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The Rhinoceros in the Hall

It is a place to explore and celebrate the variety of cultures across the globe.

On Halloween night in 2008, four hundred individuals converged in the Pompidou Centre’s basement to hear Keiji Haino, a Japanese artist wearing sunglasses, produce sound.

The only instrument he employed was his voice, though he would also layer and loop it. He would also make noises like screeches, yodels, barks, grunts, hacks, howls, and growls.

In addition, he would sing in a high-pitched falsetto that could apparently caramelize a creme brulee from a distance of thirty meters. And all of this was amplified to extremely loud decibel levels.

Approximately half of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves; these sophisticated individuals didn’t snicker or leave during the 45-minute show, which was certainly a demonstration of courage, if not genuine fascination.

The most remarkable among them even refused to thrust their fingers in their ears, or rip pieces of the program to make makeshift earplugs, or cover their heads with their cashmere scarves.

Not only did they tolerate the loud noise without adjustment, they gave Keiji a standing ovation. The other roughly half of the crowd departed.

At the Pompidou Centre, an institutional response to the elitism of art museums is reflected in their cultivation of local audiences.

In 2008, the “infamous carousel” program was created under director Jos Auzende to further address this stratification by providing four nights of live art in multiple venues, including three art museums.

This initiative was intended to help the Centre uphold its mission of democratizing culture.

Nevertheless, democratization should not infringe upon the voluntary decisions of those it would help.

A majority of the eleven people near me left, including a suave man seated to my left, who was not succumbing to “church giggles” but experiencing a severe bout of museum guffaws, a type of laughter which certain cultural performances sometimes bring out in its lucky onlookers.

I dug my index fingers into my ears and clasped my hands to my head in a futile attempt to reduce the noise. It seems, however, that the intense auditory discomfort democratizes us all.

In 1969, Président Georges Pompidou suggested the formation of the Pompidou Centre, although he passed away before it was finished, his widow, Madame Pompidou, provided crucial political support throughout the construction.

681 plans were sent to the jury for the Centre, located on two city blocks in the Beaubourg, a Parisian slum that was partly razed and then positioned between the Marais and Les Halles.

Despite its appearance, the Pompidou Centre has been called anything but beautiful, however the name “Beaubourg” has been used as a synonym for the Centre.

The provocative and flamboyant design proposed by architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, both in their thirties at the time, featured the building’s utilities and services exposed in ducts and tubes on the exterior.

It was to be situated on an irregularly shaped, slanted public piazza, serving as “a breathing space for the neighborhood” and housing a modular interior for exhibitions of art of varied forms, sizes, and shapes.

The French press deemed it ‘in-French’ when the Beaubourg jury announced the commission, with Rene Barjavel from Le Journal Du Dimanche famously asking ‘How can we get rid of it?’, even suggesting that it be presented as a gift to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Worldwide, critics began to voice their opinions. Annette Michelson, in her April 1975 article for Artforum, described Beaubourg as “the ultimate ‘museological’ representation of capitalism’s creativity in its concluding stage.”

Jim Hoagland, in the Washington Post, called it “a giant and expensive mechanical game that has gone out of control and invaded two blocks of the city.”

Anthony Burgess, who had lamented the soul’s transformation into a “clockwork orange” in 1962, characterized it as “a $200 million Erector Set” in the New York Times.

With the passage of time, unique architectural designs tend to become more beloved; the more unusual the structure, the greater the chance that it could be deemed artistically significant.

Beaubourg was envisioned as a fun, urban utopia and highlighted the imperfect interiors of metropolitan storage areas and light industrial buildings.

These types of open designs became fashionable in cities internationally during the 1970s, and eventually were taken over by artists and squatters and then used as co-ops by young city dwellers.

In many ways, the building still holds a positive message towards urban lofts and their associated culture.

As John Russell commented in the New York Times on August 7, 1977, the French reaction to the Beaubourg project was not only based on aesthetics, but rather driven by a sense of moralism.

This moralism was rooted in national identity, as the French strove to protect what they perceived as their Frenchness.

Six lawsuits were brought forward in an effort to halt the construction, and editorials bemoaned the potential loss of French culture, often cloaked in classism and xenophobia.

Dominique Jamet noted in L ‘Aurore that “We do not dream in the factory; there are no dream factories…”, questioning if Beaubourg would be able to improve the standard of French cultural production.

Rogers and Piano, both foreign-born, were well aware of how unconventional it was that they were constructing the biggest monument in France.

Years later, Piano referred to their team of architects and engineers as a “foreign legion”. To obscure the fact that the steel girders were provided by the German firm Krupp, the two devised a plan to transport the fifty-meter-long girders through the city during the night.

They sent a special train, delivered the materials between 3 and 5 a.m., and had a scout truck ahead of the convoy to secure manhole covers with steel sheets via a giant magnet.

Despite the immense success of the Centre Pompidou, also known as Beaubourg, not all Parisians approve of it. When I had lunch at the Faculty Club, a professor friend of mine expressed his disapproval by saying, “I don’t like that kind of thing.”

The Pompidou Centre had many passionate responses due to it being commissioned only a year after the 1968 Paris riots.

These riots were a symbol of Western European street unrest and the last moment for French officials who had served in World War II. Consequently, the Centre became a point of contention between the French Communists and Socialists.

Moreover, the radical design of the Centre horrified critics from all political backgrounds. It was deemed international, anti-grand, ugly, more brutal than haute and un-Louvre.

In addition, the architecture proclaimed an aesthetic future in which France was not in the lead.

On Halloween, Keiji Haino was one of four performers present. The first act was Internet2, which is the stage name of Carlos Carbonell, a 26-year-old from Barcelona.

His solo show included singing, playing a clarinet, displaying videos and using a “walking piano” made of cardboard and aluminum foil that he created himself.

Additionally, Internet2 wore a hooded cape crafted by a former girlfriend of his, which he explained during a sound check that day as, “If I do not cover myself, I am always scared.”

In the video segment of Internet2’s performance, Carlos presents an array of iconic figures in a “musical fantasy.” The main recurring image is that of the Pope with electricity sparking between his outstretched, benevolent hands.

Accompanying him are Ian McKellan as Gandalf, a robotic Indian boy, an African shaman and Carlos himself, wearing a robe. Each figure is accompanied by a caption that reads, “From five masters from five continents, I acquired mystical abilities to lead the fight against fascism.”

Internet2’s performance includes a jaunty musical component.

It is made up of Baroque melodies layered over syncopated electronic beats in a synth-pop style, with lyrics that are mostly spoken or breathed. The pieces are quite catchy and not as abstruse as their visual counterparts.

Carlos is proud that his work is original, and he occasionally borrows and remixes tunes from sources such as High School Musical and his favorite orchestral pieces, which he speeds up by a factor of three.

He considers himself to be “99 percent a composer,” but he recognizes the importance of the performer-audience relationship.

During a pre-concert interview, when asked what he would like to ask his audience, he jokingly replied, “Maybe I would also like to ask the girls if you find the rocky star thing, like–do you think I’m sexy?”

What draws my attention to both Internet2 and Bishi, the latter being a London-born, sitar-plucking Bengali club singer and DJ, is their appearance on the stage at Beaubourg and the idea of “in famous carousel” behind the Halloween program.

Neither of them have ever played in a museum of art or a theater before, and yet were brought to a new cultural context by Jos Auzenne, the director of “in famous carousel”.

This act of relocation is a result of a conscious curatorial strategy and is in line with the mission of the Pompidou from 1969.

Simultaneously, the Parisian spectators’ uneasiness with the unpolished Internet2 and Bishi’s electronica pop as a Top 40 hopeful, could be used to demonstrate that the concert put on in an art museum was a flop due to the reawakening of a kind of concealed elitism.

Particularly those who had come to be tormented by Keiji Haino, seemed particularly resistant to the equalizing process, making their high-art/low-art beliefs blatantly visible–even though democracy has never been free of class distinctions, as every new election reminds us.

The purpose of an art museum in the Western world, influenced largely by Greek philosophers, is to house masterful works of art from the past, to act as a reminder of a culture’s definition of beauty, and to protect valuable pieces from damage, being taken, or destruction.

The concept of a “great work of art” is an ambiguous one and can be interpreted differently depending on the individual.

Historically, it was churches, monarchs, and academies that determined what art was “great”. However, as modernism was not widely accepted, the market began to play a role in deciding what mattered in art.

Nowadays, art museums participate in educational activities to teach taste and curate civilization, which has allowed them to take part in the culture-making process instead of simply preserving memories.

In the twenty-first century, art museums have been transformed due to the influence of “starchitects” building or renovating iconic structures (such as in Bilbao), the growth of art tourism (owing in part to coffee table books), the impact of politics on curatorial strategies (as seen in the culture wars, the events involving elephant dung, and Mayor Giuliani), the emergence of spectacle and blockbuster as critical elements in curatorial practices (like the King Tut exhibit), and the prevalence of the same “non-place” interior spaces (such as airports and malls, as noted by Marc Auge).

As a result of these changes, the rules of art have changed and thus the game has been altered.

Naturally, spectators have evolved as well. Individuals are no longer capable of buying that which they desire: the consumer-driven society tells us that what we want should cost more than what we own, and even if we obtain something, we should desire something else that is too expensive.

This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that millions of people visit large museums every year, with attendance numbers far exceeding the expectations of the institutions.

So, a kind of collective influx continues to form museum culture, with viewers expressing their opinions and finances; and, indeed, democracy is at work, with the exchange between the museum and its guests exemplifying democratic principles.

In the modern museum, “democracy” is no longer what it used to be.

Global boundaries have been erased by the concept of non-place, and art-viewing can take place anywhere; this is further complicated by the idea of cultural capital, tourism, and the absence of a free-market economy in the museum world.

Consequently, the art-viewer’s experience is strongly affected by these pressures, resulting in a different version of “democracy.”

Architect Rogers recounts an anecdote on his website that demonstrates the importance of the piazza in the successful design of the Pompidou Centre.

This is according to the official accounts of the selection process for the Centre by the Pompidou Jury in the early 1970s.

 

This open area, which serves as a respite in the heavily populated area, carries over into the structure in the form of the forum.

 

It is a kind of enclosed public commons that lacks any steps or doorways to differentiate it from its outdoors. Its glass façade underscores the continuous connection between the indoors and outdoors.

 

Rogers claims that egalitarianism is the people’s museum, designed by the architects to remove the physical boundaries of the entryway.

Edward Soja and Marc Auge, two modern geographers, both agree that a person’s political identity can be altered by the experience of different spaces.

It is possible to move from one space to another and modify one’s identity in accordance with the differences between these spaces.

As an example, a public piazza that can be perceived as a museum (or as much as the architecture allows) declares the museum’s inside to be public.

Considering how Rogers portrays the glass facade in reference to “in famous carousel’s” curatorial practices is worthwhile. Here is what Auzende has to say about it:

 

Music is becoming more in tune with current reality, altering its methods of expression, dispersal and sensibilities.

 

In the era of immense virtual and worldwide spheres (a unifying planet), overwhelming visuals, technological expertise, “divinized present time,” immediate data, some performers create secret tales, unexplored mythologies, overlooked folklore.

 

What hit me the most regarding Auzende’s statement was that you wouldn’t know it was about hidden fables until you reach that part of the description – it could be talking about a modern art museum, and even its architecture.

This isn’t to say that such “dematerialized and global spaces” are excluded from individual emotion or an individual’s experience of a piece of art; when in the “non-place” of a museum, we still have an almost spiritual moment.

A Rebecca Horn sculpture is no less breathtaking or moving.

However, the contrast Auzende provides between “hidden fables, unknown cosmogonies, forgotten folklore” seems to be a more global vision, suggesting that one person’s public experience of music can be shared with other people.

Therefore, tribalism is more international than local, and more democratic than hierarchical; as Auzende puts forward, music has the capability of breaking down social boundaries.

Auzende proposes a politics that resonates with both Rogers and Piano, by evoking the axioms of Beaubourg.

If you were to view Paris from the sky, you could see the city’s strict right angles and the power structure it reflects in its urban plan.

But now imagine a spinning wheel placed on top of this grid, held together by the four locations of the “in famous carousel”: the Jeu de Paume, the Palais de Tokyo, Point Éphemere, and the Centre Pompidou.

This juxtaposition of the grid and the carousel seem to represent different kinds of urban life and power, one being hierarchical and the other more egalitarian.

Therefore, “in the famous carousel” is making a strong criticism of the cultural authority of Paris. It is a strong criticism, but not one that is seen as fashionable.

The case of “in famous carousel” and the audience Auzende has cultivated has a class-war element to it, which is both traditional and novel.

Its four venues are changing the conception of culture with a lowercase c. Live music, even if it is not liked, is still heard and it has a power to transcend political divides.

This point is continually demonstrated by works of a radical nature, which redefines our taste even if we don’t like it. This was the case with “in the famous carousel,” with the radical nature being not in the art itself, but in the curating.

The issue is, who is the museum attracting? Who are these “culture shoppers” and “art-made democrats”? Are they the self-proclaimed, globally conscious noise-performance experts who came to be shouted at during Keiji’s performance?

Or are they the people who left when Keiji employed pneumatics? In my opinion, all these types of viewers were present; we were all “accidental democrats” in the House of Art.

Fortunately, viewers still have the option to have a personal and intimate experience with a piece of art; some people were there to listen and not just be seen.

John Friedmann coined the phrase “world city” in 1986 to refer to the hub of power where capitalism has supplanted national identity. On Halloween night at the Pompidou, we were all citizens of the moment, without any regard for nationhood.

All that was on sale was a small selection of CDs, no apparel or posters for sale. Art provided us with a sense of being global citizens.

The Keiji fans’ lack of respect for Internet2’s set was evident; Carbonell even made a mistake that caused his laptop to go offline for almost ten minutes, leading to restlessness in the audience.

However, this behavior could have been seen as provincial in light of the fact that the same crowd could have just as easily been a group of Romantic fanatics awaiting a Chopin performance, thus disregarding the works of the great Catalan singer Ovidi Montllor.

In this way, their disregard for the music was due to a sense of art-snobbery, compromising their outward appearance of global awareness.

Despite all this, the key point remains that their snobbishness was not limited to being French–they were just snobs in general, without a national or foreign bias.

This massive museum, placed in the local area, functions both locally and all over the world, satisfying customary roles in the local culture — some of which may revive the existing class divides — while simultaneously encouraging an overall international outlook that is beyond tribalism.

This is my opinion of what actually took place: the snobbishness was an accessory, and the people’s museum had achieved international success.

The audience in the art museum’s basement concert hall was united by their sense of displacement.

The environment was made anonymous by the “infamous carousel” and the smoke machine, creating an atmosphere that was indistinguishable from countless other venues.

We had become part of the same “upstairs crowd” that was likely also contemplating a Joseph Beuys sculpture. We had all willingly given up our tribal identities and chosen a personalized experience of art that was removed from its usual context.

Even if we had our noses in the air or our fingers in our ears, we were still part of a newly formed global democracy.

The Pompidou Centre houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, an institution that does not use the word “contemporary” in its title.

This museum has the largest collection of modern art in Europe, with only New York’s MoMA as a rival. Curators of the Pompidou have chosen an acquisition policy that relies on donations or purchases rather than borrowed pieces from private collectors or other museums.

On the other hand, the Tate Modern at Bankside mainly uses long-term loans, which can only be identified by reading the cards in the gallery, something that Duplaix, a Pompidou curator, is not a fan of. She believes that a museum should protect the culture of its nation.

In spite of the claims in “A Rich Collection of Contemporary Art” by Duplaix, which was published in the museum’s thirtieth-anniversary catalog, the Musee National d’Art Moderne’s focus on modern French painting, sculpture, and installations has not kept up with the other items in its collection.

The Pompidou has actually done a far better job than Duplaix had predicted in diversifying its holdings.

This got me to ponder the rhinoceros located in the hall.

At the far side of the fourth-floor gallery of the Pompidou stands Le Rhinocéros (1999-2000) by French sculptor Xavier Veilhan, a life-size, brightly colored rhino made of polyester, resin, and varnish.

I spent quite a bit of time admiring this rhinoceros—noting how people would take cell-phone pictures of their companions or kids with it—and considering Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinocéros (1959), a French comedy commonly seen as an archetypal piece in the Theatre of the Absurd.

The play paints a picture of a small French town that has been taken over by rhinos, symbolizing the harsh political and social climate of pre-war France.

At the museum, viewers were treated to an avant-garde piece by French artist Veilhan — a red rhino inspired by Damien Hirst’s artwork.

This piece provided comic relief to those who had made it to the end of the “art hangar” and was a reminder of the absurdity of French subjugation to fascism and group-think, now long gone.

Can a museum be seen as a type of zoo? The rhino sculpture present there could be seen to point out the nature of collecting and exhibiting practices, being a fabricated creature, neither living nor dead.

At the same time, it is an artistically created rhinoceros, standing in a manner as if it was ready to rush into the cultural corridor.

In its amusing, positive way, Veilhan’s work is a representation of the people’s museum, symbolizing a long legacy of art made accessible through what Fredric Jameson refers to as “blank parody.”

The twenty-first century has a hefty price tag when it comes to democracy.

To enter the Pompidou, one must endure three queues: the bag check, the long line for tickets (costing ten euros) and the escalator that leads to the ticket-taker’s line.

Even after all this, there’s still no art to be seen until the “caterpillars” take visitors two stories higher, the escalators-in-tubes affixed to the outside of the building.

This set-up of entry and movement is common in mega-museums and, though the “flow” of the building does not lead to the gift shop, there’s still a lot to get through before any of the works of art can be seen.

Essentially, it can be said that the building is similar to a hangar.

In one of the galleries, Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2004 sculpture Bon Voyage: 10,000 Collections from the Airport is displayed, featuring a suspended wooden armature of an airplane decorated with scissors, penknives, and other items confiscated at airport security.

When viewing Richard Serra’s 1967 art piece, Plinths, one will find a mini-monumental quality in the neon tube fixed to the wall and partially wrapped in fibre de verre, which partially illuminates three rough glass tubes leaning against the wall and a fourth on the floor.

Curiously, this museum has placed white tape on the ground with a warning not to cross, which seems to me to be a metaphor for the barrier between the public and the art at the Beaubourg.

This could be seen as a sign that the museum is a democratic institution as it treats citizens equally harshly.

Contrastingly, a visit to the Tate Modern reveals a different experience with no ticket lines, no entrance fee, and quick access to the galleries.

Upon entering the building, viewers are met with security, but also with the impressive artwork of Louise Bourgeois and Olafur Eliasson in the Turbine Hall.

However, the bag check at security serves to remind us of our vulnerability in a world where the Threat Level is taken into account.

The changing nature of democracy has created a new type of global citizen – one who visits museums in crowds and is more alone in their art-viewing habits than ever before, their cellphones set to stun like Star Trek phasers.

We are supporting the postcard and shopping-bag industries and collecting our desires, shown to us by the new art museum. We are diverse, global, and individually awestruck.

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Astonished, I observe sunflowers spinning

on lush green meadows above the deep blue sea,

awe-struck by their golden stillness, though they are singing

in their own way, like the clocks of Recanati.

Do they turn in the direction of dusk, as if an army

had followed the last command of a crumbling kingdom,

their pedals stuck in the same rut before the twinkling

of stars and the darting of fireflies, then fall

like spent meteors in a gentle thud

onto the ground? In other places, sunflowers

are solitary, but in this coastal terrain

there can be entire fields of them, their ephemeral beauty

stretched like the robe of a Renaissance prince,

their flags wilting, their golden helmets left in the open air;

they become poems we recite to ourselves, metaphors

of our brief glory, a light we cannot avoid

that was referred to as heaven in Blake’s era, but no more.

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