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Michel François Panopticon

17 March—4 October 2022
Yarat Contemporary Art Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan

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YARAT Contemporary Art Space presents the Panopticon, a solo show by Michel François. The exhibition is constructed as a dialogue between a restrictive, human-made device and the natural elements surrounding it, symbolising our desire for freedom.

The immersive installation is the result of the artist’s research residency in Baku and consists of a central piece of a surveillance tower that overlooks its surroundings with its cyclopic eye. The Panopticon observes everything and also reflects our presence as curious intruders or witnesses. François’ construction takes its inspiration from the architectural model of an institutional prison control system invented by social theorist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century. By replacing the round control room's windows with mirrors, the artist reverses the strategic purpose of the tower. In this way, François’ work can be understood as a cynical critique of today’s society, contaminated by the abuse of controlling devices that steal and rob images of our private lives. The tower also reflects the objects that fill the setting around it. The rest of the sculptural interventions are presented as frozen moments on an abandoned filmset.

Like in many of his other exhibitions, the artist always looks for a ‘plan to escape’. He seems to find this freedom in the uncontrollable beauty of natural elements, such as in the exuberant form of an impossible fountain spitting out bronze peanuts, or in the elegance of a silver fence, floating in the sky like an unnatural cloud.

The same liberating pleasure can be felt observing the repeated images of the film commissioned by YARAT and made by the artist on location, capturing the science fiction-like magic of Azerbaijan’s landscape of mud volcanoes. It shows images of lava in eruption, with fading gas-filled bubbles in non-stop transformation. They possess a secret ‘convulsive’ beauty that the surrealists once tried to define as ‘explosive-fixed’. Most of the other sculptural compositions presented are composed of carefully selected poor, almost banal materials that refer in a certain way to the natural resources that are the country's real hidden treasures.

The exhibition invites us to surf on the riffs of reality and the everyday, and transforms us for a moment into accidental tourists or actors participating in the artist’s melancholic theatre of the absurd. Central to his work is the analysis of how small, simple images and objects are the basic elements that decide how we behave as humans in this complex world.