Philippe Parreno is one of the most important and unpredictable artists of the last few decades. After rising to prominence in the 1990s as part of an experimental group of European artists and curators such as Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno has spent the last twenty years capturing the strangeness of everyday life through his intellectual megaprojects and lucid dream-like shows.
Preferring to call himself an exhibition producer rather than an artist, Philippe Parreno cannot be bound by any genre, style, subject or medium. His works transcend traditional material paradigms—encompassing drawings, films, sounds, writings and even events. His exhibitions, which he defines as his art form, are in a constant state of evolution, with none ending the way it begins and no visitor able to say they have experienced every element. When visiting a space inhabited by the world of Philippe Parreno, you can expect to float amongst fish, be controlled by yeast cultures and perhaps play a match with Zinédine Zidane.
Philippe Parreno’s 2006 collaboration with Scottish Turner-prize winning artist Douglas Gordon, Zidane: a 21st-Century Portrait, is often cited as his most renowned work. This epic documentary film follows the spell-binding French footballer Zinédine Zidane around the pitch for the duration of an entire football match. Using 17 synchronized film and video cameras, it traces Zidane’s movements during an April 2005 game between Real Madrid and Villareal. Zidane: a 21st-Century Portrait deals with issues of modern portraiture, capturing the intimate beauty of football and also the loneliness of the athlete. Contrasting periods of still concentation with times of intense physical activity, Gordon and Parreno’s piece is a celebration of the cult of the athlete and has been noted for redefining the notion of football as art.
Zidane: a 21st-Century Portrait—along with Philippe Parreno’s other films—remains a prominent part of most of his exhibitions and is often displayed on a series of screens in order to engulf the senses of the spectator. During his 2013/2014 show Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World in which he took over the space of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Zidane was cut into seventeen screens and presented alongside Philippe Parreno’s 2012 film Marilyn. Using three algorithms, this film reproduces Marilyn Monroe’s presence—the camera becomes her eyes, a computer becomes her voice and a robot recreates her handwriting. This work is another subversion of the genre of portraiture using technology but, in classic Parreno style, can initially appear at odds from the rest of his subject matter.
Philippe Parreno’s exhibitions consistently immerse spectators in a seemingly disjointed yet inter-related world or reality of which he is the puppet master. For his latest exhibition, currently on display at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, he has constructed a vast mechanical apparatus and orchestrated a complex choreography of events in which to absorb his spectators. Lights flick on and off, Berlin radio stations are heard and silenced, blinds automatically open and close and helium fish float up and down. It is a polyphony of unexplainable events and a continuation of Philippe Parreno’s older motifs.
This exhibition also represents the latest development in Philippe Parreno’s practice which sees him increasingly give up control of his multimedia installations to both technological and biological systems. In a booth in the Gropius Bau, he has installed a bioreactor of microorganisms that are connected to a computer that determines the organization of the events in the show. These yeast cultures multiply, mutate and adapt, developing a memory that learns the “rhythms of the show and evolves to anticipate future variations.” A complex sounding structure, this system basically means that Philippe Parreno has created a constantly changing script and that his exhibitions have become autonomous, almost-living organisms that work independently of him as artist.
Philippe Parreno constantly refers to Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and David Lynch as his primary influences and it is perhaps through this trio of mind-bending figures that it is best to understand his work. “Lynch is all about the strangeness we all share,” he said in an interview in 2016. Philippe Parreno’s exhibitions replicate the strangeness of our everyday and represent a future of art without the constant involvement and authorship of the artist. His shows invite us into a parallel and seemingly incomprehensible reality, where football is art, yeast colonies control installations and everything is constantly evolving.
Philippe Parreno is on display at Gropius Bau in Berlin from May 25 until August 5, 2018
By Jess Harrison