Jean-Luc Godard at the Pompidou

By Corin Depper

voyages-en-utopie-jean-luc-godard.jpgVoyages en Utopie, 1946-2006

Forty-two years on from the joyous headlong rush through the Louvre of his three protagonists in Bande à Part (1964), Jean-Luc Godard asks for a much greater attention span from visitors to his own exhibition, entitled Voyage(s) en Utopie, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (on until the 14 August 2006, and running concurrently with a complete retrospective of his films), but much of that old insouciance remains. Decades may have passed, and we have grown accustomed to discussing the several different ‘Godards’ over the years, but this most recent production takes a similarly nose-thumbing attitude towards an institution that, whilst not as venerable as the Louvre, is still one of the artistic bastions of the French capital. In many ways it is surprising that Godard has taken so long to ‘officially’ enter a major gallery as his cinema has been marked almost from the start with an obsessive use of painting, repeatedly exploring the interconnections between the painterly and the cinematic image; a tendency that reached something of an apotheosis a quarter of a century ago with the making of Passion (1981), which transformed works by some of the old masters into cinematic tableaux vivants.

 On reaching the east wing of the Pompidou where the exhibition is housed, one’s ticket is first swiped, supermarket style, over a checkout, an inadvertent nod to the ever-closer interconnections between art and commerce that, one can surmise, must have amused Godard no end. Once admitted, the visitor parts the heavy plastic drapes like an explorer entering an artificial jungle; even before one’s eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, an electronic menagerie twittering and whistling seeps out of the darkness. The first sight one sees, however, is a hastily printed notice, briefly explaining that the planned – and heavily trailed for the last couple of years – exhibition Collage(s) de France has been abandoned due to technical, artistic, and financial reasons, and that Jean-Luc Godard and the Centre Pompidou are presenting Voyage(s) en Utopie in its place. This rather ramshackle notice – with handwritten notes and crossings out swarming across its photocopied surface – rather sets the tone for what is to follow. How much of this rather shambolic presentation is simply a result of the restraints placed on Godard after the changing of his original plans, according to a recent report by Nemonie Craven Roderick in Sight and Sound due to a falling out between the director and the original instigator of the project, is of course open to question.

Voyage(s) en Utopie is divided into three separate rooms: the first, labelled ‘-2 Avant-Hier’ contains amongst other things the original maquettes for the Collage(s) de France. These miniature version of the planned rooms give some indication as to Godard’s original intentions, and suggest that it was meant as a spatialised exploration of the key ideas that have marked his work since the 1980s, most notably the crucial role of cinema in shaping our image of the twentieth century, and the rise of an American hegemony of images. Familiar themes, undoubtedly, but also indicative of Godard’s growing estrangement from cinema: if the Histoire(s) marked the now familiar ‘death of cinema’, then the Collage(s) might have served as an epitaph. Peering into these maquettes is rather reminiscent of looking at one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with their crazy yet meticulous assemblage of seemingly random elements that gradually cohere into a miniature world. We may never see the Collage(s) de France in the way originally intended, but these microcosms do much to compensate, and stand as a further reminder of the struggle faced by artists as intransigently iconoclastic as Godard.

The second room, ‘Hier’ is perhaps closest in tone to the Histoire(s), dotted with video screens of various sizes playing fragments of key works from the Godardian canon. At the centre of the room is a collection of potted palms, reminiscent of the way Matisse would recreate a vision of the Orient in his studio by means of a few gaudy theatrical props. This island-like creation, floating at the heart of the gallery, also contains inevitable Shakespearean resonances, with Godard cast as some cinematic Prospero, his images scattered about him like magical books, ready to conjure up visions of now-vanished worlds. Indeed, this Shakespearean allusion contains an echo of Godard’s earlier King Lear (1987), which wove Shakespeare’s narrative of the old King’s waning powers with a post-Chernobyl story about the erasure of cultural memory. This film also featured one of Godard’s most alarming on-screen appearances, as Professor Pluggy, a Beckettian vision of wires and junk, the debris of a vanished cultured stacked around him. Voyage(s) en Utopie might be described as ‘Professor Pluggy’s Last Stand’, as Godard assembles the detritus of his career, and leaves his spectators the task of reassembling it into some semblance of order.

The final room ‘Aujourd-hui’ brings us Godard’s vision of the modern world, a tawdry roll-call of endless sport and looped pornography; another plasma screen is propped incongruously on a bed showing American attack helicopters screaming over Mogadishu in a clip from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, while at the other end of the gallery a shabby kitchen appears to have been abandoned. However, this section feels perhaps the least convincing, with Godard returning to somewhat over-familiar themes and readymade critiques: the connections between war and consumerism being largely fully articulated in his Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle from forty years ago. Although perhaps this is the point, that it is not Godard who has remained still, but the world itself: for all its seeming progress, the basic logic of the world remains the same, and we, as onlookers and consumers, have little left to do but stare and buy, stare more and buy more.

As with any work there is an inevitable dichotomy between one’s initial experience and any subsequent reflection and discussion, but here this sense is heightened by the installation’s palpable sense of incompletion and fragmentation. With a film the very narrative flow of the celluloid through the projector at least gives one a temporal basis for ordering experience; with certain galleries an art historical or thematic progression may allow for a similar structuring to take place. However, Godard’s assemblage requires considerable work from his spectators to piece together even the most slender of connections: conscious of this, the Centre Pompidou provided a brief guide to the exhibit, glossing several of the works referred to and explaining the origin of some of the clips. Yet this was far from exhaustive, and still forced the spectator to develop their own itinerary for moving through the various spaces. Several weeks after my visit, a friend returned from her trip to the show with a considerably more complex guide, with each of the clips used listed, and a full room-plan of the entire exhibition that attempted to give what I had explored in a rather haphazard manner a far more coherent linear progression. One could call this timidity on behalf of the museum, and a further indication of the strained relations between Godard and his patrons, but it is also suggestive of the difficulty of the gallery installation as a form: is it to be explored like a museum, with each object becoming a classifiable ‘exhibit’, or is it closer to a theatrical experience, something to wander through, making connections as and when one so chooses? For this very ambiguity, Voyage(s) en Utopie could be seen to embody the contradictions that lie at the heart of how cinema can be placed within a taxonomy of twentieth century art, still resistant to all but the most scanty and provisional of classifications.

Corin Depper is a tutor at the University of East Anglia, a specialist in the work of Godard, and is currently researching the relationship between film space and gallery space.