An Intellectual Ark: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, “Panoramism and the Abstract Sector” at Esther Schipper, Berlin

As the lights go out in the top-floor space of Esther Schipper’s Berlin gallery, the visitors’ chatter grows a little quieter. Some people audibly suck in their breath. When the lights come back on after a few seconds, the voices again grow louder and more confident. These small ruptures will repeat a couple of times that night, without explanation. They are intentional, as they prevent Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s show Panoramism and the Abstract Sector, which is accompanied by an ambient sound piece by Julien Perez, from turning into an overly cozy space. They also offer brief moments for reflection.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, or DGF, as she is commonly known, often makes exhibitions about displays, and this one takes on the form of a panorama. A seamlessly assembled semicircle is made up of twelve panels, whose colors—red, blue, yellow—bleed onto the custom-made carpet. Strewn about are cushions resembling oversize books, all with reproductions of actual covers printed on them, for instance Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street (1928, English translation 1978), Okwui Enwezor’s The Short Century (2001), and Isabelle Graw’s The Love of Painting (2018). This is a reading list materialized, and, indeed, the show is conceived as a celebration of artists, writers, and thinkers.

DGF’s panorama, unlike its historic predecessors, does not depict a majestic landscape or a heroic battle. It is a collage featuring hundreds of individuals, creating an effect a bit like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper cover.1 The imagery demands to be read. Details of a drawing by Victor Hugo have been enlarged so as to be nearly unrecognizable, then overlaid with a painting of the Austrian actress and singer Lotte Lenya and a photo of Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner in sunglasses. Murals by Diego Rivera are referenced. Irma Vep, the titular character of Les Vampires (1915), taken up in a film and a recent TV show by Olivier Assayas, makes several appearances. Rei Kawakubo, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Renée Green are just a few more of the artists and intellectuals, deceased and alive (a lot of them with a connection to Berlin), featured as found images cropped, arranged, and printed on linen. Only the masses who celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall remain anonymous and faceless.

The panels testify to a horror vacui, and the teeming figures give rise to many storylines. The history of abstraction is told and retold, beginning with Barbara Honywood, a name that usually has no place in this grand narrative. It is taken up by Mark Rothko, and then Krasner, who has become synonymous with a new interest in female artists heretofore eclipsed by male lovers and peers.

Panoramism and the Abstract Sector is the third iteration of DGF’s sample-based panoramas. The first one was shown at Secession in Vienna in 2021, and the second opened in spring 2022 at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Both were similarly arranged. The installation in London, titled Alienarum 5, had a tangerine carpet and appeared womb-like, its psychedelic setup in line with the artist’s question: “What if aliens were in love with us?” (which she asked in an introductory video for the show, smirkingly). 

The panorama evokes an aquarium or planetarium—other forms of display concerned with the creation of worlds. The first historical panoramas were set up in London in 1793, but these artificial pictorial environments really came to define the subsequent century. Halfway between painting and architecture, museum display and cinema, they occupy a strange place. In hindsight, they appear as an aberration of art history, a gimmick. But they demonstrate that ways of seeing have a history, too. DGF’s version of the medium picks up the old modernist strategies of shock, fragmentation, and collage. 

The past two years, says the artist, have changed her notion of space: she has begun to think of it as a collective thing. Her panorama slows down perception, demands to be read, and fosters a pleasurable engagement that gives rise to interesting conversations, possibly. The function of panoramas has long been taken over by more efficient narrative formats. Cinema tells stories, TV shows tell them differently, video games are better at creating immersive worlds. But what would have happened if the panorama had claimed some autonomy? Where would exhibition making have gone? Purely hypothetical, of course, but to ask makes sense considering the practice of an artist who, since the beginning of her career, has thought deeply about conditions of display.

DGF was born in 1965, and she remembers watching the 1969 Moon landing on television. In the ensuing decade, “science fiction was more important than classic literature,” she said on the occasion of her showat Serpentine. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator, said that the rooms can lead to visions and apparitions, with unabashed confidence in the community-creating power of the installation.2

At the turn of the century, DGF designed a house for a Japanese art collectora house that seems like a movie script, a reviewer wrote in Le Monde at the time.3 For a Y2K incarnation of the fashion house Balenciaga, she designed shops. Such an interest in the cosmic and the creation of dioramic and panoramic worlds is evident among certain other artists from her age cohort, such as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, whom DGF has frequently worked with. It all came together in Expodrome at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2007), billed as a triple retrospective with Parreno and Huyghe, although DGF created works especially for the display. In the sparse show, the viewer was placed in the center, not unlike in a panorama. Tapis de lecture (2000–2007) included a pile of paperbacks, among them Kurt Cobain’s Journals (2002), and, as a nod to the space age, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris. A strange confluence of times and cultural references, like the one currently on view in Berlin, where viewers stumble into a place that folds historical layers of twentieth-century Berlin into an atmospheric environment with Nick Cave and Erika Mann as contemporaries. Born too late or too early, it doesn’t matter—those figures all have a place in DGF’s canon.

The show is accompanied by Une Valise Transféministe, a collection of books the artist selected with the philosopher Paul B. Preciado, who was also involved in the London installment of the panorama. The texts are arranged in three suitcases: one with books published before 1900, one spanning the twentieth century, and the third containing publications since 2000. A projection shows selected passages from the writings. The arrangement recalls Andy Warhol’s time capsules. It also brings to mind the fragmented nature of feminist thought, which appears to start many things anew with every generation—a fragmented canon still in production. And it resembles Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1936–41), the suitcase-size micro-retrospective the artist curated for his own work. DGF’s valises are displayed open, but they look like they could be closed quickly and taken to a safe location, should the need arise. And while the show is a celebration of other artists and writers, which exudes confidence in community, there is a darker implication: it also feels like an intellectual ark for survival.

at Esther Schipper, Berlin https://www.estherschipper.com

until December 23, 2022

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster was born 1965 in Strasbourg, France. She studied at École des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, L'École du Magasin, Centre National d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble and Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, Paris. The artist lives and works in Paris and Rio de Janeiro. An experimental artist based in Paris, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has, since 1990, been exploring the different modalities of sensory and cognitive relationships between bodies and spaces, real or fictitious, up to the point of questioning the distance between organic and inorganic life. Metabolizing literary and cinematographic, architectural and musical, scientific and pop references, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster creates "chambres" and "interiors", "gardens", "attractions" and "planets", with respect to the multiple meanings that these terms take on in the works of Virginia Woolf or Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Brontë sisters or Thomas Pynchon, Joanna Russ or Philip K. Dick. This investigation of spaces extends to a questioning of the implicit neutrality of practices and exhibition spaces. Her "mises en espace", "anticipations" and "apparitions" seek to invade the sensory domain of the viewers in order to operate intentional changes in their memory and imagination. 
Selected solo exhibitions include: Alienarium 5, Serpentine Galleries, London (2022); OPERA (QM.15), Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Collection, Paris (2022); VOLCANIC EXCURSION (A VISION), Secession, Vienna (2021); Martian Dreams Ensemble, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig (2018); Costumes and Wishes for 21st Century, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in collaboration with Manuel Raeder and BLESS, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2016). Recent group exhibitions include: Shenzen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning, Shenzen (2022); M+ Museum West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong (2022); Bergen Assembly, Bergen (2022); Farbe ist Programm, Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn (2022); Programme Mire, Gare de Chêne-Bourg, Genève (2022); Video Room program, Histories cycle, Museu de arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP), São Paulo (2021); Mirrors and Windows, Sammlung Philara, Düsseldorf (2021); Inaugural exhibition, The Tower, LUMA, Arles (2021); SETTING - R. W. F. alive, mim | Raum für Kultur, Munich (2020); Enzo Mari, Triennale Milano, Milan (2020); May You Live in Interesting Times, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2019); Luogo e Segni, Punta della Dogana, Venice (2019); Opera as the World, Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz (2019); Welt ohne Außen, Gropius Bau, Berlin (2018).
Philipp Hindahl is a writer and editor based in Berlin. He writes about art, architecture, and literature for magazines and newspapers.
1    Designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth.
2    All quotes from Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/dominique-gonzalez-foerster-alienarium-5/
3    Berenice Bailly, “Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, bourlingeuse des arts,” Le Monde, February 16, 2007, https://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2007/02/16/dominique-gonzalez-foerster-bourlingueuse-des-arts_868282_3246.html.

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