Review of Julio Le Parc, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London

The solo show of Julio Le Parc at Palais de Tokyo in Paris back in 2013 was a blockbuster that the French capital will remember for a long time. In a more compact format this time but still with the same fervour, the Argentinean-born (1928) Parisian artist presents his first major UK exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London.

Le Parc is a living legend whose career spans the avant-garde movements of post war Latin American and Argentinean art, the foundation of the collective group named GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) in Paris of 1961 (along with François Morellet, Joël Stein, Horacio Garcia Rossi, Francisco Sobrino, Yvaral and Vera Molnár), and his participation in Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop) during the political events of May 1968 that resulted to his brief expulsion from France in the same year.

Le Parc as a founding member of GRAV, along with his co-founder artists, placed great emphasis on the significance of optical and kinetic art and the unswerving participation of the viewer, whose behaviour was considered to be paramount for the hypostasis of the artwork itself. The materialisation of such a concept embraced collective events called Labyrinths. There, with the manipulation and distortion of light along with the appointment of mechanical and kinetic devices, the group manifested the power of individual and independent participation resulting to the gradually developing conception of interactivity between the spectator and the artwork, while concurrently challenging the objective role of the institution.

Despite GRAV’s dissolution in 1968, Le Parc actively continued pursuing the same discipline ever since, by producing works echoing those early prominent counterparts. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery has been transformed into a labyrinthine network of rooms of variable dimensions populated with a series of three dimensional light sculptures and participative games as well as a wall display of a series of previously unseen drawings attesting the artist’s vigorous political attitude.

Utilising for his installations an array of non expensive media such as string, cardboard, wood, plastic, balloons and paint, the works on view are a great anthology of Le Parc’s oeuvre mainly from the 1960s and expanding up to today. Trame à Manipuler (1965), Ensemble de Jeux avic Balles de Ping-Pong (1965) and Sièges à Ressort (1965) are only but a few games that the visitor is prompted to interact with, detached from deep and complex-meaning ideological platforms. What Le Parc requires from the viewer is their physical engagement in order to alter or activate the artwork.

Some of the works, however, imbued with his inclination to activism against anti-institutional notions, are great paradigms of his ongoing political quest. Jeu Enquête: Les Mythes (1969), Jeu Enquête: Choisissez vos Ennemis (1970) and Jeu Enquête: Frappez les Gradés (1971) are -as their description suggests- three enquiry games eliciting the spectators’ action to protest and rebel. In the first one, visitors are encouraged to take out their aggression on hitting with a ball a figure of a bureaucrat or leader. The third encompasses a forest of 18 suspended punch-bags depicting life-size caricature figures of officials and members of capitalist society. We are all more than welcome to express our antipathy and resentment in any way we wish.

The dark arcade opens up to a plethora of small side rooms and subsections where light and kinetic sculptures build an atmosphere of visual perception and optical illusion. Lumière sur Ressort (1964), Cercle Projeté (1968) and Continuel Lumière (1962-1996) are optical works reflecting Le Parc’s ongoing experimentation and investigation into the properties of light. The transformation of spatial parameters via the conduit of animation and vibrancy initiates the visual flair of perpetual flux. The corporeal engagement and stimulation of the viewer that induces a serendipitous displacement is a process registered in the playful outlook of Le Parc’s artistic practice throughout his entire career.

Although his show at Sackler Galley has received mixed reviews and been characterised as old-fashioned and dated, Le Parc’s retrospective should be appreciated as a discourse on celebrated 20th century modern art movements, whose dynamism and ability to interrogate the powers of perspective with simpler (in today’s terms) technological means undeniably continue to influence contemporary art. Le Parc’s declaration of physical involvement in the conventional and fixed domain of a museum or a gallery still finds its descendants amongst contemporary artists. During the recent opening of the show The Unplayed Notes Museum at Dallas Contemporary, a bunch of people recruited by French artist Loris Gréaud intentionally destroyed the entire exhibition recreating an anarchistic environment; a conspicuous testimony of the continuity and timelessness of Le Parc’s legacy.

Julio Le Parc, until 15 February, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA.

Kostas Prapoglou

1. Julio Le Parc, Lumières alternées, (1963-1993), courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.
2. Julio Le Parc, Jeu Enquête: Frappez les Gradés (1971), courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.