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The Meaning of Art? It’s Complicated

In Paris, a new show aims to encapsulate what art means, with digital technology, fashion, photography, and science—but is it convincing?

What deserves to be in a museum? It isn't a novel question, but it’s one that warrants continual re-asking and re-examining as artistic practices stretch, reshape, and thread their way through different disciplines.

The newest exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris’s lone contemporary art museum, questions where the delimitations of art “end”—and willfully pushes them further afield. “Le Bord des Mondes” (translation: The Edge of Worlds; until May 17) pulls from outside the traditional art schema, classifying miscellaneous projects as worthy of artistic consideration.

Twenty-two creators have developed ideas with enough magnetism to ostensibly be considered Art: so posits curator Rebecca Lamarche Vadel. Her “alternative art history,” presents a porous “mélange of gestures, knowledge, and disciplines.” The results are interesting, and uneven.

Style and art are often bedfellows, and this is clear in the work of Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, whose experimental approach to fashion since she created her label in 2008 has always skirted art. With concepts like Biopiracy and Voltage, she uses digital technologies, architectural structures, and scientific research (she works regularly with the MIT Media Lab) to create her silhouettes.

Her diverse materials (resin, silicon tubes, metal powder, Japanese silk paper, Plexiglas) are set in voluminous yet delicate configurations that confound the typical dress form. Her pieces have been featured in museums, so it's hardly a stretch to situate her work in an art milieu.

Another style entry is Charlie Le Mindu, who takes hair to sculptural levels. He too has been part of museum shows (currently, he’s working on pieces for the David Bowie exhibition, coming to Paris after its wild success at London’s V&A).

Le Mindu has coiffed Lady Gaga and club-goers in Berlin, with overt references to SpongeBob and to bestiaries, all while using mixes of natural hair, animal hair, gold wire, and fluorescein.

Photographers too are easily positioned in a museum context. American Rose-Lynn Fisher creates a photographic index of her tears, sparked by a range of circumstances “from elation to onions.” Magnified several hundred times under a light microscope, the subtle visual beauty is described as “aerial views of emotional terrain.”

Other photography--gelatin silver prints by Swiss Arnold Odermatt--seem, at first glance, like an obsessive catalogue of damaged cars, but in fact they’re aestheticized accident reports from his forty years as a policeman.

Some works are less visually striking than infused with a kind of symbolic poetry. Is a good backstory enough to make a compelling work of art? French researcher Laurent Derobert exhibits his “existential mathematics,” in which equations are used to measure states of human consciousness.

As a visual presence in the gallery, his piece is a curved white wall with parenthetical lines of numbers and letters. It sounds lyrical, but remains opaque as a process, and isn’t terribly enthralling to look at.

Chilean physicist Carlos Espinosa’s piece, on the other hand, is very tangible, physically and conceptually. His geometric atrapanieblas, or “mist trap,” has a pragmatic purpose. Able to capture humidity, it’s a conduit for water and directs it to areas that lack it.

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The invention was patented in 1963, and disseminated throughout the Atacama Desert in Chile; it has been implemented in arid regions throughout the world. It's a good story, and it’s interesting enough as a graphic form, but it’s neat enough that doesn't leave the viewer with much to grapple with.

Some works have more of a playful feel. American Jerry Gretzinger began drawing a map of an imaginary world in 1963, and each day expanded it. To date, it has morphed into almost three thousand sheets of painted paper, constructed from bits of email, old magazines, boxes of Snyders of Hanover sourdough pretzels or Morton canning and pickling salt.

There’s a whiff of grade school project zealousness about it: he describes it as “a painting that is constantly growing and changing,” qualifying that it “began as accidental, and now it is more intentional.”

Polish Game of States has an even bigger sprawl. Based upon the political tumult that was actually happening in 1940, when Poland was integrating the Socialist bloc, the game awakened diplomatic conspiracies, political allegiances, and military offensives carried out between fictitious parliamentary monarchies or Communist dictatorships. The diminutive paper figures and accoutrements, displayed in glass boxes, have visual substance while engaging with both political history and imagination.

And that’s only part of it. Portrayed in a film triptych, there’s a language of whistles practiced in a remote village of Turkey, like a forgotten community of Harpo Marxes. There are freaky human androids built by a robotics intelligence researcher in Japan, uncanny and unsettling.

There’s a fashion showcase from troupe of smartly outfitted Congolese men, who have created a religion out of dressing nattily: vivid colors, woven pearl jackets, aluminum hats, bamboo bags. "Forgive those who know not how to dress," they plead on behalf of the masses.

Kenji Kawakami’s “chindogus” are cheeky, unparalleled inventions that mix the practical and impractical, like a bowl with a mirror for making diet portions look illusorily more copious.

Overall, there’s a kind of absurdity to the exhibition: absolutely nothing corrals these ideas other than the fact that they were not initially created with the intention of museum display. For some, it will be a turn-off. The museum-going experience is so often characterized by the organizing principles and narratives that situate work within a longer legacy. Without that, chaos reigns.

Yet there’s great creative liberty at play, which can be refreshing. Nothing fits neatly, but it’s a glimpse at how people express themselves, all over the world, some in pockets that might have gone unknown.