What Does It Mean to Be European?

A show at Fondation Cartier, Paris, brings together works by young artists from across the continent

Europe is in crisis. Right-wing populisms are on the rise and have been for some time now. As the European Union’s once triumphant liberal hegemony sputters under the weight of its own contradictions, politicians such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini have seized on a generalized feeling of precariousness to address a more libidinal obsession with national identity, defined in opposition to the non-European other.

But, what does it mean to be European? This culturally and politically weighty question is posed by the exhibition ‘Jeunes Artistes en Europe. Les Métamorphoses’ (Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now), on view in Paris at the Fondation Cartier. The show brings together works by 21 artists from 16 countries, all born between 1980 and 1994, but not necessarily in the European Union. ‘Europe was our framework,’ curator Thomas Delamarre tells me during an interview. ‘We wanted to show artists who were living and working here, but we were not looking for works on the subject of Europe; we didn’t want to organize an exhibition that examined the “European question”.’ 

George Rouy, Stutter, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 56 × 46 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Hannah Barry, London; photograph: Damian Griffiths 

Nevertheless, the ‘European question’ appears more than once in the exhibition. In the first room, for instance, Paris-based designer Benjamin Graindorge presents a high table with a map of Europe as a single landmass, without national borders, open to the free flow of ideas, people and commerce. 

The next room is dominated by a confrontation between the Amsterdam-based, Italian design duo Formafantasma and Greek sculptor Kostas Lambridis on the subject of recycling. For their project Ore Streams (2017–19), Formafantasma created a line of sleek office furniture made entirely from recycled electronic waste. Two accompanying videos explain how policy changes affecting hardware standardization could facilitate recycling, which would then render mining for raw materials obsolete by 2080. Their pragmatic approach contrasts with the intuitive patchwork furniture of Lambridis’s ‘Elemental’ series (2017), whose title alludes to Robert Rauschenberg’s c.1953 ‘Elemental Paintings’. Elemental Cabinet, for instance, is a pastiche of the famous 18th-century Florentine Badminton Cabinet, replacing the original’s rich, ebony facade and inlayed precious stones with ‘poor’ materials such as painted resin, plastic and concrete, set within an exposed metal-wire frame. 

Kostas Lambridis, The Elemental Cabinet, 2017, minerals, metals, wood, plastic and textiles, 223 × 103 × 340 cm. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: Yen-An Chen 

Kostas Lambridis, The Elemental Cabinet, 2017, minerals, metals, wood, plastic and textiles, 223 × 103 × 340 cm. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: Yen-An Chen 

Downstairs, the first room presents mostly paintings, including a beguiling series of spectral figures, realized in saturated, glowing tones by George Rouy. Despite their technical prowess, many of these paintings are upstaged by the video installations nearby. I was particularly struck by A Brief History of Princess X (2016), directed by Gabriel Abrantes for the 100-year anniversary of Constantin Brâncuși’s eponymous sculpture. Mixing the absurd and the poignant, it recounts how the famous, enigmatic work went from plaster portrait of Princess Marie Bonaparte to a phallic, polished bronze abstraction.

The final room of the exhibition presents works that engage with folklore and the Neolithic world. These include Federsee (2013), a pseudo-ethnographic film by John Skoog about the otherworldly costumes of the Fasnet carnival, a folk tradition in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Meanwhile, works by Raphaela Vogel and Evgeny Antufiev – which incorporate animal hide and bone – play on ritual and primordial forms, evoking fetish objects and funerary statues.

The return to ancient folk traditions feels like a fitting conclusion to ‘Métamorphoses’, given our current political climate. And, indeed, many of the works here reflect on the perils facing an open and united Europe. While the exhibition attempts to include a diversity of artists from across the continent, the ratio of male to female participants is exactly two-to-one. There is also a conspicuous paucity of artists of colour. Indeed, Swedish-born Lap-See Lam’s video Mother’s tongue (2017) is the only piece that mines the social and cultural dimensions of migration: it floats through digital renderings of Chinese restaurants in Stockholm while, in a voiceover, several generations of Lam’s family describe their complicated integration into European society. 

Kasper Bosman, Legend: Skin (St Rumbold + Vitiligo), 2016, gouache and silver print on poplar panel, 21 × 28 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery, London; photograph: Kasper Bosmans 

While the Fondation Cartier has dedicated numerous solo and group shows to contemporary art from Asia, Africa and Latin America over the past several years, ‘Métamorphoses’ presents a limited view of art in Europe. The continued marginalization of artists who address the continent’s colonial past and postcolonial present is difficult to understand in our current political and cultural predicament, rooted in racism and xenophobia.

Then again, perhaps this majority white and male cross section of artists in Europe is closer to the current state of affairs than anyone would really like to admit. 

‘Jeunes Artistes en Europe. Les Métamorphoses’ (Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now) was on view at the Fondation Cartier, Paris, from 4 April to 16 June 2019.

Main image: Marion Verboom, Achronies, 2017, exhibition view. Courtesy: © the artist, Adagp, Paris, / Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris; photograph: Nicolas Brasseur 

Wilson Tarbox is a writer based in Paris.

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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