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Juxtaposing Works From Congo and Japan - By Nazanin Lankarani, New York Times
GRENOBLE, FRANCE — What does a street artist from Kinshasa, Congo, have in common with a new-media artist from Ibaraki, Japan?

That is the question that Carsten Holler, a Belgian-born German artist, has tried to answer in a show titled “JapanCongo” at Le Magasin Centre National d Art Contemporain of Grenoble, in southeastern France.

Acting for the first time as an art curator, Mr. Holler was given carte blanche by the Magasin and Jean Pigozzi, whose private art collection is the source of the material for the show, to present his personal take on the ties that link artists from two geographically and culturally unrelated places.

Mr. Pigozzi is generally seen as the worlds largest collector of African contemporary art. At the behest of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whom he befriended three years ago in Tokyo, Mr. Pigozzi also started adding Japanese contemporary art to his collection.

Mr. Holler was initially skeptical about the project. “I am not a curator,” he said. “The idea became interesting when I learned that Jean had two totally different collections.”

The show sets paintings, photographs and installations by 16 artists from Congo against works by 40 Japanese artists. Mr. Holler selected the works from a collection of more than 10,000 pieces.

For the Magasin, the show was the chance to put the talents of Mr. Holler to work in showcasing rarely seen pieces from an eclectic collection.

Yves Aupetitallot, director of the Magasin, said, “We wanted this show to be an artwork unto itself signed Carsten Holler, made up of parts from the Pigozzi collection.”

The museum is housed in a glass and metal structure made by the workshops of Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower, for the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. It was dismantled in Paris and reinstalled in Grenoble after the fair.

For years, it served as an industrial sale and storage space, hence its name Le Magasin, or the store. Then in 1986, it was turned into a contemporary art exhibition center, financed by local and national governments, that regularly hosts cutting-edge works.

For “JapanCongo,” Mr. Holler said, “the idea was to create a confrontation between different sources and forms of artistic expression and turn that into a work of art.”

While the artists intuitive selection of artworks has no apparent thematic logic, the sheer variety of styles and media in the show creates an enlightening panorama of art from both countries.

“I selected what appealed to me, with an eye for works that were not too stereotypical or recognizable from either source,” Mr. Holler said.

For the show, he designed a winding pathway inside the main exhibition hall of the Magasin, made up of two closely set, opposing walls for a face-to-face display of the Japanese and Congolese works.

The African collection, mostly oversize canvases hanging precariously on an undulating wall, presents both colorful works by prominent painters like Chéri Samba, Moké and Pierre Bodo, as well as works by those who are unknown internationally. A room is devoted to vintage photographs of life in Kinshasa by Jean Depara, and another to the paper, cardboard and found-object sculptures of Bodys Isek Kingelez.

“The African pieces are like street art, often painted very quickly, in bright colors and broad strokes, or made of common materials,” said Mr. Aupetitallot, the Magasin director.

The Japanese wall presents works by artists like the psychedelic painter Keiichi Tanaami and the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and lesser-known ones like the video artist Hirotoshi Iwasaki.

“The Japanese artists have more means and access to new technologies,” Mr. Aupetitallot said. “They devote more time to creating their art.”

The juxtaposition of the works is revealing not just in terms of artistic technique but also of contrasting societal views about sexuality, power, consumerism and money.

“Life is hard in Africa, but there is an explosive joie de vivre in the art,” Mr. Aupetitallot said. “On the other hand, the Japanese view is often sinister and disturbing.”

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Mr. Pigozzi said that “hanging the two collections facing each other was a brilliant idea.”

He added: “A less sophisticated mind than Carstens would probably have mixed the collections together, hanging them either by theme or color. The individual pieces take on a completely different sense when viewed as part of a whole.”

For Mr. Holler, the point of the exercise was to set off a physical interaction between the works and the audience by creating an environment that directly influenced their experience — what he calls “influential environments” — much like his previous projects like the Test Site, five giant metal and fiberglass slides at Tate Modern, in London, in 2006; and the Revolving Hotel Room at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008.

“The differences are obvious for many of the works,” Mr. Holler said. “I was more interested in finding out what the works had in common.”

Though the experience of curating an exhibition was new, Mr. Holler was familiar with Congo before this show, having traveled there in 1995 with a friend who photographed African architecture.

“Kinshasa is a very lively place,” Mr. Holler said. “I was surprised by its palpable energy and its fantastic music.”

“JapanCongo” has an obvious connection to the artists “Double Club” project from 2008, where Mr. Holler had previously explored the notion of duality.

There, in a London public space, the artist had created a bar, restaurant and disco complete with food, music and décor, equal parts Congolese and Western, that offered the visitor an actual experience of cultural double identity.

“Jean asked me to curate this show knowing I had a feel for Kinshasa,” Mr. Holler said.

After Grenoble, the show is scheduled to travel to the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in June, and to the Palazzo Reale in Milan in the autumn.

Mr. Pigozzi, who continues to collect works by African and Japanese artists, hopes that the international exposure will help his collection — usually stored in a hangar at the Geneva Freeport — find a permanent home in a museum.

“I ve devoted 22 years of my life to this collection,” he said. “At first, everyone thought I was mad. Now, a few museums have approached me. Interest is growing in the U.S., Belgium and South Africa. But things move slowly. It would be sad if the pieces were dispersed when I am gone.”

By NAZANIN LANKARANI
Published: March 22, 2011
A version of this article appeared in print on March 23, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.

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Juxtaposing Works From Congo and Japan - By Nazanin Lankarani, New York Times - Press Review - © 2010-2017 The Contemporary African Art Collection - Contact Caacart - Seydou Keita Photographer, the official website, new, click here