La Maison Rouge, a private non-profit foundation based in Paris to promote contemporary art, recently opened an exhibition titled The French Spirit: Countercultures 1969-1989. The exhibition that runs through May 21, 2017, is an exploration of significant countercultures and new social movements that emerged over the course of two decades in the immediate aftermath of May 1968 protests and the diverse ways in which they shaped contemporary French politics, culture and society.
The exhibition curators Guillaume Désanges and François Piron attempt to question the ideas of freedom and liberty, the two notions quintessentially linked to France: “Here’s an idea: what if France’s ‘beloved liberty’ didn’t actually exist, wasn’t even a dot on the horizon; what if it were just a hypothesis to be experienced in the present tense, a hypothesis whose boundaries need to be pushed at all times.”
Proceeding on this hypothesis, The French Spirit explores the significant countercultures – social, political and cultural – that emerged between 1969 and 1989 and how they, knowingly or unknowingly, shaped contemporary ideas of freedom and liberty. More importantly, the exhibition seeks to document how these movements led to the emergence of a singular critical French spirit, wedged between idealism and nihilism with a generous dash of dark humour, satire and hedonism.
The exhibition features a selection of 700 documents and works produced over two decades to highlight the cultural, political and social intersections of the countercultures. These include printed ephemera, recordings, newspaper cuttings, writings, films, alternative media, music and visual works. These exhibits are interspersed across themes inspired by the key countercultures that emerged between 1969 and 1989: movements for gender equality and sexual rights, public-private politics of body, sexuality and desire, alternative movements for education, production and living and the virtual disappearance of social movements and the emergence of the more aggressive and nihilistic punk subcultures.
Stirrings of revolution and resistance can be felt throughout the exhibition. The sections detailing the movements for women and homosexual rights as well as those covering the punk subcultures are quite compelling. Of particular interest are the sheer number of alternative, do-it-yourself style publications and new media produced during the two decades. Pirate radios, pamphlets, comic books, collages, books, music and film produced by these countercultures demonstrate a desire to question and step away from the mainstream world of art and traditional methods of creative expression. This is also one of the main objectives of the exhibition curators, as they attempt to show how these alternative media resulted in new forms of avant gardism.
Overall, the exhibition is a highly-detailed survey of cultures of political protest and radical thought over a course of two decades which continues to resonate even today. Going beyond nostalgia, the exhibition brings to the forefront the outsiders, the ‘cultural mutations’ and the marginalised who challenged the limits of tradition and convention. The echoes of these countercultures continue to shape contemporary politics and society. The exhibition could be a little overwhelming for its sheer magnitude and assumes a certain acquaintance with French history and events. That apart, the exhibition could have gone a step further and delved on the urgent relevance of these movements in the society today and just perhaps, re-energised art as a forum for political engagement. It nonetheless remains a fantastic and energetic representation of the countercultures that defined French society for two decades.
The French Spirit: Countercultures 1969-1989 is on view until May 21, 2017 at La Maison Rouge, Fondation Antoine de Galbert, 10 boulevard de la Bastille, 75012 Paris, France.
February 24, 2017 to May 21, 2017
At La Maison Rouge
The French Spirit: Countercultures 1969-1989
The French Spirit: Countercultures 1969-1989 is a major exploration of countercultures and new social movements that emerged in France in the immediate aftermath of May 1968 protests. The exhibition traces the impact of these subcultures on French politics, society and culture with an impressive selection of 700 works and objects. A must see.
La Maison Rouge