Summarising the experimental film career of French artist Philippe Parreno isn’t easy.

There’s no theme or common style. His first, Fleurs (1987) is a 52-minute close-up of a flower, which he convinced a French TV network to use as a backdrop for its weather report. His 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was bought by the Guggenheim Museum. It tracks French footballer Zinedine Zidane’s every move during a 2005 game, in real time. For Anywhere Out of the World (2000), Parreno bought the rights to an unloved anime character and removed all copyright restrictions, setting her free from control of an “owner” and allowing other artists to give her a voice.

Parreno rose to prominence in the 1990s – part of a generation of young, experimental European artists including Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe. He works not only with film but drawing, sculpture, sound, performance and text. Perhaps the clearest thread through his work is a sense of the strangeness of everyday life.

In the last five years alone, major exhibitions of his work have appeared in Milan, New York, Moscow and London, where his acclaimed show at the Tate Modern is still running. So ACMI’s new retrospective Thenabouts – a showcase of 28 of his short films together, for the first time – is a big deal.

“I’ve never done something like this, where I present everything,” Parreno says. Reflecting on his early work has been eye-opening, he admits. “In the early days, I was more interested in the set-up than the document. Some of my early films look so bad they’re not worth showing. Now I try to keep the emphasis on both.”

Thenabouts isn’t just about the films, but the way they’re experienced. “The exhibition itself will become an artwork,” he says. This idea – of the exhibition as a discrete artistic object – is a major part of his practice.

Descending into ACMI’s cavernous basement for the exhibition, I’m struck by its emptiness. It’s dark, with pulsing striplights on the wall and helium-filled, fish-shaped balloons floating through the air. Ushers wander aimlessly, carrying flashlights. In the middle of the room there’s a glass booth, where a projectionist with a microphone introduces each film. The order they’re played depends on the projectionists’ whim.

“There are no seats,” Parreno points out. “People can lie on the ground if they want.”

Parreno has made the space into his impression of a cinema: a sparsely lit fish tank where time stops and surreal images dance across the wall. The name of the retrospective, Thenabouts, is a reference to a non-specific time, and the survey plays with this constantly. The films aren’t on a loop – the projectionist shuffles the order manually, randomly jumping back and forward through Parreno’s career.

The projectionists, who act as hosts, know a little about each film but they’re not told how to introduce them.

“The hosts are going to get more and more elaborate, hopefully,” Parreno explains. “It’s not automatic, it’s people talking to people.”

He names avant-garde artists including Marcel Duchamp and composer John Cage as influences, as well as more mainstream names, such as Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow. (When I quiz him on this anomalous choice, his explanation is that Point Break, which Bigelow directed, is a great film). Filmmaker David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) is another big one, and one of the films on show, Stories are Propaganda (2005), namedrops him directly.

“Lynch is all about the strangeness we all share,” Parreno says. And for Parreno, the world is getting stranger: in an age of fake news and social media the line between fantasy and reality is blurred more than ever.

“We’re entering a world where we want authentic experiences, but it’s very hard to have them,” he says. “We’re exposed to so much remote, distant information, which can completely change the way we experience our day.”

Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts is at ACMI until March 13.

acmi.net.au/exhibitions/philippe-parreno-thenabouts