The French filmmaker and artist is presenting an immersive exhibition at ACMI concurrently with his major work at the Tate Modern
In a subterranean concrete cavern under Federation Square, city-slickers will find a dark, cool place to hide out from the heat and the bustle of the season; a space to take time and dream.
It’s the latest incarnation of ACMI’s Gallery 1, re-fitted for French artist Philippe Parreno’s cinematic installation Thenabouts. As you descend the stairs, your first sight will be a flotilla of inflatable fish, in an otherwise undecorated space flanked on each side by a strip of vertical lights. Then, at the very end of the bunker, a large cinema screen, flickering over a plush red carpet. The carpet, and the lack of chairs, make it feel even more like the shrine most cinephiles will take it for (if you don’t feel a thrill in the moment that the lights go down, the curtain draws back, and the film flickers to life, this may not be the exhibition for you).
Most Melburnites will be unfamiliar with Parreno’s name, let alone his work (except perhaps via his innovative 2006 documentary portrait of the soccer superstar Zidane), but his current (critically acclaimed) installation in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern museum places him in a canon of greats (previous Turbine Hall artists include Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson).
Powered by yeast organisms (!) and created in collaboration with a coterie of other artists and technicians, Parreno’s Tate installation ‘Anywhen’ is comprised of lights, screens, speakers and inflatable fish. Time Out London writes, “[Parreno] sees his installation as a giant object made of many parts, all of which move and interact. But even though it’s all choreographed like a whacked-out art ballet, it’s designed to constantly realign in new ways. You’ll never see it the same way twice.”
In Thenabouts, his first exhibition in Australia, Parreno works on a slightly less ambitious scale – but with several of the same components (fish, cinema, sound design and flashing lights). The space is open and uncluttered – apart from those fish – and designed as a kind of promenade towards the screen at the end of the bunker, where 30-or-so films by Parreno, across his four-decade career, play in no particular order (the attendants choose what is played when).
In their text for the exhibition, ACMI name-check Parreno’s cinematic influences: Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Kathryn Bigelow, Terrence Malick, and David Lynch. This should give you a sense of what his films are like: aesthetics range from noirish to romantic naturalism, and content ranges from absurdist to dreamlike to downright hallucinatory. Often actors perform texts for the camera, but with their natural errors (a muffed line, a repetition) included in the final edit.
When we visited, we got lucky: Parreno’s haunting, melancholic (and slightly unnerving) 2012 film ‘Marilyn’ was playing. Inspired by Marilyn Monroe, and ostensibly set in her bolthole in the Waldorf Astoria (where she lived in the 1950s), the film ‘conjures’ the star, seance like, by means of mechanical and voice technologies, and cinematic illusions. It’s hard to explain – but it’s worth the 19-minute watch to get to the ‘reveal’ of the film.
The roster of films also includes Parreno’s ‘Anywhen’, created specifically for the Turbine Hall installation, in which comedian and ventriloquist Nina Conti performs a monologue comprised of Parreno’s previous statements and excerpts of James Joyce’s fiction (note: the exhibition title ‘Thenabouts’ is taken from Joyce’s 1922 novel Finnegans Wake).
Like his literary hero, Parreno is very interested in memory and our understanding and experience of time. Many of the films play with or explore these ideas, but Parreno’s exhibitions are also constructed to play with these aspects of the viewer’s experience. They are durational works, where the environment shifts for viewers who sit with the work (in Thenabouts these changes include flashing lights between each film, and announcements by the attendants). The events and their sequence will never be repeated again. Each visit is different.
Curator Emma McRae says, “There are a lot of ideas in his work, but the nature of time and how we experience it is [a driving force]; the idea that time is a subjective experience that is composed of what’s happening around us, what we’re thinking about – memories, and thoughts about what we might do.”
Why the fish? McRae notes Parreno’s ongoing interest in aquatic creatures – particularly cephalopods such as cuttlefish and octopuses – but also says, “I think it’s partly to with [creating the sense of] being in a different element. You get displaced from the regular atmosphere – you feel like you’re in a different world.”