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, ‘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.


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, 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, ‘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

From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018