Air de P-P-Paradis
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30 June - 19 August 2001
Curated by Nina Folkersma
You seem to be on a sun-drenched beach. The yellow is so bright it almost hurts your eyes. From somewhere in the distance comes the sound of music: a French la-la-la, sultry organs, and drumsticks that dance over your spine like fingertips. Flashbacks to the sixties. A world of liberté, fraternité et sexualité. On a monitor you see a smartly dressed young woman. She moves fluidly and sensually, with short, abrupt hesitations. A little further on is the set where she performs her choreography. A black carpet, a silk rose, two paintings on the wall. It all exudes an atmosphere of style, lust and luxury. Everything appears to be perfect. And then suddenly another sound is heard: dark and disturbing. Loud beats and electronic distortions. Farewell harmony! It tears, it grates, it st-st-stutters...
Imagine: a world populated by perfect people, forever healthy and happy. In Michel Houellebecq's controversial book The Elementary Particles this dream has become reality. It is the middle of the twenty-first century and human beings as we know them have been replaced by a new and 'improved' species: a genetically modified clone who is no longer tormented by physical decline, fear and loneliness. This 'new human being' - whose praises are sung in the prologue in a hymn-like poem - has cast aside individual desires and is free from the craving for love and intimacy. Sex, too, has ceased to be a source of frustration. Divorced from the need to reproduce, sex has become a domain of pure pleasure. In short, this new, immortal human species is eternally happy. The poem with which Houellebecq's novel begins has something of the quality of a national anthem - you can almost hear its verses being chanted by thousands of voices. The poem marks the entrance to the AIR DE P-P-PARADIS exhibition and sets the tone for the musical scenario that is to follow.
According to Houellebecq, it all began with the utopian dreams of the generation that grew up in the sixties. The generation that invented the hedonistic lifestyle. In The Elementary Particles, these historical roots are laid bare through the lives of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, the first a molecular biologist who leads a solitary life devoid of passion, the other a sexual obsessive, but ultimately just as lonely as his brother. Both have been abandoned early on in life by their mutual mother. She takes off for a hippy commune in California, in search of spiritual enlightenment, self- realization and, needless to say, lots of 'free sex'. Houellebecq shows where these collectively pursued ideals eventually lead. He sketches a merciless picture of how, during the twentieth century, Western men and women progressively 'disencumbered' themselves of the onerous aspects of human existence: traditional standards and customs, social and family structures, sexual reproduction ... until, in The Elementary Particles, even death itself is finally banished. But how radiant is such a future? How perfect is a world in which human beings have rid themselves of their own vulnerability and of mutual responsibility?
Another scene: the bronzed bodies of a young Alain Delon and an equally glorious Romy Schneider, bathing in the Mediterranean sunlight, on the edge of their private swimming pool at St. Tropez. In the film La Piscine (1970) the couple's idyllic love does not last very long, however. When an old friend and his young daughter arrive, jealousy, suspicion and infidelity invade their Eden - with fatal consequences. Mascha de Vries (b. 1972, Amersfoort) has seen the film no fewer than six times. This Amsterdam-based artist, who designed the decor for AIR DE P-P-PARADIS, is fascinated by the world of the French 'beau monde' with its typical combination of mondaine classiness and a soupçon of vulgar glamour. For the same reason, she can wax enthusiastic about the porno-chic of Sylvia Kristel in the Emmanuelle films or, even more risqué, the video clips of Serge Gainsbourg, in particular the one where he is in bed with his daughter Charlotte (Lemon Incest). Mascha de Vries has herself lived in France, including in Nice where she was 'artist in residence' for a time at Villa Arson. This may well be where she picked up her acute sensitivity for conjuring up a particular atmosphere. Whether it is a videowork, a VJ show or visual art, her work is always distinguished by an unerring feeling for style codes. So, too, her contribution to this exhibition. The performance Air Guitar (developed in collaboration with Lars Eijsen), which is shown on the small monitor at the entrance to the exhibition, is a sensuous choreography where every dance movement is so controlled that it is transformed into a pose. Seductive and tragic at the same time. The slowed-down, contorted movements of the female dancer and the meticulous care that has gone into the choice of clothing, make-up and lighting lend the work a certain intensity and drama. The 'empty', black decor de Vries created especially for the space in Bureau Amsterdam generates a similar diffuse tension: as if another, darker world is lurking behind the image.
'LA DOUCE FRANCE' Mascha de Vries is not alone in her fascination with French culture: 'French' is hip again and Paris is once more the vibrant centre of the world. The Parisian pop scene in particular is booming as never before: producers, record labels and bands like Air, St. Germain, Daft Punk, Cassius and Mirwais are soaring to international stardom. For some reason or other, this French 'pop électronique', together with French fashion, magazines (Purple, Crash) and the French art world, is often associated with decadent, 'lounge'-type scenes. Think of Air's air-bubbles music and you see young girls wearing Prada slippers, designer beach tents and bottles of rosé. The Elysian Fields exhibition mounted last year in the Centre Pompidou, confirmed this impression. Atmospheric paintings, photos, installations and a matching soundscape together conjured up a weightless, irresponsible Glamorama world. In his review in Metropolis M, Domeniek Ruyters described the exhibition, and more generally the entire 'lounge cult', as an agreeable but totally uncritical affair, one in which 'experience precedes thought, pleasure precedes contemplation, enjoyment precedes reflection'.
Much to his annoyance, the music of Bertrand Burgalat (b. 1963, Corsica) is also often categorized as 'lounge'. It is true that his songs have something of the sweet dream about them. In a fragile voice - he knows and exploits his limitations - he sings hesitantly and occasionally slightly off key, about encounters and imaginary countries. But make no mistake. As he himself once said: 'Les chansons les plus émouvants et violents sont d'une apparence très douce.' (The most moving and violent songs come across as very gentle). In his music, Burgalat combines the best of French pop - warmth, elegance, sensuality, and last but not least, the perversion of Serge Gainsbourg - with contemporary electronic experiments.
Bertrand Burgalat is a man of many talents. As producer, composer and owner/founder of his own record label, Tricatel, he has long deployed those talents on behalf of others. In the eighties he collaborated with musicians from the international underground, like Laibach and Einstürzende Neubauten. In subsequent years he wrote music and supplied arrangements and remixes for Air, Ingrid Caven, Nick Cave, Ladytron, Pizzicato 5 and the Japanese cult pop star Kahimi Karie. For someone who makes such - ostensibly - sweet music it is remarkable how often he finds himself in close proximity to controversy. It began with his debut with the provocative Laibach rock band (part of the avant-garde Neue Slovenische Kunst movement). Last year he did it again by making a CD with Michel Houellebecq, whose aforementioned novel The Elementary Particles was causing an uproar in left-wing intellectual circles. In France, its author was accused not only of sexism and conservatism, but even of harbouring extreme-right sympathies. There is not much trace of all this on the Présence Humaine CD where Houellebecq 'sings' poems about hot summers and Playa Blancas in a subdued voice - Bertrand calls it 'gentle, soft rap'. Last year Burgalat finally produced a solo album: The Sssound of Mmmusic. It is best described as a mix of seductive songs and happy pop melodies with insidious, electronic distortions. In a taunting, almost sadistic manner Bertrand manages to slow rhythms down, to stretch them apart and disrupt them - until the heavenly sound starts to fracture and falls apart.
Something similar happens in The Elementary Particles. There, too, utopia turns into an apocalyptic nightmare. The cruel and bitter aspects of this brave new world gradually worm their way under your skin. Yet what makes Houellebecq's book so doom-laden is not so much a future scenario that foreshadows the end of humanity as we know it. The truly horrifying thing is that his vision relates not to the future but to the present day: it reveals the ultimate consequence of developments now taking place. Houellebecq sketches a picture of a society driven by conflict and competition. Man is caught up in a remorseless rivalry in which he is continually forced to sell himself, both economically and sexually, to others. Add to this his own ideals of freedom and far- reaching individualism and you understand why he ends up lonely and alone. The genetically manipulated clone at the end of the book is not the end of individualism as such, but its ultimate achievement.
Music can 'sometimes provide a premonition' of a future world, states one of the lines of poetry in the prologue to The Elementary Particles. But, as Nathalie Bruys (b. 1975, Dordrecht) demonstrates, the experience of that world evoked by music is not always uncritical and 'quiet'. Nathalie Bruys, aka KODI, Nath6lie, Lackmoes or ANDi (she is forever thinking up new pseudonyms), makes sound installations and performances, designs her own record covers and acts as DJ. Her sound experiments occasionally recall the early electro music of Kraftwerk, but in her work the 'cold' synthesizer chords often acquire a 'warm' melody line and a more 'analogue' sound. This may have something to do with the fact that she likes to work with old, one could almost say antique, sources of sound. For example, she assembles her sounds from a Korg PE- 100 and a Roland TR-606 drum computer, but also from children's synthesizers, antique music boxes and a toy merry_go_round. To edit and arrange her 'basic sounds', Bruys then turns to a modern computer program and - her 'other great friend' - the EMU ESI 4000 sampler. On her LP KODI, but more particularly during her live performances, this fascination with the equipment itself and her delight in the specific 'texture' of the collected material is clearly audible. 'I love cables, switches, electricity, physics diagrams, formulas, spaceships and airwaves. I think it's because I'm a bargee's child.' But things that go wrong or that she doesn't understand, a text she misreads or words she mispronounces so that odd sounds emerge, can also be a source of inspiration for her. Minor flaws, scratches, static ... it's the imperfections that ensure that we stay alert. And that stop the musical experience from being a purely passive affair during which we can slip unnoticed into an ecstatic 'bliss'. Nathalie Bruys's greatest wish is to make people aware of sound and to stimulate them to listen actively.
Specially for AIR DE P-P-PARADIS Nathalie Bruys joined Bertrand Burgalat in the sound studio to compose a new work. The unique 'soundtrack' they produced for the Bureau Amsterdam space is based on improvisations and admiration for each other's work. Mascha de Vries (with Lars Eijsen) used light, colour, smell and one or two (art) objects, to create a decor that, like the soundtrack, is ambiguous and full of tension. As such, the AIR DE P-P- PARADIS exhibition is an exploration of the various ways in which sound is not only heard, but above all, experienced. It is a show that calls on the visitor's capacity to listen and powers of imagination. Even though the deliberate dist-st-stortions in the soundtrack will sometimes be a bit 'painful', these are also the moments when it is most interesting. This is the real test for the visitor: after all, we are already familiar with perfect sound, we have grown up with it. Nathalie Bruys, Bertrand Burgalat and Mascha de Vries understood that, which is why they added a new dimension. Call it 'hardcore lounge' or what you will. One thing is certain: the easy listening atmosphere of AIR DE P-P-PARADIS turns out to be not-so-easy after all.
translated by Robyn de Jong - Dalziel