May we suggest

Features / October 3, 2014

Ami Barak at Nuit Blanche: Revisiting the Readymade

The glass on Ami Barak’s iPad is broken but the Wi-Fi crest in the top corner is fanning three strong bars of signal. Barak is seated at a window table at Paris’s Café des Arts et Métiers. It is November, there is beer on the table and it is evening rush hour. Outside, red lights from passing cars stream east down Rue Réaumur in the direction of Place de la République and west along Rue de Turbigo to Les Halles. The French curator is meeting with two visiting Canadians, both impressed with the ease of finding public Wi-Fi in Paris at virtually any bar or café.

“It’s a system,” Barak says, punching the glass of the iPad with a large forefinger. “You just type in the name of the bar: That’s the code.” He is busy showing us the Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard website. It has a helpful, interactive map of the city’s galleries and Barak is suggesting an itinerary for shows on at the big galleries in the Marais and the new galleries in Belleville. He tells us that Paris is flourishing at the moment and that on no account should we miss Cyprien Gaillard’s Prix Marcel Duchamp installation at the Centre Pompidou. The Yayoi Kusama retrospective is there, too. And Edvard Munch. But the contemporary scene is the story in Paris. A re-energized FIAC art fair is bringing new attention to the city and the Palais de Tokyo will have a new director—Jean de Loisy—who is good, very good. Barak has another appointment, but do we need dinner? Try Le Bouledogue on Rue Rambuteau; it is excellent. There, we have a reservation. “You will enjoy it,” he says, gathering up his iPad, shouldering his bag, zipping his jacket, waving goodbye and heading out into the flow of traffic.

Barak is a whirlwind. His display of curatorial etiquette in Paris covered all the bases: directions to galleries, names of rising artists, shows to see, issues to ponder and a recommendation for good food at the end of the day. It was meant as reciprocation for an evening spent at the Drake Hotel in Toronto a month earlier. Claire Le Masne, cultural attaché for the Consulat général de France à Toronto, and Julian Sleath, programming manager of special events for the City of Toronto, introduced me to Barak over dinner. They had brought him to Toronto to cement plans for this year’s Nuit Blanche, where Barak would curate one of the zones. It was an evening of conversation about the Toronto art scene, its past, its present and its reception for events like Nuit Blanche, which has set attendance records and entered local lore as the acceptable excuse for high school students to stay out past midnight for at least one night each year.

But Barak was already an expert on Nuit Blanche. He was artistic director for early editions of the festival in Paris in 2003 and 2004. Those exhibitions became the model for what Toronto adopted in 2006, and in 2013 Barak would get to shape the Ontario progeny. He had arrived with a plan, too. As a rowdy office party got louder and looser at the other end of the room at the Drake, Barak outlined thoughts for an edition of the Toronto Nuit Blanche that would be timed with the centenary of the Armory Show in New York. This was the exhibition that first brought Marcel Duchamp and Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) to North America. It was a founding moment for Modernism on this side of the pond, a herald for abstraction and everything that followed. More importantly, the date would also mark the centenary for what Duchamp had left behind in his Paris studio when he boarded the boat to New York. Behind the door to the studio where the nude had descended and notes were being gathered for a “hilarious picture” on glass of a bride and her bachelors, there was also a bicycle wheel mounted to a stool—a studio toy that we now know as the first readymade, a work that Duchamp liked to call Rrose.

Barak’s Nuit Blanche in Toronto would be a paean to this first Duchamp readymade. It would be an exhibition to close the loop with the original object by taking it back into public space and the quotidian domain where Duchamp found it. Barak was in town to scope the terrain where the exhibition would take place and to meet the people who would work with him (Sleath and Jenn Goodwin, lead programming supervisor for Nuit Blanche) as well as the other curators (Ivan Jurakic and Crystal Mowry, and Patrick Macaulay) with projects of their own to pull off that same October evening. Already Barak had several artists in mind who would help with the celebration. Ai Weiwei was at the top of the list. Only months after his incarceration by Chinese authorities and still banned from travel, the artist had just opened a spectacular installation of 1,200 stacked bicycles at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Called Forever Bicycles (2011), the work featured stacked corridors of a favoured brand of Shanghai bicycle. The overlapping wheels and frames created airy, ghost architectures that spoke to infinities of riders past and present. The lyricism was a long way from Duchamp but for Barak it dovetailed an affectionate, if eerie, populism with a memory of the spinning urban wheels that had first turned Duchamp’s head.

Barak sees the readymade as a kind of brick—a preformed means of making. In the curatorial studies classes that he teaches at the Sorbonne University in Paris—Barak’s credentials as a curator have been building since the 1980s and his wide-ranging practice includes one of the first international exhibitions by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon in 1996, as well as a recent project in his native Romania that riffs on the frontier preparation methods of molecular gastronomy—he explores just these kinds of mediations of culture and society, people and cities, by art. His interests have lead him several times to major public art projects, including “The City of Forking Paths” at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 where he positioned a series of monumental outdoor works along the central boulevard of the fair site to serve as “milestones leading to the ramps of the modern Tower of Babel.”

In Toronto, Ai’s bicycles will tower over Nathan Phillips Square, 3,000 of them, shaped in flower modules, will make a walk-through picture of an ideal, post-oil global city. Nearby, on an elevated garden plaza, another installation by the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata involves plans to build a “cathedral,” one of Kawamata’s enterable rising dome structures made from chairs. If Duchamp’s stool was a brick for the house of art, so then are Kawamata’s chairs, and the picnic tables that the Montreal artist Michel de Broin will prop together to form a totem-like tower called Tortoise (2012). Together the works reaffirm the heritage of the readymade that Barak wants to celebrate for its link to a democratic art derived from the everyday world. While such objects are familiar to the crowds that are to gather for the evening, they are also entry points to artworks that aim to articulate an overview of that everyday world. Ai’s bicycles project eco-friendly transit masses onto a pedestrian-only civic space, Kawamata’s chairs create a hallowed space to honour ideas of dignified social communion and de Broin takes a festive, down-home family gathering place and adapts it into another monument to communality. The objects and the works serve as metaphors to frame the experience of Nuit Blanche and push the familiar into realms of poetic speculation.

Back in Toronto this past spring to finalize plans and locations for the works in the show, Barak offered an explanation for why exhibitions like Nuit Blanche—whether in Paris, Toronto or elsewhere—see such huge crowds arriving to look and participate. Part of it, he suggested, is the draw of the night, the sky closing down and giving over to the intimacy of city lights and the promise of entertainment. But part of it, too, is that people come looking for a kind of redemption, a space apart from lives lived in an endless loop of consumerism. People come out for the night to be in a place devoted to them and to art.

When they walk down the passage at the Eaton Centre leading south from Dundas Street, the usual walls of the passageway will show a series of 60 bicycle wheels turned into clocks by the French artist Franck Scurti. They might be in a narrow space, apart from the other, bigger venues of the evening, but Scurti has made a work that shows them when they are. Likewise, at the drained reflection pool at City Hall, people can watch and anticipate calamity as two driverless cars with locked wheels circle one another in Alain Declercq’s Crash Cars, a work that the Paris artist showed at the Cairo Biennale of 2001. The installation, the subject of long discussions held on the plaza at City Hall between Barak, city engineers and event security people last March, would be in edgy, perpetual motion. It would be a test of patience for viewers, a thriller readymade, a work that in its appearance in Cairo now seems to have prefigured the events of Tahrir Square in January 2011 and again this past summer. Call one car democracy and the other repression.

Like the other works in Barak’s show—he titles it “Off To A Flying Start”Crash Cars turns on a kind of precariousness or mutating instability. A century later, that precariousness is the lasting gift of Duchamp’s readymade. Its instability of meaning—provoking negations of craft in favour of arbitrary, even absurd, artistic intent—has inspired generations of contemporary artists to set moving goalposts for our conceptions of art. Art is made by artists: end of an endless, twisting story. For his exhibition, Barak literally puts this into words through a light installation by the French artist Boris Achour. It relies on a line of poetry from a 17th-century mystic German poet, Angelus Silesius, that appears in white neon on the elevated walkway surrounding Nathan Phillips Square. Functioning like a backdrop above and beyond the crowds, the circling cars and the perspective infinities of the Forever Bicycles, viewers will read words that serve as a motto for the night and for art: “The rose is without why; she blooms because she blooms.”

This would be Duchamp’s still-blooming Rrose, the readymade in flower. Part of the arrangements for Nuit Blanche involves an open call for projects that curators get to consider. Barak was truly excited by one proposal from the Toronto artists’ collective VSVSVS. The group proposed setting up a hotline where viewers could ask experts (VSVSVS) whether or not something they were looking at was art. Looking up to strategically placed commercial street signage displaying a self-explanatory phone number “1-855-Is-It-Art,” viewers can call for an answer. Barak could not keep a smile from his face when he explained how, “The audience will call. The phone will be answered. The viewers will explain what it is they are seeing. And, of course, VSVSVS will just answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” It was the smile of a curator who knows how to keep audiences looking—and thinking—in an era when anything might be art as long as it blooms.

This is a feature article from the Fall 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, view its table of contents. For more information on our upcoming Paris-Toronto symposium, please visit