The Acrobatic Artwork That Pretty Much Sums Up 2017

Posted December 31, 2017 6:31 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2017 6:33 p.m. EST

Every once in a while with Twitter, you find something that breaks through the bilge and recrimination. Or, sometimes something finds you. One night, “The Mechanics of History” found me. It’s an art installation by Yoann Bourgeois that sat in a daylit rotunda at the Pantheon, in Paris. And for a long while in late fall, I found myself mesmerized by a video of it, starring men spinning off a staircase and onto a trampoline.

The staircase curved around the outer edge of a circular slab that rotated, like a sundial. No laptop screen seemed wide enough to explain what was going on. And yet here was something that seemed, in an oblique, yet attractively obvious way, to capture an important aspect of 2017.

Each time a man fell (there are four), the trampoline would restore him to the steps. The descent and return never disturbed the dude a step behind or ahead, regardless of how proximate he was to the others — and space is pretty tight. The staircase goes around. The men go up and down. And, eventually, you realize that no one seems quite able to reach the top of the landing and hold on.

I was watching this at the start of the sexual-harassment-revelation rockslide, so a metaphor for mankind turned, for me, into a kinetic essay about the entitled persistence of men. There is folly here. There is wonder. There is a tragic kind of joke. You really can’t keep a man down — good but often otherwise — because history’s mechanics are built to keep him climbing toward the top. Somehow, Icarus gets to be reborn as Iron Man.

Part of what’s mesmerizing about “The Mechanics of History” is its physical eloquence — how dancerly it is. The men don’t fall; they float. And when the trampoline restores them to the staircase, they move at a half speed. Cinema, they say, is 24-frames per second. For a couple of beats, these guys are going at about 12. And the descents are all flourish — the men pivot and freeze but with a smooth jerk of the head and neck with their arms up, sleepwalker-style, then they fall. No fear, just cool. No confusion, just inevitability.

The hipsterness of it all — a T-shirt, sneakers, knit cap and the same taupe suit draped over each guy, those hats, the facial hair — feels like a dare to mock “The Mechanics.” Do these clothes say “artists at work” or “sci-fi barista”? Honestly, who can tell? But you couldn’t stay hung up on that for long because the wit of the piece renders its chic beside the point. The chic is an accent. Bourgeois is an acrobat and dramatist of physics. He likes his trampolines and the corollary challenges of — and meaning in — remaining upright. He’s a humorist and motion philosopher. This piece is of a piece with the other ruminating he’s done about time, space, gravity and human nature. In “The One Who Falls,” three women and three men, in everyday clothes, negotiate on another while moving, often in unison, on a giant spinning tile.

What could seem like a gimmick with another artist (or with like, say, parkour) becomes a moral conundrum with Bourgeois. To stand alongside other people or trip them all so I stand alone? It’s “Friends” but written by Jean-Paul Sartre and directed by Milton Bradley.

As art installations go, “The Mechanics of History” was seemingly at odds with the Pantheon’s architectural grandeur (neo-classicism as stone-and-marble opera). The Pantheon is not a museum, per se. On and off, it’s been a church. Now, though, it’s a glorious mausoleum, a home for the distinguished dead. It’s part of a larger celebration of enlightenment and the monumentality of Paris’ mighty edifices. Not that it’s a stodgy place, just magnificently reverential.

“The Mechanics of History” took place beneath the Pantheon’s dome, in the designated home for a replica of Leon Foucault’s pendulum, which debuted in 1851 and confirmed the earth’s rotation. At a temple for the dead, it confirms that the earth will continue to rotate without you. In its way, Bourgeois’ work replicated the pendulum’s, by reframing the fact of duration as a feat of endurance.

I’ve since found other, longer recordings of that Pantheon incarnation of Bourgeois’ installation, including one that goes on long enough to linger on a single dancer after all that great stuff on the steps has concluded. There’s even a staging of “The Mechanics of History” in a more official performance space.

In every way, that staging is the more ingenious achievement. The men’s staircase work and trampoline calibration have even more seasoning — just the ever-so-momentary planting of feet on the side of the staircase to simulate walking up a wall is a Charlie Chaplin-Fred Astaire-Michael Jackson-level masterpiece of gesture. Their slow-motion seems even slower, so that you can’t always distinguish forward from backward. The trampoline seems less like a portal and more like a capitalist taskmaster, keeping lifeless drones on the grind.

It’s all darker and heavier, its critique of power and powerlessness more pointed. And yet I might prefer the Pantheon installation. Some of what hypnotized me about it was its staging in the neo-classical wild. What I saw in that tweet seemed almost incidental, light. There are columns everywhere. Someone’s actually left a stanchion and cordon on some marble steps!

It’s beautifully ordinary. And occasionally that ordinariness achieves magnificence, like the moment when the camera’s framing captures the succession of staircased men so that it rhymes with the electric succession of French Republicans flinging their arms up at the pedestaled “live free or die” lady in François-Leon Sicard’s “La Convention Nationale” sculpture, which dominates that section of the building. Video had captured one incarnation of the sublime fleetingly in sync with another; a work about the slipperiness of forever meets a work of actual physical permanence in a way that felt a lot like filmmaking.

Mostly, though, I liked how you could see people milling around, kind of ignoring all of this. All that wondrousness and import and skill upstaged by the mundane, by us. It feels like a rude joke only the cosmos gets to tell. Life really does just go on.