Art show reveals intimate side of French writer Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq.
Michel Houellebecq.

PARIS • In one of the most eagerly awaited Paris art shows of the year, the ageing enfant terrible of French letters, Michel Houellebecq, does not disappoint.

From a room full of erotic photographs of the women in his life to a heart-rending homage to his best ever friend - his dog Clement - France's most controversial novelist gives his wryly cynical, "reactionary" but oddly poetic world view full rein.

There is even a bar reminiscent of the wife-swopping clubs of his novel Atomised, where visitors can pause for a smoke and a beer - two of the writer's favourite vices - to contemplate the full glorious emptiness of modern existence.

"I had not, more than most people, a real reason to kill myself," he declares in the opening rooms next to his shots of the drab "Suburban Avalon" in which he grew up on the edge of Paris.

The show, spread over 18 rooms of the Palais de Tokyo, reveals not just Houellebecq the accomplished photographer-poet and cynical social commentator, but Houellebecq the dog lover, maker of lesbian soft-porn films and disappointed romantic in love with the landscapes of rural France.

"My loyal readers will, I hope, rediscover my principal idiosyncracies," he said in the catalogue.

"A clear taste for megalomaniac nonsense and the impression that I put everything in."

His photographs range from a discount supermarket contrasted with a chateau built into a cliff-face along France's Dordogne river to a young woman who Houellebecq said was "a distant inspiration" for the character Esther in The Possibility Of An Island novel shot in S&M (sadism and masochism) gear.

"Esther really liked that kind of clothing. I, too, like this kind of clothing. I have my little, really little vices," he added.

"These photos of Esther are moments from life, I didn't stage them at all. All men take erotic photos of their girlfriends and they mostly like that."

He said there were also photos of "Marie-Pierre, my ex-wife".

"When men are in love, they look at women. They look at them a lot. Whenever I'm in love with a woman, I photograph her."

The show, called To Stay Alive, also features watercolours by Marie-Pierre Gauthier of their dog, Clement, which punk star Iggy Pop immortalised in his song A Machine For Loving, inspired by Houellebecq's eulogy for his dead Corgi.

Curator Jean de Loisy said that for Houellebecq, the dog symbolised "unconditional love", and that when he and Gauthier split - although they are still good friends - they divided Clement's toys equally.

He said Houellebecq was a true artist who had "multiple aspects to his work. He personally laid out and created the show as a vast installation which examines aspects of his life and work".

The show even includes a half-built red-brick reliquary for the writer's bones.

"It is an extremely rich and strong show," Mr de Loisy added, with the visitor plunged into a Houellebecqian world, bolstered by works by French artists Renaud Marchand and Robert Combas inspired by the author.

Houellebecq said he organised the show as if he was putting together a poetry collection. "I think of myself as a producer of images rather than a photographer. I've organised the rooms so that they follow one another like in a book-length collection in which the poems produce a narrative."

His gift is to "shock, amaze and disconcert" in equal measure, said literature professor Bruno Viard, who has written two books on the author.

"He is not ashamed of his shame. His authenticity comes from his awkwardness and he plays on his existential failures."

Acclaimed French writer Pierre Assouline added: "He is really the hero of his books."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Art show reveals intimate side of French writer Houellebecq'. Print Edition | Subscribe