'Big Bang' is an entirely novel experience ...
This change of approach is based on a theme which is critical to
understanding art since the beginning of the 20th century: the modern
Big Bang. By demanding radical liberation and shattering established
values, modern art produced a kind of creative destructiveness ...
Released from the weighty burden of History and the constraints
of the academic approach to art, the artists of the 20th century
introduced a rich and entirely new way of perceiving the world around
them which has had a profound and irreversible influence on our
contemporary consciousness. This new approach to structuring the
collection has been based on the idea of continuous expansion of
forms and creative forces emanating from the destruction of the
Nietzsche's announcement in the 19th century that God is dead was
significant in art's 'Big Bang' for the explosion of philosophy
that succeeded it: a destruction of the original concept of God
preceded the creation of humanist philosophy, which in turn influenced
art and literature. The parallel 'Big Bang' of the Industrial Revolution
- the spark of globalisation and political explosions - the first
two world wars and the Russian Revolution in particular preceded
not only an intensely violent period in world history, but a scientifically
and artistically progressive one, in that ideas and constructs were
and are continuously challenged. Many argue that society, and, therefore,
art, has been regressive rather than progressive - recently Tom
Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons echoed this sentiment with a paradise
lost on campus - and others insist on essential rotundity; Sisyphus
still pushes the rock up the hill. 'Big Bang' at the Pompidou encompasses
all of this: planets turn around within progressive galaxies, but,
essentially, progression supersedes individual absurdities. The
Pompidou sees the bigger picture.
Each main theme - 'Destruction', 'Construction/Deconstruction',
'Archaism', 'Sex', 'War', 'Subversion', 'Melancholy' and 'Re-enchantment'
- is then split into several rooms and sub-themes. The rooms are
linked by artists whose exhibits cross over themes - Warhol, Picasso
and Duchamp, for example - and the beat of partly acoustic installations,
whose sound carries through the rooms. Just as the mad Hatter in
Alice in Wonderland carries a ticking clock, so the presence of
time is domineering throughout this exhibition, with a variety of
works that tick and chime so that the beat goes on and on.
In the first room is a work suitably named 'My attempt to raise
hell'. It is a small iron sculpture of a sitting man, whose head
loudly clashes with a large bell, with large enough intervals in
between so that the trick affects screaming, laughing and expressions
of horror from unsuspecting viewers. In other rooms, a man counts
numbers and monotonous music plays. The cause and effect of this
is parallel to a theme explored in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.
In this novel, Gatsby is obsessed with time:
... His dream founders on his impossible insistence that time
can be not only reversed but erased ... The attempt he is making
to stop time, but elsewhere the clocks are ticking like mad. There
is an unusually large number of time words in the novel - over four
The habitual rhythm is a constant reminder of the presence of mortality
- of life, of time running out, and the immediate problem of being
lost in such a wonderland, and such a wasteland.
As the exhibition points out, in a subtle display of significant
literature of the 20th century (Beckett, Kafka, Sartre), art and
literature are two galaxies created from the same Big Bang. They
are parallel worlds, in fact, where only the mirrors look different,
but the beats differ in pace; hence the residual chaos. There is
an atmosphere of flux in a space that sprawls with people of all
ages and backgrounds, filled with artists whose only common denominator
is their involvement in the 20th century. Hunter S Thomson, the
explosive American writer, who committed suicide in 2005, wrote
recently that a Chinese wise man cursed him, 'May you live in interesting
times'. His curse was universal for bohemian habitués of
the 20th century, for they all lived through such fascinating blues
The exhibition certainly brings together highlights from the zeitgeist.
It is wonderland, a circus, a hell, a paradise, and a parody. It
is a curriculum vitae of the 20th century, a dolce vita captured
on canvas, a vital stab at human suffering.
One room named 'Mirrors/Entropy' is filled with mirrors and illusions,
designed to play with your perceptions. The adjacent room is constructed
around childhood, and there is a garden of fake flowers and grass,
aluminium and body parts, all much larger than an ordinary garden.
There is also a video film where children are shown dressed as adults
in their own garden party, with adult voices dubbed over their movements
and gestures, in a comic manner.
Juxtaposed against playful illusions and childish games are outright
confrontations with the darkness in the night skies - the wasteland
- and the grotesque aspect of this circus, our world. A piece by
the recent winner of the Venice Biennale, Annette Messager, entitled,
'Les Piques' (1992-1993), shows dolls smothered in black transparent
fabric, pierced with five foot sticks in a voodoo fashion, lined
up against a white wall, as if massacred - the valley of the dolls
systematically destroyed by another firing squad. The piece is disturbing
but somehow familiar, taking advantage of the common experience
of childhood to create a violation that is universal in identification.
'Jeux d'enfants' by Sigmar Polke (1988) is another work of similar
point, which shows two children playing in a wild battlefield. Everywhere
in Paris, in self-promotion for the city's bid for the Olympic Games
in 2012, was the slogan 'L'amour des jeunes' under the famous photograph
'Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Paris' by Robert Doisneau. The juxtaposition
of two young children playing in a no man's land and two young people
embracing is ironic and touching.
To understand art's 'Big Bang', it is important to examine the actual
Big Bang, and its implications for its metaphysical counterparts.
It is widely assumed that the universe began with the Big Bang.
But what is relevant now is what this explosion precedes: that is,
the universe in the present and the future. The exhibition at the
Pompidou gives a brief history of 20th century art: but what now?
The stars in a galaxy cannot move away from one another because
gravity holds the galaxy together. However, the galaxies themselves
are moving away from each other and astronomers do not rule out
the possibility that all galaxies will come together in about 70
billion years. This would happen if the universe contained more
of a substance called dark matter, than the matter that is seen
in galaxies. The gravitational pull of the dark matter would slow
the expansion and all the material in the universe would eventually
collapse, then explode again. The universe would then enter a new
phase, possibly resembling the present one. The search for dark
matter is a major area of research.3
Now, in art, the revolutionary movements that began so simply with
cubism, fauvism and surrealism have expanded and moved away from
each other, into new independent galaxies of thought and practice.
And yet, some of these movements have come together in new forms
- post-everything - and the original definitions are blurred and
ambiguous. The stage has come where dark matter overwhelms what
already exists in the art universe. As modern artists, such as Annette
Messager, increasingly confront the dark matter of these terrorised
times - an artistic instinct - so these differing movements and
media combine to an essential observation and understanding. Therefore,
it is indeed timely that the Pompidou should bring together such
diverse movements of art, which represent the post everything return
to an essential understanding of creation and destruction, and the
realisation of dark matter, the subject matter of today. 'The Triumph
of Painting' exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London bears witness
to this: 'The search for dark matter is a major area of research.'
So, as the 20th century has recently closed and artistic movements
congregate in Paris, where they began in the original Big Bang,
it seems that after the dark matter, a new explosion is imminent.
The art world will enter a new phase, which will be the real test:
will it be progressive, or will it simply resemble the world that
passes slowly? One thing is certain: it will be even bigger:
And the astronomers - could they have understood and
calculated anything if they had taken into account all the complicated
and varied motions of the earth? All the marvellous conclusions
they have reached about the distances, weight, movements, and
disturbances of the celestial bodies are based on the apparent
movement of the stars round a stationary earth - on the very movement
I am witnessing now, that millions of men have witnessed during
long ages, that has been and always will be the same, and that
can always be trusted. And just as the conclusions of the astronomers
would have been idle and precarious had they not been founded
on observations of the visible heavens in relation to a single
meridian and a single horizon ... He heard Kitty's voice ... She
would not have been able to make out his expression had not a
flash of lightning that blotted out the stars illuminated it for
her. The lightning showed her his face distinctly, and seeing
that he was calm and happy she smiled at him. This new feeling
has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all
of a sudden, as I dreamed it would ... But be it faith or not
- I don't know what it is - through suffering this feeling has
crept just as imperceptibly into my heart and has lodged itself
'Big Bang' explodes all residual dark matter of the past, of the
20th century, and precedes new movement, subtle as the transition
may be. As the installations at the Pompidou tick and chime, so
we wait for it all to go off again. We are addicted to the beat.
Our ears still ring from the last explosion and that ringing has
been orchestrated into a masterpiece at the Pompidou.
So even when it all blows up, there will always be stars and there
will always be dark matter: for this is the art world.
Christiana SC Spens
1. Grenier C. Big Bang: Creation and Destruction in 20th Century
Art. Paris; Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2005.
2. Tanner T. Introduction to The Great Gatsby. Penguin Classics,
3. Brecher K. World Book: the Universe. 2003.
4. Tolstoy L. Anna Karenina. London; Penguin Books, 2003.