Pin It
Elea Jeanne Schmitter, “Fasten” (2020)
Elea Jeanne Schmitter, “Fasten” (2020), 200cmx140cm. Canvas Print. Unique edition in this sizeCourtesy of the artist. Photography LeMassi

This exhibition pays tribute to riotous women artists

Les Militantes at Maison Guerlain in Paris honours women asking provocative questions about the way we live

Paris is a city with a radical, febrile past. From the French Revolution to La Commune, the French are a nation of world-renowned protestors and insurrection is part of the very fabric of even their capital’s most elegant boulevards. And few are more elegant than the Champs-Élysées, home of Maison Guerlain. 

Established in 1828, Guerlain swiftly became one of the world’s most venerated perfumiers and skincare houses. Here, amid the opulence of the Guerlain former residence in one of Paris’ most prestigious districts and coinciding with Paris+ par Art Basel, a new exhibition curated by Caroline Messensee honours female artists who refuse to toe the line. 

Le Militantes brings together 21 artists committed to challenging the status quo. From renowned names such as Louise Bourgeois,  Zanele Muholi and Niki de Saint Phalle to more emerging young artists, every proposes something provocative and stirring. Véronique Courtois, the president of Maison Guerlain explains, “Each one brings a perspective, a path, and moves forward a debate.”

Eléa-Jeanne Schmitter’s arresting photograph depicts a nude female torso whose breasts are distorted by what could be at first glance some kind of Japanese shibari bondage rope but, as you get closer, is actually a car seat belt. Schmitter’s work comments on the many elements of daily life designed by men for the benefit of other men.

“There are so many daily microaggressions we don’t even notice,” explains Schmitter as we stand on the Guerlain marble staircase, contemplating her work. “Before I started this work I wasn't aware of how so many spheres of healthcare or design were constructed in a way that excludes women. And I was so shocked because I didn’t realise these things were so present in our daily routine in very tiny details that can become super dangerous.”

In her work “Fasten” (2020), Schmitter draws our attention to the innate sexism of the standardised seat belt – a device designed solely for the safety and comfort of 40-year-old men weighing 70 kg (despite the fact that, although men are more involved in road accidents than women, women are 47 per cent more likely to be injured and 17 per cent more likely to die). 

Schmitter explains that female test dummies were introduced to the market in 2010, but they are still not compulsory for car designers and are still almost entirely absent from study data. She adds wryly, “And of course when they are used, they are placed in the passenger seat.”

Another striking feature of the exhibition is Jeanne Susplagas’ “La Maison Malade” – an installation that speaks of disproportionate consumption, inequality, excess and scarcity. In one of the grand downstairs rooms, Susplagas has installed a glass greenhouse and thousands of empty medicine packets are either flowing from its doors or encroaching across its threshold, depending on how you choose to interpret it. 

The house – a potent symbol that recurs throughout the Parisian artist’s work – represents a structure that is supposed to be a refuge but can so often become “a theatre of inter-family violence or incest” – like seatbelts – are designed to save us but can so often be deadly. 

“It's not just about women,” says Susplagas, gesturing to the packaging cascading across the polished wooden floor. “It's about medication in general, and how in some countries, we have an overconsumption of them while,  in other countries, you really have a difficult time accessing  them.” She points out the ubiquitousness of pill-taking in the western world and how, for many, it’s become an insidious practice. “Medicine used to be kept in the bathroom,” she says. “But nowadays I notice it’s often kept in the kitchen. It’s part of our daily consumption.”

“It’s totally different if I show it in other countries where medicine is a luxury,” Susplagas tells me. She also explains how she changes the packaging each time to make it specific to that country, so visitors can perhaps recognise their own medication amid the chaos of packets. “In Miami, there was a group of young people who became quite violent in the installation but I didn't want the security to stop them, I wanted to talk with them. So I explained to them it was a dangerous scenario in this busy room. They said ‘Yes, but since we were kids, we have been given medicine to make us behave exactly as people want.’ I was really shocked but I thought it was really cool, actually, that they were able to share that.”

Le Militants is running at Maison Guerlain until November 14 2022