It’s hard to explain to people outside of France just how notorious Michel Houellebecq is inside of France.
“Half of the French think he’s a very bad writer,” said Jean de Loisy, the director of the Palais de Tokyo, the contemporary arts center, told me earlier this week.
Houellebecq has been famous in the country for years now, as a novelist and gadfly, approaching topics such as the Thai sex trade, the rise of Muslim extremism, cloning, and nuclear apocalypse in his work with a lack of regard for political correctness that has made him the scourge of the Human Rights League, the World Islamic League, most critics, and all famous French intellectuals (including Bernard Henri-Lévy, with whom he co-authored a book called Public Enemies). And he gained even more worldwide attention in January of last year for the unfortunate reason that he was depicted as a cartoon on the cover of Charlie Hebdo at the time of the terrorist attack at that publication’s newsroom.
This summer he’s having a big moment in the contemporary art world. Having been involved with the Lyon Biennale in 2007, and having penned a book, The Map and the Territory, that features Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as minor characters as it charts the international art market, Houellebecq has now become a full-on artist himself. A show called “Rester Vivant” (“To Stay Alive”), devoted to his work in visual art, opened at the Palais de Tokyo last week, and he’s featured prominently in Manifesta 11, Europe’s roving contemporary art biennale, which is now on view in Zurich, Switzerland.
“I’ve known Michel for many years, 25 years, when he was publishing his first poems,” de Loisy told me, “and his publisher initiated Michel to the art world, as they were publishing a lot of catalogues and things. Since 1992 Michel has been in the art world, and that’s the period when I met him.”
Still, it had never occurred to de Loisy to give one of France’s most infamous novelists a show at his museum, which typically focuses on promising young artists, until he saw a series of photographs by Houellebecq displayed in a small space across town. He thought they could be the germ for a kind of show.
“I knew he was doing pictures and I didn’t see them until two years ago,” de Loisy said. “At the Palais de Tokyo we have a strong link to poetry, and we wanted to look at the relationship between art and literature.”
I asked about the process of putting together a show by an artist who has never had a museum show before—de Loisy is listed as the sole curator—and he said it was quite easy, for one simple reason: he didn’t do anything.
“At the end, there is nothing in the show that is not decided, conceived even, entirely by him, totally,” he said. “And since that moment it was a situation where the curator became totally useless. He did everything himself, with a strong obsession. He told me, ‘I don’t want it to be a show on Houellebecq, but a show by Houellebecq.’ ”
However, given the artist involved here, the show, which I saw last week, inevitably is both on and by Houellebecq, completely embodying him, and embodying his persistent need to insert himself into his own work. (Books by Michel Houellebecq often include characters named Michel Houellebecq.)
“Rester Vivant” is split into two halves, a dark side and a light side. The dark side consists mostly of gloomy photos of a rotting Europe, besotted with terrorism and evil corporations. In case you don’t really feel the sense of death, there’s a tomb of Coca-Cola cans, on which rests a skull and a plaque that reads “Michel Houellebecq: 1958–2037.” Pictures accompanied by text have an aesthetic and a thematic approach that recalls the collaborations between Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis that were on display at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles this February. (Maybe not a coincidence, given Ellis’s vocal support for Houellebecq: “Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting, provocative and important European novelist of my generation. Period. No one else comes close.”)
The light side is, well, much lighter. It’s filled with things that Michel Houellebecq likes, which mostly consists of Michel Houellebecq, but a few other things, too: his deceased Welsh corgi Clement, girl-on-girl pornography, shag carpets, The Stooges, poetry, and smoking. Yes, there’s actually a smoking room, completely sanctioned by the museum—welcome to Paris!—where you can listen to a jukebox filled with songs by Michel Houellebecq, or a Carla Bruni song recorded for the soundtrack of a movie based off of a Michel Houellebecq novel.
Instead of reading as a gimmick, or a vacuous vanity project, the show exudes grace, humor, and self-awareness, which equivalent celebrity-driven shows in the U.S. never seem to deliver, for fear of not being taken seriously.
“We work mostly with cutting-edge artists, and in a way, his fame is very cutting edge, too,” de Loisy told me. “It’s so seldom to have someone who has a public persona like this. He performs, he participates.”
Like his books, the show has not won over everyone.
“The art magazines are totally divided,” de Loisy said. “Half of them say it’s not interesting, the photos are not good. And then half say they love it. I’d say it’s about 60 percent for it and 40 percent very against, which is very nice, a nice ratio.” De Loisy started laughing, absolutely gleeful at this mixed reaction. “We are a strange country, as you know,” he said. “We love revolutions.”
That said, the show certainly could have been much more controversial: there are no references to the recent terrorist attacks in the city, such as the shooting at the Bataclan nightclub last year and the murders of staffers at Charlie Hebdo. After that attack, Houellebecq canceled all his promotional tours for Submission, the book that had landed him on the cover of Charlie Hebdo that week and that was released on the very day of the attacks. Submission is a political satire in which France elects a Muslim government in the year 2022. This is not a topic he has shied away from. In 2002, he faced charges of racial hatred at trial after proclaiming “Islam is the stupidest religion.” (He was acquitted, then sued by a civil rights group, then won the case on the grounds of free speech.)
His old friend de Loisy thinks that the decision to make a tame show, relatively speaking, had to do with the artist’s mellowed temperament following the terrorist attacks. In his first interviews after Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq was tearful. De Loisy told me, “He could have done exactly what[ever] he wanted, but he was very touched by the Bataclan and it’s part of the consequences of this. It’s painful, and he probably doesn’t want to return to it.”
And so the works include a recreation of his man cave, complete with old beer cans on top of books and a record spinning off the needle, images of pin-up girls, that smoking room, bright photos of people on vacation, and snapshots of the Andalusian countryside. There’s a lounge with a bunch of nice couches, and chairs in every room, which suggests that Houellebecq just really wanted to make sure everyone was having a nice, comfortable time looking at his contemporary art exhibition. (Asked in the catalogue what kind of political statement he was making by putting a smoking room in a museum, he replies, simply, that he was just looking out for his fellow addicts.)
Most prominently, there is the tribute to his late dog Clement, whom he clearly adored more than any human. There are a bunch of little stuffed animals in Clement’s likeness, drawings of the dog by his ex-wife with whom he shared the little guy, and a slide show that’s so outrageously cute and moving that it’s perversely hilarious in a way that makes you burst out laughing and then feel awful. Houellebecq even asked his good friend Iggy Pop to write a song about Clement that plays with the slide show.
“Iggy Pop, we went together to the exhibition and he was so impressed,” de Loisy told me. “He saw the first photograph, and he thought that it was beautiful.”
“He’s a real punk, and I love this guy, but he’s gotten older,” de Loisy went on. “After punk, we have to stay alive.”