In the historic city of Rennes, the medieval Couvent des Jacobins has been renovated. The old stone work has been buffed and scraped plaster fills the cracks. It looks like a crumb-coated wedding cake.
Standing in the central quadrangle, a child on the cusp of adulthood holds a frog by one outstretched leg. His expression is hard to read, caught between curious and menacing. At his side, his right hand rests, though seems poised to strike the creature. The boy, preserved in white aluminium in Charles Ray’s sculpture Boy with Frog (2009), is on the brink of a decision – one at the heart of ‘Debout!’ (Stand Up!), the exhibition that inaugurates this repurposed convent. Will he act and, if so, with cruelty or compassion?
The show features 21 artists and includes 40 paintings, films and sculptures, all of which form part of François Pinault’s collection. ‘Debout!’ is a home-coming of sorts: Pinault hails from a nearby town and writes that the region ‘nurtured [his] curiosity for art’. Curator Caroline Bourgeois has organized the works into five ‘sequences’: the first two in the new section of the building and the following three in the old. The exhibition is, however, united behind what Bourgeois calls the ‘rallying cry’ of the title ‘Debout!’ and the artworks respond variously to human cruelty in its many guises. With the recent resurgence of the political far right, the theme is a timely one for France specifically and the Western world more broadly.
Beginning in the recent past, the show offers sculptural reminders of the repercussions of failing to take a stand. At relentless pace, the crises and revolutions of the 20th century are revisited. These include political catastrophe – embodied by Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001), a photorealist sculpture of a kneeling, child-like Hitler; economic boom and bust – Bertrand Lavier’s Dino (1993), a totalled red Ferrari Dino 308 – and the waning power of the Christian church: Danh Vo’s “You’re gonna die up there/ Keep away! The sow is mine (…)” (2015), a medieval Crucifixion sculpture that Vo has beheaded.
One room contains Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Fucking Hell (2008), an installation formed of nine glass vitrines, arranged as a swastika and home to 30,000 warring Nazi figurines. Its aesthetic recalls Warhammer models or pre-CGI horror films and its aim, clearly, is to shock. It’s a reductive approach to human brutality: one that simply re-presents (and even trivializes) atrocity rather than places in context or researches its root. Art can surely do more than satisfy a morbid fascination.
In the rooms that follow, brutality is handled with more tact. Works consider not just the physical act, but the psychological imprint of atrocity: how it dehumanizes a population and strips it of order or purpose. These themes are found in the form of Vincent Gicquel’s drippy paintings of standing nudes, whose bellies flop and dopey expressions seem vacant. In one large painting, Ablution (2018), two figures appear caught in the act of doing something, although exactly what is unclear. Trapped in a barely described landscape, they appear doomed to roam, slouch, fight and fuck ad infinitum: it’s absurd.
Be warned: this is a generous yet exhausting exhibition. Visitors may find themselves reflected in Thomas Schütte’s Efficiency Men (2005): three figures frozen in the act of staggering towards the exit. The sculptures are made from thick twisted springs while heavy duty blankets are draped around their shoulders. Like foot soldiers of a resistance, they have been stripped back to their core components, standing on two feet while weighted by the sense that human history is bound to repeat. I am reminded of the famous last lines of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). Estragon asks ‘Well, shall we go?’. Vladimir replies: ‘Yes, let’s go.’ The stage direction states: ‘They do not move.’
Debout! is on view at Couvent des Jacobins, Rennes, until 9 September.
Main image: Thomas Schütte, Efficiency Men, 2005, installation view, 2018, Couvent des Jacobins, Rennes, 2018. Courtesy: Pinault Collection; photograph: Jean-François Mollière
First published in Issue 197