Lili Reynaud-Dewar had to go to Scotland to learn about France. The artist, born in La Rochelle on the western coast of France in 1975, moved to the UK to study for a masters in fine art at the Glasgow School of Art in 2001. “I didn’t realise until then how male-dominated the French contemporary art word was. There were artists that I admired very much, but there was very little place for women,” she says.

It was in Glasgow that Reynaud-Dewar also had her first brush with performance, dance and writing, particularly art criticism, now mainstays of her practice, as a reporter for the French contemporary art magazine Zérodeux 02. “At the time, Glasgow was a city with a lot of artists, some major institutions, but few galleries,” she recalls with a grin. “It was an art scene where artists ran the show.”

As a young woman, Reynaud-Dewar admits to having “resisted” the artistic inclinations of her family (“My father was a poet and my mother worked in the theatre”). She enrolled as a law and public administration major at the University of La Rochelle but chose to live in Paris, where art was hardly avoidable. Following a masters in public law at the Sorbonne in 1998, she turned her studies to art. After a few years taking courses at the academies of fine arts in Marseille and Nantes, she graduated from Glasgow in 2003.

In 2005, Reynaud-Dewar filmed herself dancing in her studio. This was the first of a series of videos in which the artist paints her nude body and dances through exhibition spaces. “I was interested in the choreography of Josephine Baker and wanted to interpret her movements.” The earliest videos were in black and white, as if the artist were a dancing silhouette.

A man takes a photo of a woman reading a book from the side. In red letters over the picture appear the words Risques industriels majeurs
A still from part 1, episode 2, of ‘Gruppo Petrolio’ © Gruppo Petrolio

In her foreword to a collection of Reynaud-Dewar’s writings titled My Epidemic, artist Verena Dengler touches on the awkwardness of showing these works in an American context where questions of cultural appropriation are incendiary. When asked about these early versions of what would become a pillar of her mature practice, Reynaud-Dewar responds: “I made a mistake, I think it’s important to admit it. I have learned a lot from criticism of these early works. I don’t believe they should be destroyed, or that it is even possible to completely discard a work of art, however, I discourage their public display.”

Reynaud-Dewar’s new exhibition in Paris’s cutting-edge art centre, the Palais de Tokyo, which opens next week, comprises two parts. The first part, with free public access, is titled Gruppo Petrolio after the collective that Reynaud-Dewar formed with current and former students. Inspired by Petrolio (1992), filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s posthumously published novel, this collaborative mini-series of 19 short films questions the role of artistic creation in a time of political and climate crisis with a blend of dark humour and documentary seriousness.

The second part, titled Hello, my name is Lili and we are many, requires a ticket and consists of an installation of passages from the artist’s diary, printed on billboards that punctuate the cavernous underbelly of the museum. One also finds flat-screen televisions playing interviews with Reynaud-Dewar’s male friends bathed in a reddish light. She has expertly edited out her questions, giving the impression that the men depicted are monologuing rather than responding to her. Projected on the walls are silent films of the artist nude, painted from head to toe in silver paint and dancing, smoking or reading a newspaper.

A man lies on his stomach on a flowery bed bathed in a red light
‘Paul-Alexandre, April 24th 2022, room 502, rue Pierre Semard, Paris, 2022’ . . . 
Close-up of a man’s face also bathed in red light
. . . and ‘Paul-Alexandre, April 24th 2022, room 502, rue Pierre Semard, Paris, 2022’ both feature friends of Lili Reynaud-Dewar answering her questions © Courtesy the artist/Layr (2)

These works are a playful ribbing of the self-serious solemnity of the art world. Not only do they desacralise the museum spaces where they are performed, they also challenge the status of the female nude as an “object” of art-historical study, activating it, making it come alive and giving it agency.

Overall, Reynaud-Dewar’s work seems aligned with the aesthetics and themes of the political left. In 2021, the artist was awarded the Prix Marcel Duchamp, one of France’s most prestigious awards for visual artists, for her four-screen video installation “Rome, November 1-2 1975” (2021), which plays out the last moments of Pasolini’s life with nearly identical shots of actors of different genders and ethnicities switching seamlessly between French, Italian, English and Japanese.

Although Reynaud-Dewar claims her fascination with Pasolini is rooted in the contradictions between the progressive and conservative impulses in his work, the Italian communist poet and director is a fitting interlocutor for the French artist. Both are writers and filmmakers. Both demonstrate a social concern and political engagement that is passionate without being dogmatic. Both tackle the thorny subjects of activism in a way that embraces the messiness of real life with a sprinkling of humour.

Yet the artist herself sees it rather differently. “I’m really just a nerd,” confesses Reynaud-Dewar between drags of her e-cigarette. “I think we attribute too much power to art. It is important that we in the art world are attentive to the way that work is organised and remunerated. I don’t think that a milieu with as much murkiness surrounding these questions as ours has much to offer by way of solutions to greater social problems.”

‘Hello, my name is Lili and we are many’, October 19-January 1 at the Palais de Tokyo,

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