Strange is the Place: Art and Awareness at the Palais de Tokyo

Originally published in Art Unlimited №37 at

Photo by Aurelien Mole

How romantic still the notion of Paris, how easily and seductively the city lends itself to the artistic itinerant who wishes to lose themselves in the cobblestoned corners of painters and poets past. Stopping in the ubiquitous Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, conceived by Sylvia Beach and maintained later by George Whitman, one cannot help having high expectations of the Lost Generation’s stomping grounds. The entrance floor is a conventional bookshop, with tightly-packed sturdy hardcover and glossy paperback treasures neatly enfolded into the building’s particular slopes. One is still tourist, book-buyer, while perusing these selections, but when one climbs onto the second floor, the bookshop’s permanent library, one slips into the well-worn attire of the pauper writer, hunching their shoulders to fit into the curved ceilings and cozy shelves, burying themselves into the nook of shabby armchairs and make-shift beds. The smell of books, new and finger-flipped alike, is intoxicating — or is it the smell of Papa’s cigar and Joyce’s Fendant de Soin wine that waft from the pages? The weight of footfalls on the uneven floorboards echoes those of many before, and one could well trip over the feet of literati ghosts dashing to and fro, a completed manuscript triumphantly proffered in their invisible hands. One corner houses a piano asking to be played despite its lack of tune, a window which gazes forlornly onto the building’s ceiling, a wilted plant. Towards the front, there is a small cubicle in a hallway, crowned by a vintage typewriter. There travelers scrawl messages of presence and literary aspirations: “I was here, from Korea!” followed by several stars and smiling faces; popular quotations by Pascal and Houssaye; and original thoughts, “I’ve lost my anchor to this world and am adrift in another,” declares the unknown, melancholic E.K. It is an interesting, perhaps unintentional, art piece curated by the people, an endless, continuous content generator whose pen is on the pulse of the populace. I am not above its charm. On a used metro ticket, I drawl out my own message, the opening line of a bad novel: “I came to Paris on a whim. I always wanted to write that.”

This is the weight of history within artistic expression we seek out, the hold a particular place yields over us, calling to us, fulfilling our desires to be part of “something important” merely through presence. Paris is strung with a series of places in which art asks us to consider the strangeness of purpose, of our own place, imagined and self-hewn, within the world.

I am a woman of the written word, hence my long-winded introduction via the space of Shakespeare and Co., before turning to the visual arts. We dare not grant the same attention and rapture to experiencing art that we grant to reading texts. More often than not, we are intimidated by the notion that we do not know how to interpret art, are not suitably instructed to do so and as such, should not do it. Leave it to the professionals, we say, with a dismissing flick of the wrist. This is terribly naïve and lazy of us. Like reading a book, there is no wrong interpretation of art, there is only experience. Notice the verb I am employing to describe our interaction with art: “experience.” Art is by no means static, and neither, by extension, is our relation to it. We take in art holistically first, noticing the overall composition and the immediate feeling it ignites in us, a primordial, wordless response of pleasure, wonder, disgust, apathy. From this, two following reactions spring, the first being that we seek to disassemble the work’s components in order to understand why and how it makes us feel. Whether we know the name for a technique being employed and who coined it and in what year and who first utilized it is not important; what is important is that we notice that this particular sweep or brush or color is catalyst for us. Secondly, we search for the “big meaning” or purpose of the work, spinning a narrative and coherence that may be beyond our immediate grasp, but if effective, we will turn over in our mouths for days to come. When reading a particularly difficult text, we turn to the signs that language and plot indicate to us, follow their trails like a diligent detective to arrive at the big meaning, which, depending on how modern your text is, may have none. Experiencing art is similar, for it demands of us a conscientious contemplation of design and meaning, not just a mere gaze, a quick reading of the plaque bearing title, year, and patron. Art asks of us, “who are you and what place do you occupy here?” It demands presence, and we deftly shy away from it due to fear and impatience.

Reader, I dare not bog you down with misguided, quasi-philosophical and theoretical notions of art (of which, as a graduate student in the Humanities, I am well acquainted with) for I am merely bumbling guide, not holy priestess. We must dispense with the intentionally difficulty of theoretical language, that jargon so preferred by Lacan and fancy sommelier alike, when discussing art to generate accessibility. With this disclaimer in hand, I ask that you consider the reasons we travel far to visit museums. Is it not to experience art as both formalist intention and emotional confrontation, to elicit the emotions we have carried within us always and seldom dare to tackle?

Most of us are an idiot audience, suffering through the laborious security lines of the Louvre, traipsing cluelessly through its vastness with the sole mission of reaching what we have been told are the “important” pieces: Venus de Milo, The Seated Scribe, Gabrielle d’Estrees and Her Sister, and naturally, the Mona Lisa. The Louvre’s own visit map indicates where the time conscious traveler can find these, and they blindly rush through hall after hall, barely looking at the wondrous creations that flank them, for these are neither famous nor valuable. The real attraction, in fact, is the number of tourists huddled around the postage-stamped Mona Lisa, cameras and cell-phones manically flashing, hoping to guard the memory of an experience the mind will not keep, to reassure that yes, you were there, you saw it, you were sophisticated, hashtag selfiewithmonalisa. There is nothing wrong in being a tourist, for we all strangers in strange lands, but the manner in which we approach art now is akin to thoughtless violation, a disservice to the artist and to ourselves. A mantra for the modern times, repeated ad nauseum, holds true: be present. Look up from your phone, your camera, your tour guide, and take in your surroundings. Wonder why a sculpture’s gaze faces a certain corner of the room, if the artist favored the angle you are now admiring, if the curator adjusted it just so that the sun would hit this one particular spot of electric blue paint, making the entire canvas suffused with the hue. Notice how thick the slabs of pigment are, or how fine and sleek, how humanly close to the flatness of a photograph. Meet the direct gaze of the portrait before you, a gaze that transcends temporality, regarding us as if we were the art piece, as if our time were past and hers the true present. Look back, answer her. Search within your mouth for the words, which may not exist, for the sublimity you are feeling, or the rage or the incomprehensibility. It does not matter, as long as you feel. Regret that you do not have more time to admire each of the things your eyes over, that you will forget the particular details — was the background a street scene, or a forest? Was the sitter’s hat yellow or red? — but console yourself that the emotion you caught in your chest will echo throughout you, that the image you captured will exist in the velvet-black draping of your mind’s eye. Situate yourself within the context of your circumstances, and wonder. With every second, the objects within the museum become more ancient, more removed from us, more subject to the consideration of wonder, of impressing us with the effortlessness of its understandable expression of the human experience. How can something antiquated seem so current, so dynamically in discussion with us?

Let me arrive at the particular place I wish us to pause and consider, a place where it may be easier for us to achieve a direct connection to art without the distinctively oppressive layer of time. At the avant-garde Palais de Tokyo — how silkily the tongue traipses through the name, reaching for the roof the mouth, closing its pronunciation with the O lipped gesture of one blowing a cigarette smoke ring — there is an engagement between the audience and the art seldom achieved in traditional museums. Massive concrete structure gilded by metal and glass, it is high hipster art reminiscent of an Urban Outfitters; its entrance is punctuated by carefully draped carpets and sitting cushions which ache for bodies to lounge on them, a Willy Wonka colored gift shop, and the millennial favorite photo booth. While at the Palais, I was awestruck by the infinitesimal precision and detail of the collective installation “Double Je” (“Double I”). The piece centers around an innovative concept, the translation of the modern detective novel into a physical space, exploring the obsessive attention to detail a criminal, a detective, and an artisan share. Based on a short thriller by Franck Thilliez, the installation recounts the murder of craftsman Natan de Galois at the hand of his artisan rival, Ganel Todanais. Worry not, I have not given away the mystery, for there is a shocking twist ending awaiting the spectator at the conclusion of their excursion. A bright yellow “Investigation Report” booklet plots out the saga in micro-chapters, with diagrams and maps of each installation supplementing the experience. The story flows through several linked rooms which visitors can explore Natan’s apartment, garage, and studios. Each room has been painstakingly decorated by the Atelier d’Arts Appliques du Vesinet, alongside twenty-nine other artisans of cutlery, lace, textile, wood, stonework, ceramics, and scenography, submerging the spectator into several exquisitely crafted rooms where the artistry of function and the functionality of art are one.

We are immediately thrown into the details of a life, and our innate penchant for voyeurism is such that we are delighted, and simultaneously wary, of being allowed to wander through the intimate space of another. Each section is perfectly lit, acclimated, and dressed to such a degree that you cannot help but glance over your shoulder to make sure you are not being followed by the murderer. The garage, a gritty and dim space where an airbrushed vintage muscle car is center stage — Maya Rochat and Erwan Robert’s “⊂ᖶ-999-ᖶ M” — is contrasted by the furious fashion of Maxime Leroy’s plumed motorcycle, “Celine.” The biker’s gloves and helmet, the airbrushing station, the neat wall of wrenches — every single object is a consciously crafted for us to consider not only its aesthetic form, but also its function. Exiting the garage into a maze, we are thrown for a very literal loop. Unexpected, this literal maze which houses a “a large dark whirl” at its center represents the Minotaur, and as one of Thilliez’s character explains in the Investigation Report, “is the thing hidden inside all of us and which is constantly trying to escape from the maze of the subconscious.” The maze then leads us out to Natan’s studio, an unsettling and eerie space replete with stags’ horns, frantic chalk scribbles, pliers, and petri dishes of decorative objects. The intricate relationship between creation and madness is explored via Maya Rochat’s slum bedroom, We are going Down, a space in which “you go in, you come out, not always intact,” the artist explains. Plastic, paint splashed curtains divide the studio into a sad sleeping space comprised of a soiled mattress and erratic TV set endlessly blinking. The physical representation of “mental territories” is further evidenced in the jigsaw assembly of posters, photos, and maps that make up Thibault de Gialluly’s Ceci est une ouvre de fiction (III), and culminates in the adjacent room with Jean-Alain Corre’s ceramic and metal projects. Headless ceramic jaws and necks enmeshed in metal and tubing embrace and kiss, their tongues brandished like swords. Across the room a head, or rather a mouth and right ear, the top having been eviscerated, thrusts its toothless tongue at us, a series of clothing strewn about its own metal encasing. Tubes run around the head, and the repetitive, off-kilter hiss of air being pumped creates an uncomfortable rhythm of arrested breathing, a person forever gasping for breath.

The success of “Double Je” lies in forcing the viewer to engage through narrative, that is, to “read” each component with an awareness they would otherwise forgo. In inspecting Natan’s blood wet bed sheets for clues, we notice on the sheets the embroidery of a winged man, his anatomy delicately split open for us, and consider its construction, its meaning. Outside of the context of our “investigation,” should we encounter the same embroidery by Eudes Menichetti merely hung on a wall, we would likely glance at it and move on. The merging of story and art serve to enfold the viewer into the project, impose importance and demand attention, and we must choose to transcend witnessing the moment, to convert it into experience independent of Instagram.

Look around you. How strange is the place we often find ourselves in.

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Double Je

Palais de Tokyo

13 Avenue du Président Wilson

Paris, France

March 24-May 16 2016