Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) has one shiny foot. In the fifth arrondisement of Paris, before l’entrée d’honneur of the Sorbonne, is la Place Paul-Painlevé. In la Place Paul-Painlevé there is le Square Paul-Painlevé, a tiny, gated park. And in le Square Paul-Painlevé, in a niche in the outside of the shrubbery surrounding its little garden, there is a statue of Montaigne facing out cross-legged onto the trottoir. Cast in burnished bronze, it has oxidised to a shiny leaden grey. All except, that is, for the toe of Montaigne’s right loafer, which glisters bronzen yellow yet. It is rubbed clean of its patina by the polish of human fingers as passers-by touch it for luck with the greeting: “Salut Montaigne.”
It is hard to overestimate the extent to which France venerates its writers, or even to conceive it if you have not borne witness firsthand. The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) in la Cimetière du Montparnasse is perennially covered with lipstick kisses, bunches of flowers, and the Métro ticket stubs of those who have come to pay their respects or – as tradition dictates – to fuck. The Musée Carnavalet has recreated the rooms of three 20th century writers, only one of whom you have heard of: Marcel Proust (1871–1922), Paul Léautaud (1872–1956), and Anna de Noailles (1876–1933). The displays are there for you to gawp, if you wish, at what their rooms might have been like. And now Michel Houellebecq (1956–), in his exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, has anticipated his own death and domestic apotheosis, recreating rooms from his house and imagining his sepulchral shrine. Rester Vivant, the exhibition is called: Staying Alive.
Michel Houellebecq is the only contemporary French writer truly well-known outside France (with the possible exception of Patrick Modiano), and he is famous to the extent that one of the observations most frequently made about him is that he is so extraordinarily famous. He shot to celebrity in 1994 with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (“extension of the area of conflict” would be my rendition), which was translated into English as Whatever in 1998. It is written in a style that attempts to be deceptively simple, convincingly aping the novels of Camus and Sartre; the narrator is of like Existentialist disposition but lacks the ideological force of a Meursault. It depicts a malaise at the heart of society – often sexual – that the author has continued to find in his writing ever since.
Houellebecq has written five novels and a book of poetry; recorded three music CDs featuring his recitals; directed films; starred in other films; and displayed photographs in small shows. Rester Vivant (also the title of an essay he wrote in 1991), however, is his first major art exhibition. It is accompanied by a thick, 196-page edition of the Palais de Tokyo Magazine, for which Michel Houellebecq is listed as “Guest editor-in-chief”, and which is entirely devoted to excerpts from his writings and interviews with the man himself. Here is a guy who does everything. In the interview conducted by Jean Loisy, director of the gallery, (and from which I will be quoting throughout) there is this exchange:
JL Être capable d’être à la fois poète, romancier, photographe, acteur, performeur, c’est quelque chose qui n’existe plus tellement dans l’art…
MH C’est une source d’emmerdements, car les gens vous prennent moins au sérieux. Les gens n’aiment pas les touche-à-tout. JL The capacity to be at once a poet, novelist, photographer, actor and performer is something that hardly exists in the art world anymore…
MH It’s also a pain in the arse, because you aren’t taken seriously. People don’t like a jack of all trades.
“Il est temps de faire vos jeux” (“It is time to place your bets”) reads the first picture, the text superimposed on a photograph of a mauve and yellow sky streaked with ruddy, darkened cloud. The words come (naturally) from one of Houellebecq’s own poems. But he says to Loisy “On looking at the picture, you might wonder if it is the evening or the morning. In the poem, it’s the evening. But I can’t remember when I took the photo. I don’t know. And so, when you look at it, does it seem more like the morning or evening to you?” Perhaps we are to place our bets on one or the other…or on a more cosmic question: whether our stars are rising or setting. Or perhaps this has yet more to do with Houellebecq: whether we think his exhibition is to be any good. In an interview in the Paris Review in 2010, Houellebecq stated “People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.”
A lot of this exhibition, in a way that seems objective, is very bad. It is set in an extremely dark, labyrinthine maze of black-walled rooms, with only the photographs spotlit. Looming ‘industrial’ synth music plays. All that is fine, and seems effective; one couple, two bespectacled and bewildered French OAPs, almost run into me in the dark as they scurry around from photo to photo, apparently whipped into a state of anxiety by the atmosphere (they had the same worried, frenetic look of the BBC presenter John Snow when he tried skunk for a documentary and really, really didn’t like it). What is not so good is that the photographs themselves are often bad. They depict industrial wastelands, quarries that have brutally terraced otherwise rolling hills, a Leader Price store squatting over the car park it has carved out of a verdant valley – but the colours are washed out; the ‘Theme’ of the assault of the drab and industrial upon nature feels half-heartedly drab in execution; the overall effect is that of the poorly-focussed, low-definition, cloudy and badly-composed photographs you took on your first digital camera a decade ago. The problem with photography of the drab – as with writing about the sordid, or art endeavours concerning the banal (Houellebecq was once a member of a group called Les Banalystes) – is that the form comes to match the content. What these photographs most effectively illustrate is why Houellebecq is not a professional photographer – they show how good good photography actually is.
The obsessive aestheticisation of Houellebecq’s stuff qua author is not just in his mounting of prize quotations from his work like so many taxidermy trophies of the hunt, or in the banal, loops of five second snippets from films he’s directed, enshrined as installation. Houellebecq also deifies his tools: in one large cylindrical vitrine hang suspended a pen, a notebook, and an old Leica camera. He idolises his dog, devoting an entire room and the poster of the exhibition to ‘Clément’ (2000–2011), his deceased Welsh Corgi Pembroke. Stuffed full of chintz relating to Corgis in general, including plastic and die cast models, this room also boasts dozens of photos of Clément and a slideshow devoted to his frolics, then a number of pencil sketches and watercolours done by Houellebecq’s ex-wife Marie-Pierre Gauthier. In one we see only Clément’s eye, captioned “clément vous regardant” (sic. “clément is watching you”). In another, a watercolour picture of Clément in a room shows, on its back wall, an actual photograph of Clément, captioned “clément et son clone”. I would not like to have been Houellebecq’s dog. I cannot help but mistrust a love so intellectually ludic with its ignorant object – unless Clément was in on it.
Clément’s room comes after another plastered with semi-nude photographs of women; Houellebecq’s lovers. “All men take erotic photos of their girlfriends” he proclaims. That seems remarkably inattentive to the variety of human experience for a writer who opines that he is the greatest living. Again, such love doesn’t feel very…loving, and it is hard not to wonder whether he is covering over most dogmatically where he is most stunted. More doggedly still, he says of the dog:
C’est la salle la plus autobiographique de l’expo. L’autre salle partiellement autobiographique, ce sont les femmes. J’ai très peu photographié ma vie, mais je pense que j’ai photographié ce qui a compté : quelques femmes et un chien.
It’s the most autobiographical room in the exhibition. The other partly autobiographical room is the one with the women. I’ve never photographed my life very much, but I think I’ve photographed what has counted: a few women and a dog.
Houellebecq contradicts himself, for in another interview in this same issue he says of the exhibition “Je me suis quand même tenu à l’écart d’une autobiographie stricte.” (“I have refrained from anything strictly autobiographical”). One of the major, constant questions that presses forward is whether we are to give Houellebecq the credit of irony; the benefit of a tonal doubt. He claims there is nothing “strictly autobiographical” then offers a solo exhibition devoted to himself, his oeuvre entire, his lovers and his dog. He displays, without meaningful comment, some stationery and a camera; a vast ink machine that does nothing; ten-second snatches from films he made years ago. There is a smoking room in the exhibition. Asked whether it was of any great significance, Houellebecq quipped “It’s just me having a fraternal thought for my fellow addicts.” Another piece is a shrine made of empty coke cans with crosses cut into them; it contains a human skull and offers the inscription “Michel Houellebecq 1958–2037” Interviewed by the FT Houellebecq said of this “It’s a present I received by post, a real little mausoleum. An author I don’t know sent it to me, as a sort of homage. I took it as an act of love. I really liked this sculpture, and as I was the only one to like it, I put it in the exhibition. I don’t know who the author is, I’ve lost his details. I hope he will make himself known on the occasion of the exhibition.” Are we to believe him?
It certainly seems ambitious that a committed smoker and a heavy drinker should make it to seventy-nine; he already looks that old at fifty-eight. What kind of “staying alive” is Houellebecq hoping for? He leaves the last words in the exhibition to the head waiter at Drouant in a kind of documentary played on a TV in a dowdy sitting room; the man is asked about Houellebecq’s work, for which he expresses bland, serviceable admiration but no opinion, before becoming animated about the unchanging menu of le salon Goncourt. It is a bleak vision, perhaps, of what of Houellebecq will stay alive; faint praise, a name on a list of prizewinners chewed over between bites at the ancient Académie Goncourt – his work less permanent than the menu. At some moments this exhibition seems like a cynical joke pulled on the visitor drawn thence by Houellebecq’s fame and won’t change their minds on his work anyway; he’s staying alive, merely, not even bothering to present us with serious work. The floor of one room is entirely plastered with kitsch picture-postcards from Houellebecq’s unadventurous holidays. He didn’t even take them himself.
Houellebecq is France’s most popular author, and its most unpopular. He has been accused of hate speech, vulgarity, misogyny and talentlessness. Rester Vivant has already violently bifurcated reviewers in France and abroad. He seems so distrustful of both praise and censure as barely to bother trying to incite any particular critical response at all…resulting, ironically, in the very bifurcation of praise and censure he’s reacting against. Perhaps Houellebecq is partly the product of the ambivalent attitudes the French have towards their greatest sons; Michel de Montaigne’s foot is shiny now, but it wasn’t always. The original sculpture, by Paul Landowski, was laid in 1934, but this isn’t it. Landowski’s was in white marble, was vandalised at the beginning of the 1970s, and was replaced in 1989 with this bronze replica. I can’t find out in what the “vandalism” actually consisted. One newspaper piece announcing the replacement described it as “l’amour trop violent dont ce marbre fut l’objet” – “the too violent love of which this marble statue was the object.”