Will Paris's Revamped Palais de Tokyo Lead the French Art Scene Back Into the Spotlight?

Racing a car and making some noise with Lucas Abela’s installation “Vinyl Arcade”
(© Photo : Nicolai Hartvig)

PARIS—Now Europe’s largest art center, the Palais de Tokyo reopened last week with a 30-hour cavalcade of projections and performances straddling the experimental and the self-referential, hinting at both a new identity and the untethered ambition for the French capital’s foremost institution for emerging contemporary art.

Ten months of renovations have brought back into use 14,000 square meters (150,000 square feet) of space left derelict through years of budget constraints and squabbling over whether the Palais was an incubator for young talent or a more conservative, faithful supporter of established French artists. Judging by the first new elements of programming, both demands seem to be catered to, in labyrinthine rooms and corridors that sprawl across four floors that architects Lacaton and Vassal have left under-developed to perfection. It remains to be seen how its new director Jean de Loisy and his curators fare with a Berlin-style industrial concrete site that can be both gracious and unyielding.

Aside from the artist interventions, the Palais seems little changed from how it looked last October, when it was still formally under construction. Dust clings to boots and jeans, exposed concrete is plentiful and electrical wires hang from the ceiling. The Seine-side gallery is bathed in natural light with a view of the Eiffel Tower, while the descent into the vast and dungeon-like basement, lit only by a handful of fluorescent lamps, is damp and stuffy. On the first floor, a skylight brightens an open, white-walled space, while the newly opened underground projection rooms are pitch black aside from a luminous, web-like tapestry of deer in a forest by French artist Julien Salaud. (This juxtaposition is even more striking when one sees pictures of the Palais in the 1960s, a classic museum that resembled its current neighbor, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.) “It’s a territory for adventure,” de Loisy said at the opening.

A few minutes past 6 pm on Thursday, the doors opened to the tuba-like bellows of foghorns from the roof of the Palais, announcing the rebirth — and symbolically, a new maiden voyage — for a several mile radius around Paris. This was a performance, dubbed “Air de Jeu,” by Fouad Bouchoucha, and it is destined to be immortalized through a film featuring recordings that the artist’s assistants made at different historic places while Bouchoucha tooted his horns, which have been reclaimed from decommissioned ships.

“The horns use compressed air, which echoes the Palais de Tokyo as a residual space, which exists within its closed walls and is shaped by its new architecture,” Bouchoucha told ARTINFO France.

The opening lobby of the Palais offers an immediate reflection on the site’s desire to ally the unkempt and undefined with artistic statements. Before closing, the high-ceiling space had been filled by a work by Serge Spitzer, which has now been replaced by the poetic cacophony of Peter Buggenhout’s enormous hanging sculpture “The Blind Leading the Blind [If one blind man guides another, they will both fall into the ditch (Matthew 15: 14)],” a mass of debris that appears almost to be a part of the Palais that has been left in disrepair, blurring the line between the site and the work itself.

Eight artists have contributed on-site interventions. Christian Marclay has set the building’s palatially classic exterior against the institution's contemporary ideals, installing large windows of 1950s cartoon-style bubbles — “Kaboom,” “Fwooosshh,” etc. — in the café facing onto the Avenue du Président Wilson. The work, which also explores the relationship between words and sound, hints at the Palais’s multi- and cross-disciplinary leitmotif and the daring aspect of bringing a space reminiscent of early Berlin and New York warehouse shows to the quietly luxurious 16th Arrondissement.

Vincent Ganivet, who gained wide exposure after one of his breeze block sculptures was included in the 2010 “Dynasty” survey of young French art at the Palais, has manipulated smoke from fireworks to create planet-like orbs on white backgrounds, a process evoking the tension between deliberate precision, the accidental, and the catastrophic — and also the many possible fates and facets of the Palais. Elsewhere, under a central skylight, Ulla Von Brandenburg’s double skate-ramp “Death of a King” appears as a colorful, almost psychedelic, untouchable stage.

At the reopening (dubbed an “Entre-ouverture” since a government-initiated Triennale will officially become the Palais’s first post-renovation exhibition this week), dancers, singers, and spoken word artists seemed to emerge from nowhere for ephemeral performances. Young women in lab coats danced with neon-colored skeletons for Gloria Friedman’s live painting “Dolce Vita.” Claude Cattelain built and rebuilt ad infinitum a Mikado-like structure of wooden pillars and planks. For Hajnal Nemeth’s performance “Contrawork,” singers delivered a bizarre, mournful eulogy for a car that was being stripped a few feet away. Visitors had fun piloting a vinyl-scratching remote-controlled car on Lucas Abela’s installation “Vinyl Arcade,” while Monte Laster’s urban street poets popped up in the crowd with deft wordsmithing. Matthew Herbert closed the proceedings, Friday night, with a performance of a music-cum-cooking show “One Pig.”

Across from Buggenhout’s mobile-like sculpture, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s immense words “Fear Eats the Soul” could be a reminder for the Palais itself, long hampered by an internal tug-of-war between different generations of the French art scene.

When Jérôme Sans and Nicholas Bourriaud took the helm of the first Palais incarnation as a site for contemporary creation in 2002, it was with a self-styled remit to pay attention to French artists, going against the internationally-minded gallery scene. Cue years of edgy shows, debate, and a struggle that peaked in April 2011, when the head of the renovation project, Olivier Kaeppelin, left in anger to join the Fondation Maeght. Kaeppelin had more or less formally been offered the presidency of the Palais, but claimed he was being prevented from influencing its artistic direction and that there was tension between him and the Swiss director of the Palais, Marc-Olivier Wahler. Kaeppelin was also the author of a report, commissioned by then minister of Culture Christine Albanel in 2009, which concluded that the Palais de Tokyo should cater to established artists who had yet to receive a major retrospective, as well as emerging talent. He had wanted to present the old guard likes of Robert Combas and Hervé Télémaque, riling some who considered his selection two conservative — but Kaeppelin also managed to show Sophie Calle and Amos Gitaï in the unfinished spaces, before his departure.

The oldest French artist to decorate a space in the new Palais, Jean-Michel Alberola, has filled an upstairs room with simple drawings and philosophical phrases. It is the least inspiring intervention on the building. Of the three solo shows planned for each season, one will present an established artist, with a young French artist and a young international artist taking the other berths. First up will be Fabrice Hyber, incidentally also one of the more contemporary names on Kaeppelin’s list. Philippe Parreno will follow next year, after a show put together by 15 international curators, tasked with showing art in a novel way.

The fate of the Palais de Tokyo says a lot about France’s perspective and ambition for its own art scene, still working to reclaim its early 20th-century importance. Jean de Loisy will have to nimbly navigate between doing justice to proven talent, while avoiding a return to the country’s pre-2005 reputation for top-down sanctioning of selected artists — an issue that the French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand seemed to allude to at the opening when he praised Mr. de Loisy for programming which showed “how you are visionary and, at the same time, realist.” The strategy of leaving the new Palais de Tokyo raw and unfinished, its future unwritten, may then prove to be very effective indeed.

To see images of the new Palais de Tokyo, click on the slide show.