited, and the chance to express oneself becomes a demand to explain oneself. When marginalized voices are given a platform, sometimes in the spirit of standpoint epistemology—the act of handing over the microphone to the subject—privileging situated knowledge can instead, by default, deflect responsibility from the curator. 

Misleading texts aside, there is solid work made in earnest by artists whose names do not circulate in the art market and whose cultural capital is not promised by a diploma from an internationally recognized MFA program. Most of the artworks are being exhibited at a major institution for the first time, and it’s meaningful and significant to see them displayed with the attention, care, rigor, and sufficient production budget they deserve. The struggle is real in the fight to be genuinely seen and heard for anyone working from a globally marginalized position. For instance, Tirdad Hashemi’s oil pastel drawings of the Paris drag scene produced over the course of one party and torn out of a sketchbook are cut up and collaged together spontaneously and intuitively by the artist, then framed and mounted uniformly on the institution’s white wall. The small-scale works invoke an intimacy necessary for survival in subcultural communities, drawing on Hashemi’s own experience of exile from Iran to now living across four cities. There’s a carnal friction moving through such temporal communities, illustrated by Hashemi’s uninhibited use of color that evokes the constellations and diversity of urban life moving in and out, together and then apart, before that moment—vulnerable in its precarity—expires. The collages have titles such as Traumatizing family, Grapefruit juice, If corona don’t kill us we kill each other, and The difficult life of an easy girl (all 2020), resisting sentimentality in their mutable format, finding energy in the overlap of struggle, of exile from one context only to find oneself in another marginalized position in the next. 

Tirdad Hashemi, Grapefruit juice, 2020

Tirdad Hashemi, Traumatizing family, 2020

On a perpendicular wall is Bissane Al Charif’s Piaola (2023), a series of thirty self-portraits painted in green on paper printed with a piano score. The artist’s face is partially covered by painted fruit and natural objects in some portraits and, in others, expressions of listening, screaming, or salivating privilege humanism in the face of global crisis. The self-portraits do not explicitly refer to any specific geopolitical event, and despite Al Charif’s own history of growing up in Syria with Palestinian origins before moving to France, Piaola does not exploit the connotations of her background. While the formal qualities from these works may appear unpolished and at times naive, I found the apparent lack of self-consciousness to be genuine and refreshing, and resistant to falling into expected traps of representation.

In a city with art courses such as “Land Art Strategies powered by Dior” and “Queer Dissidences powered by Thom Browne,” it is evident how critical discourse and practice in the contemporary art field are inextricably bound to the luxury economy.4 Paris is a city where the center still very much exists, and stratification is so palpable your compass for the arrondissements can be driven by which people you see walking on which streets against which architecture. To have a major museum center the life work of Mohamed Bourouissa, an artist from Algeria now living in Gennevilliers, a banlieue district of Paris, accompanied by exhibitions showing work from lesser-known artists could, then, even be considered radical. 

Bissane Al Charif, Pianola, detail, 2022–23, installation view

Having recently made the Paris Plus art fair a part of Art Basel in October, the city is investing tremendous effort in rebooting its standing in the contemporary art landscape. To do this, there seems to be a latent understanding among the more recognized art institutions that to assert cultural soft power requires at least paying lip service to discourses around diaspora already well established in New York, London, and Berlin, and making it a discursive reality of one’s own. Taking Désanges’s aforementioned introductory text as a cue, these institutions are new to confronting these themes. The Palais de Tokyo now finds itself the protagonist for spearheading critical discourse; as Désanges writes in the same text, Palais de Tokyo must now “refuse to choose between intelligence and beauty, between the real and the poetic, between hope and lucidity,” suggesting that such negotiations require holding these seeming dualities in tension in order to move away from historically bourgeois notions and constructions of art.

With the vast resources of an institution like Palais de Tokyo, there is real potential to refine often glossed-over handlings of sensitive topics. I often find “research-based” exhibitions overly discursive to the point of being didactic and even condescending, steering attention away from the artwork itself, as if it can’t be trusted—or the viewer can’t be trusted—in favor of a curator-splained text that insists on the research efforts that have unfolded behind the scenes. Instead of reducing distance—between the viewer’s existing knowledge of such delicate topics and the frame of reference from which the artist works—such exhibitions often perpetuate an aesthetic othering in which the artwork is secondary and serves as an unwitting accomplice to the text. So, while I was dubious of many of the ways language is used throughout the exhibition, I also sensed a sincerity beyond one of rehearsing or reproducing rhetoric. There is still a long way to go, but the genuine intentions of Dislocations together with the other exhibitions are tangible without being totally eclipsed by its world saving ambition.

1 Accompanying pamphlet to the exhibitions, 2024.

2 See https://www.portesouvertessurlart.com/association?lang=en.

3 See Naima Morelli, “Yangon: An Interview with Nge Lay and Aung Ko,” Art Asia Pacific, February 6, 2023, https://artasiapacific.com/issue/yangon-an-interview-with-nge-lay-and-aung-ko?locale=en.

4 These were offered at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris in 2021.

Cecilia Bien is a writer working on her PhD at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She was recently in residence at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.

All installation photos unless otherwise noted: Aurélien Mole

Image of Mohamed Bourouissa, Signal © ADAGP, Paris, 2024

Installation view of Nge Lay's work courtesy the artist and A2Z Art Gallery

Image of Majd Abdel Hamid's work courtesy the artist and gb agency (Paris)

Image of Ali Arkady's work courtesy the artist, © ADAGP, Paris, 2024 

Images of Tirdad Hashemi's work, courtesy the artist and gb agency (Paris)

Image of Bissane Al Charif's work courtesy the artist, photo: Antoine Aphesbero

This text was supported by a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities NY