Le plagiat est nécessaire. Le progrès l’implique.In an overpriced hotel in the 5th arrondissement, the concierge asks where we’re off to. The Museum of Modern Art, we tell him. “Oh, the Pompidou, you mean,” he says. No, the other one, we insist. He looks baffled.
—Guy Debord (although Lautréamont said it first)
It feels appropriate that an exhibition challenging our very definitions of art should take place in an art gallery the existence of which is a mystery even to well informed Parisians. Seconde Main (Second Hand) is an exhibition of lookalikes, pastiches and other responses in kind by artists to other artists. Rather than hive it off into a dedicated section of the gallery, the curators have integrated the exhibition into the main collection, putting the second-hand roses alongside the real thing, and making us question the identity and nature of both. In what feels like a loss of nerve, the lookalikes are identified with pink stickers – wouldn’t it have been braver to let us guess? – but the effect is still disconcerting and thought-provoking.
Part of this is due to the nature of the museum’s main collection. Although it contains plenty of big names (Matisse, Chagall, Dufy, Dubuffet, et al) few of the works themselves are instantly recognisable, the sort that you’d find on tea-towels or fridge magnets: this, presumably, is why concierges don’t know about the place. So you see something that looks primitive and jungly, and you just assume it’s a Rousseau, because if you know a bit about modern art, you know that’s that sort of thing that Rousseau did, even though you’ve never seen the painting before. And then you discover it’s not a Rousseau at all; it’s actually by some chancer called Ernest T, who takes the titles and dimensions of Rousseau’s lost works, and has a good guess at what they might have looked like, and paints his guesses.
Many of the works, though, are responses to works that are real and existent and very well known. Richard Baquié takes on Duchamp’s Étant donnés, an installation that requires the viewer to peer through a tiny peephole and immediately become a voyeur to a scene that hints at, but never explicitly announces itself as, the aftermath of sexual violence. Baquié disembowels the original, showing its workings, like Penn and Teller telling you how a magic trick is done. But it doesn’t destroy your respect for the original, because you know that without Duchamp having spent 20 years concocting Étant donnés in the first place, Baquié would have nothing to work with; just as Duchamp himself must have known when he doodled facial hair on the work of a previous artist, nearly a century before.
Indeed, many of the subjects (targets? victims?) of the artists here have already been responsible for (guilty of?) appropriating other works, so when Mike Bidlo responds to Warhol’s soap box or Manzoni’s can of shit, we can smile at the cleverness, but the same joke doesn’t bear repeating too often (as it is about Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Bridget Riley and plenty other Pop-ists and Op-ists). The Art & Language collective do something that could well be a Pollock drip painting; more effective is Gavin Turk becoming Pollock himself, emulating Hans Namuth’s images of Jack the Dripper at work. We can become tired of the art, he seems to hint, long before we tire of the artist. Well, Gavin *was* a YBA, wasn’t he?
The brochure namechecks Borges’ Quixote, and you (OK then, I) sort of expect/hope Baudrillard might get a mention as well, but this isn’t really about pure simulacra. The originals have to be present, indeed, have to be dominant, for the copies to make any sense. When Fayçal Bagriche spirits Yves Klein, Trotsky-like, out of his own Leap into the Void, it only makes sense if you know the original. Otherwise, it’s just a photo of a sidestreet.
Seconde Main demands of the viewer a basic working knowledge of the art of the past 100 years, a knowledge of who Pollock was and what Picasso did, for it to make sense. So not only can this exhibition only work in this museum, it can only work in this country, maybe only in this city, where they don’t worry so much about art being “accessible” and “inclusive”. Art’s just there; deal with it. If you can’t deal with it, here’s a book about it. But preferably not one by Dan Brown, whose baleful presence still hangs over the city.
That said, this is still a learning experience. Towards the end is the only piece that’s an actual fake, intended not just to provoke or confuse or amuse, but to deceive; an ersatz Modigliani by the forger Elmyr de Hory. And somehow, I spot it as a wrong ’un even before I see the pink sticker. I don’t think I’d have been able to do that before I came in.