Fareed Armaly has put together an exemplary exhibition that reorients the site-specific strategies of the early 1970s. Here, a distancing from that which is inside the frame (the sacrosanct pictorial object of the 1980s) is accompanied by the interest in that which surrounds and constitutes the frame. This exhibition analyzes the functional components of present-day architecture as well as the resulting cultural policies and the socio-political conflicts between former Minister of Culture André Malraux and the protesting movement. Thus, a leitmotiv of Armaly’s show is the passage or the transition from one state to another—from the imaginary to the actual—that affords political access to culture.
At the entrance to the foyer of the Maison de la Culture, there are three video monitors, each running footage from Jean Cocteau’s movie Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), specifically, the sequence in which Jean Marais steps through the mirror into the other realm, interrupted by motorcycles revving up. On the sixth floor Armaly has borrowed the architectural principle of separating production offices, administrative offices, and galleries but reversed it by revealing the working space and closing the gallery. You can view an object in the exhibition space only through a glass door. It is a wooden frame in triptych form, identical in size to the mirror used by Marais in the film sequence. Furnishings from the early days of the building have been hauled out of storage and presented in the foyer. The space is hung with children’s drawings, executed under the artist’s direction, that take the door as their theme. The main part of the exhibition is concentrated in the work rooms; three monitors show different adjacent rooms, and a fourth monitor runs a different sequence from the Cocteau film. Marais’ voice dissolves into a radio speech given by the mayor of Saint-Etienne about a strike. On a table in front of the monitors, we see photos of the building plus documentation about the regional labor conflicts and the May 1968 events in Paris, while printed information on the wall clarifies the overall contexts.
Armaly has found a way of opening up highly complex structures to discussion. Texts, movie footage, and the spatial arrangement, which is revealed only by the viewer’s movement, make the disparate factors comparable: Cocteau’s evocation of the frame, through which one can step while forced to remain inside it; the access to this frame, which Malraux’s cultural politics aims at opening, but also controlling; and the total transgression of all frames that motivates the utopian protest movement. The invoking of the imaginary unites all three positions, as does the undervaluation of the reality of work.