For those who know the work of Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of France's contemporary literary scene, the photograph representing his current exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris may come as a surprise. Basking in the light of a setting sun, a Welsh Corgy sits on a patch of grass, looking out over the water; the show's title, "Rester Vivant" (To stay alive), is scrawled in large white font above the dog's head. It's a benign, picture-perfect vision of pastoral utopia—and considering the award-winning poet, essayist, novelist and filmmaker's signature penchant for provocation, from misogyny to racism, it is natural to assume that the image must be some kind of joke.
Quite the contrary. The pictured Corgi was Houellebecq's own, the late Clément (who recurs regularly in his writing as “Fox"), and he is used in this multimedia exhibition to represent unconditional, absolute love. An entire gallery is devoted to the animal—who is not an ironic symbol, but a genuine one—and while the rest of the exhibition features plenty of Houllebequian gloom, it concludes on a note that verges toward sentimentality and empowerment.
On view from June 23 through September 12 and curated by Jean de Loisy, "Rester Vivant" is a strange, sprawling maze of photographs, videos, and installations sited throughout 18 dark, winding galleries. The show takes its name from Houellebecq's eponymous 1991 book, often described as a collection of poems, and it is organized into chapter-like themes.
Houellebecq is not known as a fine artist, of course, although he has occasionally participated in exhibitions—including the 2007 Lyon Biennale, and earlier this month, Manifesta 11 in Zurich—but "art is a constant preoccupation throughout his novels that allows him to establish exactly his own aesthetics," in the words of curator de Loisy.
That aesthetic, whether pursued in writing, photography or film, is consistently raw and knotted, and the Palais de Tokyo presentation may be aptly described as both.
While Houellebecq's own works constitute the majority of the show, he has also invited a handful of other artists, including Robert Combas, Raphaël Sohier, Renaud Marchand, and Maurice Renoma, to explore his obsessions, from tourism and eroticism to personal space and the creative process. There is, then, a sense of polyvocality to the exhibition that evokes the intersecting stories and plot lines of a novel.
Like his writing, which is rife with morbid undertones and the incessant suggestion of failure and boredom, his artworks are raw and haunting, capturing quotidian spaces and objects that seem somehow to be harbingers of doom. in Houellebecq's world, chasms open up into rock faces, and tangles of tree roots quickly grow rot.
Indeed, certain thematic threads connect different rooms like recurring characters. Visual representations of urban development and industry abound, from the concrete interloper of a Leader Price grocery store sprouting up from green farmland, to a castle built into the side of a rock wall. Aerial photographs of cities at night, with their vast grids of light, are echoed in a series picturing flowers and plants from afar, their petals and stems blurred into a sea of color and line.
The subjects seem antipodal—industrial environments of man's making versus the natural landscape—but Houellebecq captures both in a way that feels cosmic and abstract. The microcosm represented by each is extrapolated into a wider picture of networks writ large, evoking the various systems that govern both the built and organic world.
Houellebecq also explores human intervention, addressing our need to create or contribute. In one room, the floor is carpeted in a garish assemblage of blow-up picture postcards from a multitude of French towns and regions. On the walls, blinding painted images of saccharine fun-for-sale — beaming amusement park visitors, victorious whale trainers at some aquarium—are juxtaposed with depressing photographs of natural landscapes infiltrated by tourism: snack bars on tropical beaches, or deserts populated by five-star hotels.
But these dark moments are countered by lighter fare, such as a gallery that Houellebecq has transformed into veritable smoking lounge, equipped with bar stools, black lights, and a juke box that plays recordings of his own poems being sung by musical stars, from Iggy Pop to Carla Bruni.
The installation devoted to Clément the dog, who belonged to Houellebecq and his ex-wife, meanwhile, recalls a den in any suburban household. With its plaid carpeting and wood-paneling, it is a space that feels domestic and safe. The walls are hung with photographs and watercolor paintings of the creature at various life stages; a long vitrine in the center of the room contains his belongings—mostly dog toys and stuffed animals—becoming both a grave and an altar.
Despite the morbid subject matter, redemption is never far off. "Nous habitons l'absence" (we inhabit the absence), reads a black-and-white image of rock faces toward the end of the show. It is a simultaneous recognition of the void, an existential resignation to a world that lacks any semblance of purpose or higher meaning—and a vow to live in that world actively and with intention, to create meaning from the nothingness.
"'Rester Vivant' is an extremely optimistic position to take," Houellebecq said in an interview with de Loisy. "The poster for the exhibition, with a photo of Clément, is a call to confronting eternity fearlessly, with the certitude that death is an illusion. This is an idea I've never completely abandoned."
"Rester Vivant" is on view at Palais de Tokyo in Paris from June 23-September 11, 2016.