Orphèe 1990, Fareed Armaly’s inventive exhibition for the House of Culture in Saint-Etienne, is a direct reference to Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (1950), “which was thought of in the 60s as a major contribution to French cultural history.” This harking back to a particular epoch is no accident, for it was precisely in the 60s that André Malraux, the first Minister of Culture, launched his programme for building Houses of Culture in France. In the 1960s, too, the social movements which led to the events of May ‘68 began to make themselves felt. The idea of ‘access to culture for all’—ostensibly made possible through ‘decentralisation’—has been discredited in these Houses of Culture which offered a different model from traditional museums, one doubtless closer to Malraux’s “Museum of the Imagination.” Armaly considers the House of Culture building in Saint-Etienne to be symptomatic of ‘the opposition between the mentalities of the state and cultural administration before and after 1968. His installation analyses the highly codified allocation of the three existing types of space (public spaces, production spaces and administrative spaces), or, to be more precise, the network of passages between these three spaces. Similarly, the central object in Cocteau’s film, the mirror, was supposed to return Orpheus’ image to him: it was the material site of passage between the real and the imaginary. The film’s mirror, faithfully reconstituted for the exhibition, stands in the hall to which access is blocked by a closed glass door. The lobby before this hall, in which the visitor takes up position, has been rearranged to match the original scheme from 1969, with its carpeting, furniture, lighting, and so on. And Cocteau’s same mirror design is reproduced on a wall, so that one actually passes through it to reach the gallery’s workshops where Armaly continues his installation. Videos relay pictures of access corridors, and a large table is covered with newspaper clippings about the social movements in Saint-Etienne since the 60s. The dislocation of the normal exhibition space is thus duplicated as the artistic event sends us back to the social event.
Armaly’s work has a complex, labyrinthine structure, with several levels and entries and a curious kind of circulation of meaning. It seems to have been conceived as an apparatus with inexhaustible possibilities which, by setting different subjects face to face, manages to be itself productive in an undefined manner. It would appear, however, that Armaly’s main concern is to fix communities as objects through distinguishing signs of their beliefs (actions, productions, rationales, procedures, and so on), and to see how they form a culture, how it is possible to look at them in the passing of time. What remains today of the social and cultural Utopia of the 60s? The same interest in the ageing of thought-communities probably led Armaly to focus on rock in his two previous publications, Terminal Zone and R.O.O.M. It is a real question whether the ideology of various movements (Punk, among others) was not just a production alternative that is now part of history.
The difficulty in gaining spontaneous access to Armaly’s Saint-Etienne installation seems to conflict with the exhibition of objects where immediacy has gone beyond all repair. Orpheus’ hypnotic fascination for just the surface of the mirror could well be the metaphor for Armaly’s eyeing of current artistic production.