Michel Houellebecq

Venus Over Manhattan, New York, USA

‘French Bashing’, Michel Houellebecq’s exhibition at Venus Over Manhattan – his first in the US and a follow-up to his 2016 solo show at Palais de Tokyo, Paris – is not the writer’s first engagement with the visual arts. Houellebecq has been taking photos for years, and he also wrote a novel, La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory, 2010), in which the main character is an artist. In the book, Jed Martin shifts from photography to painting portraits of contemporary workers (like customer service providers and journalists, as well as Houellebecq, who pens a catalogue essay, sadly not included in the book, for the fictional artist) that fetch millions of euros in the art market.

michel_houellebecq_-_installation_view_12_-_hr.jpg

Michel Houellebecq, ‘French Bashing’, 2017, installation view, Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Unsurprising to anyone who has read Houellebecq’s novels, the photographs on view in ‘French Bashing’ depict a forbidding, dim world. The author designed the exhibition himself: you walk into a dark room, where greyscale photographs of suburban and rural France are mounted on aluminium and spotlit directly. Where the display is dramatic, the photos are straightforward and banal. France #033, 035, 036 and 037 (all 2016) are hung to connect one non-linear strip of unvarying suburban sprawl, each image imprinted with ‘Avallon suburbs 1’, 2, 3 and 4. In Inscriptions #013 (2017), a dusk sky is inscribed with the sentence ‘time to place your bets’, and in France #002 (2017), the red and blue diamond-shaped logo of the budget supermarket chain Leader Price is saturated using Photoshop to emphasize the grey, grim shop on the outskirts of a small town enveloped by green hills.

thumb_michel-houellebecq-arrangements-004-2016-hr.png

Michel Houellebecq, Arrangements #004, 2016, pigment print on Baryta paper mounted on aluminum, 99 x 146 cm. Courtesy: the artist and VENUS, New York

The takeaway is facile: civilization is a series of train tracks and big-box stores, toll booths and cement infrastructures. Houellebecq has said in interviews that he does not write landscapes into his novels, for landscapes belong to the realm of photography and people are the concern of literature. Indeed, the photographs are all devoid of human figures, their subjects veritable ghost towns. France #014 (2016) shows another grocery store car park: it’s an image of a public artwork, a concrete sculpture spelling out ‘EUROPE’ next to a huge, rural Carrefour. Houellebecq describes France, but the idea is that France can stand in for other bankrupt or abandoned places.

michel_houellebecq_-_inscriptions_006_2016_-_hr.jpg

Michel Houellebecq, Inscriptions #006, 2016, pigment print on Baryta paper mounted on aluminum, 74 x 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and VENUS, New York

And then you draw a curtain and move into the adjacent room, brightly lit, its floors covered with laminated placemats with sunny views of French tourist destinations. The ironic shift in lighting enhances the naivety of the images on the ground. This form of ‘French bashing’ critiques the way France sells itself (a leitmotif in The Map and the Territory, where Martin dates a Michelin executive and together they travel the country’s hôtels de charme, now adapted to the tastes of Chinese tourists). But the placemat images don’t elicit contempt from me: instead, I think of people’s dreams and reminiscences, to one day visit the Brittany of postcards, to ski at Praz de Lys, or to remember a trip taken years ago to Île d’Oléron. It may seem sad to dine atop these fantasies, but – at the risk of sounding sentimental – these dreams are nothing to walk all over.

michel_houellebecq_-_installation_view_5_-_hr.jpg

Michel Houellebecq, ‘French Bashing’, 2017, installation view. courtesy the artist and VENUS, New York

Even if you subscribe to Houellebecq’s grim view of the world, the relationship between his literary work and his photographs is a system of empty repetition: language and image echo each other, neither contributing what the other lacks. The bleak photos in this show are simply illustrations of the France experienced by Houellebecq’s characters. At the end of The Map and the Territory, we discover that Jed Martin spent his last, lonely decades taking photographs again. As he tells a journalist: ‘I simply wanted to give an account of the world.’ In the novel, as in his work, Houellebecq presents art as inert and bereft of potential for change – the simple, unmodified account of a cynical bystander.

Michel Houellebecq, ‘French Bashing’ runs 2 June – 4 August, 2017, at Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Main image: Michel Houellebecq, Mission #001, 2016, pigment print on Baryta paper mounted on aluminum, 60 x 88 cm. Courtesy: Venus Over Manhattan, New York / Los Angeles

Orit Gat is a writer based in London and New York whose work on contemporary art and digital culture has been published in a variety of magazines. 

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018