Montréal – Musée d’art contemporain

67
MACM

Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, May 22-September 7, 2009

Along a hallway at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, a tape glued to the floor frames the photographic series that introduces Robert Polidori’s exhibition. In invoking the prohibition customarily enforced by the velvet rope that separates the audience from a given artefact, the museum both compels us to get closer and underscores the fascination that Polidori’s images exert over us. The colours seem to pop up from the paper’s flat surface in a manner similar to a three-dimensional projection; we feel the urge to touch the forms represented and to follow their outlines with our fingers. We are thus driven, as if by instinct, to take a closer look.

The leitmotifs uniting the series – decadence, poverty, and disaster – nonetheless belie our retreat into a purely aesthetic contemplation of Polidori’s work. There is no question of the edified ruins or sublime remainders that, when viewed with the disinterested gaze common to Kantian aesthetics, affirm the humanity of the experiencing subject. As vehicles of sublimity, vestigial traces of civilizations such as those favoured by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscape artists alert us to the limitations of our sensible faculties and of our mortal condition, yet, at the same time, they also show us how our ability to reason, our moral vocation, surpasses every standard of sense. Despite the transient status of human life, in other words, the contemplation of such ruins calls upon our moral faculty to champion the products of our culture and to carry on our creative endeavours since both the objects themselves and the drive at the heart of cultural production are representative of human freedom.

Instead, a certain perversity seduces us as we gaze upon Polidori’s images, from the Versailles series through to the urban landscapes of Varanasi. This poet of catastrophe presents us with the abject traces of civilization, with the “kipple” we cast off, to cite a term coined by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. A symptom of the excesses of capitalism that are concomitant to the effects of nuclear war, kipple is a mark of societal entropy. When considered in this vein, only a fine line separates the Versailles from the Pripyat and Chernobyl series; both frame the relics of a reality that no longer exists, but whose ruined artefacts assume the role of sentinels guarding us against forgetfulness. If a subtle irony thus insinuates itself when we scrutinize, in the relative comfort afforded by our position as museum visitors, the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, the drowning of New Orleans, the structural decay of Havana, and the spatial imprint of conflict at Beirut, then it is because the charged political context grounding the events cited by Polidori’s photographs remind us that we are participants in the making of culture; we too are implicated in the realities his images cite.

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