The Economy of Living Things
In 2007 Paris’ Jeu de Paume initiated its Satellite programme, commissioned with CAPC Bordeaux and MABA in Nogent-sur-Marne; welcoming a visiting curator each year to create a series of exhibitions, inviting young — often international — artists to present their work. The Jeu de Paume is best known for its polished photography-oriented retrospectives and thematic shows, and the Satellite series stands visibly apart from the rest of the institution’s visual identity, with this year’s elected curator, Osei Bonsu, emphasizing the opportunity to be a ‘disruptive’ presence from within the prestigious institution.
Bonsu has invited four artists to exhibit in Paris: Ali Cherri, Oscar Murillo (currently on show, running through September 24), Steffani Jemison and Jumana Manna. The series of shows are grouped under the title “l’économie du vivant” (or the economy of living things), developed by Bonsu from a text by sociologist Françoise Vergès Mapping of Invisible Lives, treating notions of human progress, the movement of bodies, plants, animals and artefacts, and the mapping of history. Each participant was selected on the basis that their ongoing practice aligned with Bonsu’s chosen thematic, “I didn’t want to think of these artists as creating something inorganic,” he says, allowing the artists to continue their practice without working towards a pre-defined meaning.
The four exhibitions are mainly video-based, in keeping with the Jeu de Paume’s photography and video focus, however for Bonsu, the body of work that is currently on display by Oscar Murillo, is not necessarily true to the medium. “I hesitate to call them video works,” he says — the exhibition features four flat-screens propped up on the floor, three of which are diffusing surveillance footage of a previously realized work by Murillo during which he transformed David Zwirner gallery in New York into a chocolate factory, inviting workers from the La Paila chocolate factory in Colombina, Colombia to continue their daily work within the gallery.
A Mercantile Novel, Oscar Murillo, April 24 - June 14, 2014 — Courtesy de l’artiste et David Zwirner, New York/Londres.
Murillo was invited to make a work to be presented at the gallery in 2015 — these kinds of commissions normally include a few paintings and one unmarketable statement piece — but, according to Bonsu, “Murillo saw it as an opportunity for provocation.” Having quickly risen through the ranks of art market prestige early on in his career, frequently lumped in as some form of Neo Abstract Expressionism, the artist sold off the La Paila chocolates at Recommended Retail Price, rather than art object price. Bonsu highlights that in fact Murillo is unique in his lack of preoccupation with the Western art historical canon, concerning himself instead with a non-occidental culture of labour, that is to say, one which is attached to the earth in a far more self-sustaining way, maintaining a much more informal economy.
In its Paris iteration, delivered in the form of moving image, the discourse surrounding the work is reopened, “you think about everything except that which is in the video,” says Bonsu. The screens look uninstalled, and along with the quality of the surveillance footage, create a distance between the work and the notion of the completed artwork. Alongside rows of neatly formed chocmellos, one screen shows random objects floating down the factory conveyor belt, evoking the history of the readymade as a small Buddha moves closer to camera, opening up questions of the reproduction of cultural objects and the subsequent evacuation of cultural and historical value. Bonsu warns that we “should not make virtue out of art production.” It seems fitting for the works on display, best described as residual pieces, occupying the space like open-ended questions.
The Satellite series is hosted in the basement of the Jeu de Paume, in a space that Bonsu describes more like a ‘project space’ than an ‘exhibition space’ and as such allows for an open dialogue, rather than a completed and fixed-form presentation. This is exemplified by the chalk drawings on the wall — an unplanned component of the show that Murillo spontaneously created after the exhibition’s opening.
Oscar Murillo — Estructuras resonantes. Courtesy Jeu de Paume
A magical substance flows into me (2015) Jumana Manna
Co-commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation and Chisenhale Gallery with Malmö Konsthall and the Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy of the artist and CRG Gallery (New York).
With two exhibitions still to be presented before the end of the programme, Bonsu is hesitant to attach “L’économie du vivant” to any single conceptual or political issue, instead broadening his framework to address all that it means to be at the “centre of globalized political activity,” within which “the question of visibility and invisibility is a very important one,” writes Vergès in the exhibition catalogue. It is in teasing out these conceptual threads that the links between the first two shows become visible. Ali Cherri’s poetic video work Somniculus sees the artist sleepwalking through the empty galleries of Paris’ museums filled with artefacts of the colonial period, illuminating “the shifting ideologies of our civilization.” This rendering uncomfortable of history, as well as contemporary practices of archiving and manifesting, is echoed and refracted in the rendering visible the working lives of provincial workers in Murillo’s work, to draw out just one such linkage.
The two subsequent exhibitions by Steffani Jemison (October 16 through January 21, 2018 at the Jeu de Paume) and Jumana Manna (November 23 through February 4 at the CAPC), both still in the process of development, will each carve out their own identity within the theme of the economy of living things. Jemison’s work focusing on black gospel pantomime, takes inspiration from the codes of classic cinema and mime artistry, as well as West African dance to address the place of African-American culture in relation to modernism and conceptual practice. Manna will produce a feature-length film looking at the migration of a seed bank from Aleppo in Syria to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and then to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and the vested interests of the co-optation of the so-called “Doomsday vault” near the north pole. This year’s Satellite program will culminate with a group exhibition at the MABA in Nogent-sur-Marne, in one of Paris’ less obvious suburbs, allowing the exhibition to expand its limits in search of new terrain.
Personal (2014) Steffani Jemison Vidéo, couleur, son. Courtesy de l’artiste