A boulevard carnival
'Les Champs de la Sculpture', organised by the Ville de Paris, is the second event of its kind to occupy the pedestrian spaces of the Champs Elysees, the first having been in 1996. It presents the work of 54 artists - some well-established, others younger - from five continents.
The opening line of the show's catalogue essay quotes the famous May 1968 protest graffito 'Sous les paves la plage' ('Beneath the paving stones the beach'). The curators ally themselves with Paris' history of radical street activism - an ambitious posture and, on the whole, not justifiable.Reference to the strike's 'manifestations' is an attempt to contrast a more formal approach to public art, that would consist of placing fixed, museum-style pieces in outdoor spaces, with one that establishes temporary presences or events.
A work that may well draw on that very same piece of protest graffiti is by Laurence Weiner. It consists of the text, 'Copper and nickel and sweat mixed on the ground', placed on the black-andwhite stripes of four pedestrian crossings. It is the most low-key of the interventions, discovered only by downcast eyes, and is thus the one work that is seen in isolation, rather than contextualised against the Champs Elysees. It parts company from graffiti in that it carefully resists the attributes of the sign, pointing only to its own brute existence as language and matter.
The view onto Weiner's piece is also the only one not to be influenced by the otherwise ubiquitous presence of Daniel Buren's From One Arc to Another, a series of striped flags hung from special fittings on the Champs Elysees lamp-posts. They are arranged in spectral gradation from red at the Arc de Triomphe through to indigo at the avenue's opening onto the Place de la Concorde. That spectrum is primarily a mental image; due to the slow gradation, at any one point within the treelined avenue a spectator's view is of monochrome stripes.
Perhas Buren is thinking of how the event will be recorded in the thousands of tourist colour snapshots that the project will elicit. Each photograph will contain one or more of the coloured flags: an ironic presence that is both a fragment of Buren's total intervention and an isolated value in the illusory colour unity of the photograph. Like Weiner's text, Buren's flags tend to dissipate an object-derived event.
In contrast, Tensen (Fountain of the Sky), by the Japanese artist Kan Yasuda, seemingly reproduces a familiar anthropomorphic language common to a Western tradition of marble sculpture. Closer attention, though, suggests something of a metaphysical antithesis to the Third Empire boulevard perspective; it is positioned in mid-path, its cavity appearing to suck light into its interior void. However, on this busy tourist axis, the void - no matter how carefully constructed - can easily be misread: it also has the ideal dimensions for an improvised photobooth-cum-grotto for couples.
A number of works have a more explicit quasiarchitectural presence. The use of cuboid frameworks is frequent; which may simply be a means to construct a formal distance between object and spectator while avoiding the traditional plinth. However, Anne and Patrick Poirier's Memoire avant dispersion, a roughly constructed wooden cage filled with rubble and waste, and Helena Hietanen's Technolace could both be seen in terms of metaphors for the body - their contents representing a fusion of bodily matter and pyschological condition.
'Les Champs de la Sculpture' may not be a libertine street manifestation but, in the context of state-funded urbanism, it is an ambitious, carnivalesque gesture. It successfully fractures the grand boulevard perspective and makes the Champs Elysees a genuine pedestrian experience.
Given the avowed emphasis on site-specificity and younger artists, however, the choice of British art seems completely unsuitable. It is depressing to find yet another Barry Flanagan hare, when almost all emerging art in London has, by necessity, to define itself outside of the gallery.
Robin Wilson writes on art and architecture