Spanning the past twenty years of his career, a survey exhibition of work by the French artist Pierre Ardouvin, now sixty-one, occupied the cavernous fourteen-thousand-square-foot front gallery of the MAC VAL, a contemporary museum just south of Paris. The artist took the show’s title, “Tout est affaire de décor” (It All Comes Down to Setting the Scene), from a 1956 nocturnal poem by Louis Aragon that the anarchist composer and singer Léo Ferré put to music in 1961.
Ardouvin set his own nocturnal scene, covering the floor and the walls up to eleven feet high with thin, glittery black carpeting. Viewers navigated this dark, shimmering cavern from one spotlit work to the next. Three gigantic mobiles bearing a household’s worth of used furniture revolved overhead; their shadows moved across the walls in a light nod to Plato’s cave. Our disorientation was increased by the strobelike flash of Éclair (2007), a wall sculpture composed of nine linear light fixtures arranged to depict a lightning bolt, and by the blinking colored lightbulbs of the large lettered sign spelling out bonne nuit les petits (Good night little ones).
Ardouvin’s theatricality calls to mind the late works of Mike Kelley. At one end of the gallery he placed Au théâtre ce soir (At the Theater Tonight, 2006), an internally lit structure enclosing four rows of six plush, red theater seats, in which visitors could sit and observe the installation and, in turn, become part of the show for others. On two long walls were five “Ecrans de veille” (Screen Savers) from 2016 that appeared like windows onto improbable vistas in the darkened room. The roughly eight-by-six-foot works consist of two stacked pictures scanned from a trove of vintage postcards, with the transition between them digitally reworked. Our eyes strive to see them as a single scene while our brain struggles to keep them separate, so the images flicker in and out of focus. In one, the push and pull is strong enough that we recognize a seascape without noticing that it’s upside down; in another, we accept that a large yellow house would rise at the precipitous edge of a gorge of rushing waters.
Surreal gestures recur, and Ardouvin is deft with his means. For Elegage (Pruning, 1995) he trimmed a synthetic Christmas tree into the shape of a cypress, leaving the clippings around the tree’s foot. The operation seems cruel, yet the metamorphosis of a cheap manufactured Christmas tree is magical. With Ardouvin’s success, and access to funding, in the past decade, his unsettling assemblages have become more spectacular. In La Tempête (The Tempest, 2011), a leafless uprooted tree has either fallen onto a leather club chair or awkwardly striven to seat itself. Like Shakespeare’s play, the sculpture is both foreboding and light-spirited.
Ardouvin plays a different perceptual game with Bettina (2016), an actual Janus B glider plane, sixty feet long, painted matte black. Though monumental, the glider became furtive in the installation’s penumbra. Viewers easily bumped into it when moving about. The glider is a beautiful object, whose every surface is Brancusi-taut. Though designed to give a soaring raptor’s view of the world, here it’s earthbound. A glider at an airfield tells a different story from that of this outsize object stranded in a dark room. For some, the inherent silence of gliders might evoke the quiet loitering of military drones in uncertain skies. Ardouvin’s selection and installation of his works confirms the aptness of the show’s title: “It all comes down to setting the scene.”