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French contemporary art now - recent practice and newly emerging artists

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Fayçal Baghriche

French art now: Fayçal Baghriche

(Born 1972) Algerian-born Fayçal Baghriche extracts wry new meaning from commonplace visual vocabulary.

His Epuration Elective (Arabic version), (2010, left) presents what appears to be a star-filled sky. Its origin, however, is a graphic compendium of the world's flags (ordered according to the Arabic alphabet).

Hidden beneath blue paint, only the stars with which many are adorned remain uncovered. The apparently celestial nature of the image contrasts tellingly with the masked symbols of nationhood and terrestrial boundary.

French art: Fayçal Baghriche

The world and its demarcations are again the subject of Souvenir, (2009, left) which consists of an illuminated, motorised globe. Spinning so quickly that surface details are impossible to discern, Baghriche's earth blurs into a single entity that erases the possibility of nation.

A sombre corollary to these works, Actus Fidei (2009) is a compilation of photographic images depicting the burning of flags. Although, as the work's title suggests, the acts depicted are forms of protest, statements of faith, the totality of images represents a conflagration of apocalyptic proportions.

Not all Baghriche's work employs such a serious tone, however. The short film Philippe, (2008, below) delights in Dada-esque absurdity as it shows tourists enjoying the spectacle of a 'living statue' kitted out as Tutankhamun.

As they pose for photographs or throw tips into the basket provided, they are unaware that the unmoving figure beneath the costume really is nothing more than a statue, a plastic mannequin which Baghriche finally dismantles and carries away.

contemporary art from France

Adel Abdessemed

Adel Abdessemed

Enfant terrible and a major name in recent international art, Adel Abdessemed's practice is essentially one of confrontation, requiring a readiness - and ability - to confront often highly unpleasant truths.

A series of blackened terracotta cars (Practice Zero Tolerance 2006,) were cast directly from vehicles burnt out during the French race riots which saw over 1500 cars destroyed every night.

Axe On (2007, left) creates killing fields of flower-like clusters of knives, while an ongoing series of photographed actions such as Sept Frères (2006, below left) depicts beasts including lions, snakes or boar set loose in the streets of Paris; the feral underbelly of the City of Light made more explicit than at any time since the literary works of Zola.

French contemporary art, Adel Abdessemed

Abdessemed's background is often cited as a factor in his raw and troubling view of the world.

Raised in rural Algeria, he won a place at art school, but fled the country aged just 19 when the Principal was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists.

Several of Abdessemed's works besides Practice Zero Tolerance focus indirectly on the circumstances of the immigrant or exile: the video In Hot Blood (2008), features a Guignol-esque protagonist who rants hysterically about not being a terrorist.

In fact, Abdessemed is vituperatively critical of all three principal monotheist religions, but further reflections of the suspicion with which those of Arabic background have become associated in France and elsewhere emerge in Bourek (2005), the twisted wreckage of an aeroplane.

Habibi (2004), one of Abdessemed's most famous works, establishes an even more chilling relationship between flying and death: an enormous suspended skeleton stretches its arms and legs as if in flight, propelled by a jet engine.

Although such works inescapably evoke 9/11 and contemporary fears of terrorism, they are also autobiographical, associating flight in its widest sense - an act of escape - with tragedy and personal sacrifice.

French artists, Adel Abdessemed

If the works described clearly strike an uneasy chord, the recent video projects Don't Trust Me (2008) and Usine (Factory) (2009) ignited such controversy when exhibited in the United States that shows including them were forced to close.

Don't Trust Me comprises six videos, each a few seconds long, depicting different animals - a sheep, a horse, an ox, a pig, a goat and a deer - slaughtered through hammer blows to the head.

The 90 second video loop Usine shows the baiting of various creatures - scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, pitbull terriers, fighting cocks - herded together in a concrete pen simply in order to attack each other.

Abdessemed's gallerists claim the footage is archival, used to express repulsion at violence while also underlining its inevitability. Detractors insist that such images are inhumane, exploitative and that their use simply cannot be justified.

Whatever position is taken, the fact that Abdessemed received death threats on account of these videos would only seem to reinforce his observation that "Birth is violent. Death is violent. Violence is everywhere."


Fabien Verschaere

French contemporary artists, Fabien Verschaere

(Born 1975) Fabien Verschaere's black and white drawings and watercolours are complemented by colourful sculptural objects which, together, evoke a world of quirky chimerae and recurring symbols dredged from the artist's fertile imagination.

Much of Verschaere's graphic work is wall-based, owing obvious allegiances to street art and mural painting. Verschaere himself has stated that "murals and graffiti are truly contextual, seen head-on, in the same place where they were created."

Simultaneously child-like and politically trenchant, Verschaere's work delights in the straightforward aim of enveloping viewers in an off-beat mythology of its own making.

French art now, Fabien Verschaere

Mathieu Mercier

contemporary French art, Mathieu Mercier

Drawing inspiration from the various 20th Century European movements that sought to integrate art and design, Mathieu Mercier highlights both their successes and failures by setting up comparisons between iconic works and objects of contemporary mass production.

Drum and Bass 100% Polyester (2003, left) for example, is an arrangement of black, wall-mounted shelves and primary coloured objects that clearly resembles Mondrian's compositions from his 1942-3 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' series.

The likeness - accentuated by musical allusion in both titles - creates a space for comparison and contemplation, an intersection of past and present.

Similarly, the text work ZU (2001) hybridises fonts from two distinctive eras of design, a 1919 typeface by Theo van Doesburg, and a font created in 1979 by Edward Benguiat.

Mercier's message appears to be multi-faceted: while emphasising the longevity of historical design innovation, he also comments on its assimilation as a subject of mass production and the inevitability with which it acquires new - arguably diluted - aesthetic values.

Yet the process of change is itself of interest to Mercier, often documented through series of works which provide a kind of inventory of design evolution. Hi/Lo/No-Tech (2002), for example, consists of five grey and black perspex disks in varying sizes, each corresponding to a different generation of recording media, from 78's to LP's and CDs.


Boris Achour

contemporary French art, Boris Achour

(Born 1966) Boris Achour is not a particularly recent artist, having exhibited continually since the 1990s. However, his work continues to reward with its visual verve and lyricism.

Installation, performance and film comprise the major part of Achour's oeuvre, interests which themselves are strongly influenced by the artist's fascination with film and TV.

Accordingly, his ongoing series begun in 2006 and entitled Conatus (after the Spinozian concept outlining the driving forces of desire and mankind's will to increase its power) can be seen as a series of subtly related episodes.

Although Achour's work generally resists straightforward interpretation, it is tuned towards visual spectacle, inviting comparison with filmic sequence or set design.

Indeed, many of his installations also serve as stages for performances (recorded as movies and frequently incorporated within further installations) or as "landscapes in which the spectator meanders".

contemporary art from France, Boris Achour

Dance is also increasingly evident: Conatus: La Nuit du Danseur (Night of the Dancer, 2009, left), was conceived for the 2009 group show 'La force de l'art 02' at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Featuring a tap dancer weaving a path between the works on show, alone at night and wearing an illuminated mask, tripping the light fantastic has rarely seemed so magical.


Loris Gréaud

French art today, Loris Greaud

Although still a young artist, the eclecticism and thematic complexity of Loris Gréaud's work can partly be seen as a precursor of similar tendencies in current French art.

The expansive character of his work is rooted in his own training and education: he attended the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris (although was expelled after setting up a recording studio), and also studied filmmaking and graphic design before finally turning his attention to fine art.

Despite Gréaud's abilities across a wide range of disciplines, much of his work is collaborative, partly in order to fulfil specialist requirements that push mediums to extremes.

He has worked with architects, engineers, geo-biologists, composers, perfumiers, musicians and writers.

Les Résidents (1 and 2) (2005), gives a good sense of the scale and reach of Gréaud's imaginative ambition.

The first part of the work took place in one of the oldest apartments in Paris, the space reconfigured by a team of architects and magnetic field experts to inspire unease and even physical anxiety in volunteers who opted to spend time there.

Bulletins verbally recording their experiences were disseminated via local radio, and rumours quickly spread that the flat was haunted.

For part 2, the apartment's layout was recreated in a gallery using nothing more than 'partitions' of cold air.

Insubstantial and invisible, visitors were able walk through the walls, thus becoming ghost-like themselves.

A string of equally noteworthy works followed in quick succession.

Why is a raven like a writing desk? (2006) enlisted the aid of French scientists to produce a series of miniscule nanosculptures.

Invisible to the naked eye, they could only be seen using powerful microscopes placed inside the black cabinets housing them.

contemporary French art, Loris Greaud

Frequency of an Image (M46 EDIT) (2007) likewise invests in various technologies while also forming a prologue to Gréaud's most ambitious work to date.

Pulses of light emitted from two suspended lightbulbs provide a 'translation' of a brain scan taken while the artist was ruminating on the forthcoming project.

Other versions of the work include a floor that vibrates to the rhythms of Gréaud's mind (above).

While impressive, neither work is fully able to convey the extravaganza that the project - Celador (2008) - would become.

Loris Greaud

Its central element, a specially commissioned opera (relayed from Spore Speakers that pulsate light and emit resinous goo as well as sound, left), relates the story of a studio in which all creative potential is concentrated: "... a vast workshop distended in space and time."

The work's simultaneous production (in Paris' Palais de Tokyo and London's ICA) revealed the full extent of Gréaud's baroque imagination.

Identical triplets served black champagne; in London, sliding doors connected a mise-en-abîme of near identical rooms, while in Paris, 'bubbles' contained a series of discrete though concomittant works.

These ranged from a movie that stopped playing whenever would-be spectators approached, to La Bulle Forêt de poudre à canon (The Gunpowder Forest Bubble): trees coated with explosives and located perilously close to propane gas-filled fluorescent tubes (top, left).

Gréaud's vision of a vision, "not so much a 'Dream Factory' as a 'Dreaming Factory'", certainly counts as one of the most spectacular of recent art events.

There's a point, however, at which such work becomes overweening, too reliant on vast budgets and technological wizardry.

Gréaud may represent the lavish apex of recent French art, but its newly emerging practitioners are more austere and circumspect, both in their practice and thought.

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