One of the key stops on my first trip overseas in three years was to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to see Kate Newby’s work. Newby was one of fourteen artists presenting their work in Reclaim the Earth, curated by Daria de Beauvais. All hailed from outside Europe, with half of Indigenous lineage and several from the Southern Hemisphere. The show was, in the curator’s words, a gathering of artists who have developed relationships with the natural world based on ‘kinship and alliances’ rather than exploitation. In cosmopolitan Paris, placing her trust in non-Western, Indigenous, and extra-European artists was a strategic move. But did the curator’s claims match the works’ messages? And how did Newby’s work function in the mix?
The Palais de Tokyo is a monolithic complex, set within a structure built to house the 1937 International Exposition. It has been home to various collections of modern art, including film and photography, before becoming the largest space dedicated to contemporary art in Europe. Its interior is now stripped to create cavernous, stylishly deconstructed galleries, at odds with the heroic classicism of its deco exterior. Since reopening in 2012, the institution has self-consciously exploited the fruitful dissonance between its architectural frame and the artistic practices that occupy it. A garden tended by locals softens one edge, the courtyard linking the east and west wings is a notorious meeting place for local skateboarders, and, inside, empty spaces lend a sense of abandonment to the whole operation. In other words, the venue already encodes a critique of the modernist values it was built to espouse. So to imagine the artists in Reclaim the Earth as an ‘outside’ to this already established dialectic seemed essentialising, a projection by the centre upon its peripheries.
In fact, despite its ‘exotic’ origins, the show betrayed the recognisable ingredients of any contemporary-art exhibition: paintings, video projections, sculptures, and installations, all deploying materials in familiar ways, readily readable through the histories of art. Rather than a new relationship to the planet, the curator could as easily have drawn out the traumatic histories of dispossession and death that haunted many of the works, from the matted human hair of Solange Pessoa’s sinuous floor-piece to the bound body of Mapuche artist Sebastián Calfuqueo to the Mad Max–like installation of the Karrabing Film Collective. She might also have foregrounded the disruptive and ingenious ways artists took from Western culture, twisting the codes of modern and contemporary art to turn back the clock to ways of being that allowed for fear and belief to reassert themselves as tools of mediation between humans and their world, as evidenced in the totemic sculptures of Huma Bhabha or Karrabing Film Collective member Elizabeth Povinelli’s performance as a white zombie.
Kate Newby’s contributions also contradicted de Beauvais’s curatorial thesis, while they beautifully exemplified her ethics. Applying the language and processes she has refined over the last few years, Newby inserted three works into the exhibition. Only one, an exquisite scatter piece of fired clay-and-glass ‘puddles’, was conventionally installed in one of the galleries. The other two were inserted into the building’s fabric, replacing panes of glass in the front doors and setting rectangles of mortared bricks into the exterior courtyard.
Made with organic materials, moulded by bodily actions and hardened by the effects of heat, Newby’s works certainly ‘reclaimed the earth’. But they also engaged fine-craft practices perfected in France through the era of kings and imperial greatness. Her puddles were made with Craft, a workshop in Limoges, where the finest porcelain has been produced since the 1770s. Her glass panes were treated with jaune d’argent, a chemical process developed in medieval times, and were manufactured with Ateliers Loire, a historical centre for stained-glass production in Chartres. Her bricks were carved and fired with the assistance of a long- established terracotta factory in Les Rairies, a village in the Loire Valley.
Drawing on the traditional practices of French craftspeople, Newby seemed to be acknowledging a European ancestry, thus subtly shifting the exhibition’s orientation away from an unfortunately exoticised non-Western ‘other’, to atavistic sources closer to home. This is something the discourses around decolonisation and ecological reparation need. We cannot expect Indigenous communities, traumatised by their encounters with colonisers, to solve the planet’s problems.
I visited Newby’s work The Edge of the Earth as a sudden downpour began to clear. I sheltered under a thin line of shrubbery that shielded a private party of elegant Parisians. The only others in my immediate vicinity were two homeless men keeping dry in the deep window frames that punctuated the façade. The contrast between haves and have-nots was stark. Newby’s work may have served as an earthy foil to the grandeur of the setting but, to me, it spoke to global inequalities from which even Europe is not exempt.