Evidence – Centre Pompidou, Paris
There was a time, back in the 1990s, when I went to a lot of shows in decommissioned warehouses. It was a thing. The buildings, which had once stored garments or refrigeration equipment, were in sketchy, poorly lit parts of the city. Some were squats. Others had been let out on indefinite leases to ‘creatives’ in the expectation that they would cleanse and renew the area before the next property boom made it profitable to redevelop.
The artists and musicians who lived, worked and partied in these spaces filled their cavernous rooms with succulents, canvases, sound systems, and with the smells of incense, spray paint solvent, clove cigarettes and soup. They were drafty, dissected by flimsy partitions, with bathrooms that were perpetually freezing. Strange noises emanated from the stairwells and lift shafts, the ghosts of manufacturing past.
I liked the dimensions of these warehouses, their lofty ceilings, the generous windows that floodlit their studios and framed secret bird’s eye views over the city. Yet these spaces often felt impermanent, haunted, eerie. It was as if, by opening the wrong door, you might step through a portal into another time, another dimension or spirit world, and struggle to find your way back. It is this uncanny, ephemeral, otherworldly atmosphere that Evidence, an installation by Patti Smith and the Soundwalk Collective at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, summons up.
Visitors piece together ‘the evidence’ on display.
The installation at the Pompidou Centre brings together sound works by Patti Smith and Stephan Crasneanscki (founder of the experimental Soundwalk Collective), drawn from their triptych of albums Perfect Visions. The ‘tracks’ are inspired by texts of French poets Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud and René Daumal. The rhythmic, percussive, incantations, in Patti Smith’s shamanic voice are accompanied by a constellation of videos, sketches, objects and archival material. Together the works form a meditation on journeys, both real and metaphysical, inspired by the poets’ wanderings – Rimbaud (in Ethiopia), Artaud (in Mexico) and Daumal (in the Himalayas).
At the entrance of the exhibition, you are handed a pair of headphones before stepping into a darkened room. Once inside, you are on your own. There are no instructions, no direction arrows. It’s a bit like turning up at a warehouse party, unable to find the host, and not sure if you recognise any of the guests. You are forced to wander the void, listening to the beats, staring at the projections flickering across the four walls, inspecting the curious array of texts, sketches, objects – crates of burnt wood, piles of earth and rocks, cloth and beads – hoping to make a connection.
I drifted around the room several times, not knowing what to focus on, where to place myself, questioning if I was experiencing it the right way. Were the images lined up on the wall from a ‘crime scene’, was I meant to solve a mystery? Only gradually, I realised that this was the point.
Exhibit A – photos and texts by/about Antonin Artaud.
In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the importance of “leaving the door open to the unknown, the door into the dark”. It is from there, she says, “the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go”.
Evidence both provokes a sense of displacement, and stimulates the urge to latch onto something as ‘evidence’ of what we are experiencing. The carefully arranged exhibits – sound clips, video, texts, objects, prompt us to construct some coherent meaning, and then abandon it. These actions replicate, perhaps, the wandering acts of the poets themselves. Artaud, Rimbaud, Daumel, left their homes in France for remote, exotic locations, in search for something. Why? What were they searching for? Did they find what they were looking for, or something else?
The exhibition doesn’t answer these questions, but both stimulates and invites us to examine our own urge to leave what we know and discover the unknown.
An invitation to journey into the unknown – projection and burnt wood.
Smith’s repetitive chants, her narcotic voice, the percussive rhythms, become mesmerising. I begin to feel as if I am performing a ritual, a walking dance. I gradually fall under its spell. It is an invocation to lose myself, to let go of my logical, puzzle-solving brain, and simply experience the sensory seduction of the unfamiliar, the allure of becoming something other.
What might happen if I stepped through the warehouse door, the portal into another dimension? I left the Centre Pompidou and walked out into the streets of Paris to find out.