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A Cold Sun rising over Palais de Tokyo

(Paris.) Palais de Tokyo (Tokyo Palace) is France's best known "centre d'art", a public gallery with no collection of its own. After major renovation works last year the exhibition space grew even bigger, whilst preserving its "cool" industrial look with water dripping down the unrendered walls. The innumerable exhibitions are organized in "seasons", currently it's Season 1/2013 - Soleil Froid (Cold Sun). This title is only roughly adapted to the artworks on show, and seems rather a catchy reference to Parisian springtime.

On the ground floor two shows illustrate how the gigantic space should be used and how it should not. Hell as Pavillion is an open room full of small drawings, collages, posters, videos, photos, all scattered about the walls in no apparent order. The common feature is their having been created by contemporary Greek artists ("Hell as" -> "Hellas", the Greek name for "Greece", probably you figured that out immediately. I didn't). If the goal was to present the state of affairs in today's Greece, it's a plain success. Sadly, the individual works' character is lost in the chaotic presentation. Maybe it's a belated reaction to the empty Greek Pavilion at 2011 Venice Biennale. In the end it's all the same, as the term "chaos" derives from Greek khaos, meaning void. It does not help either, that many of these works look like what works from recent art school graduates typically look like, with phallic and vulvic forms, snapshots and obscure references to (art) history. BUT there are free posters to take away.

In the adjoining hall, Evariste Richer does much better.

The space accorded to him is even larger, and he uses every wall too, but with the intention to create a harmonious whole. This he achieves by combining the minimalist with the monumental: one homogenous series on each wall, plus one object in the middle. Evariste Richer proves that even a most unsexy science like mineralogy may be a fascinating source of inspiration for an artist. From the Milky Way to the depths of the earth, he explores the aesthetics of inorganic matter. Macrocosm and microcosm, the relative eternities of a star and a rock, this looks great and has something to say.

Op art is not dead! (Not yet.) It might be the right time to rediscover veteran artist Julio le Parc (born in 1928), a prominent figure of the 1960s, when this style was fresh and fashionable.

For once, Palais de Tokyo took care to install a sophisticated setting with refined light effects in the dark. The space is clearly delimited and nothing distracts the eye (apart from one necessary passage through a staircase). Enter the exhibition, get immersed in its world and leave. Sounds easy.

At the beginning stands a labyrinth of suspended plastic mirrors; look at shattered reflections of yourself as through a set of compound eyes. The experience might recall baroque amusements in Versailles' mirror room or a Haunted House fairground attraction, depending on the people visiting with you. Having found the exit, the main exhibition starts and it looks like a Sci-Fi movie from the 1970s/80s. Futuristic, but groovy.

Lean back, watch and relax. Moving metal, moving mirrors, plays of light and shadow. Optical illusions and e-motors, black, white and colored spotlights, hypnotic patterns, electrical humming, the tick of a metronome and huge circles of light; is this a warp engine over there? Everywhere around it sparkles, and twinkles and glitters. Lava lamps would fit in, too. Suddenly a huge acryl painting imitates abstract Aztec or Mayan murals, and it just fits in (should those aliens, after all...?). Seriously, this is beautiful. Just avoid thinking of screensavers and animated desktop images on your Mac or smartphone. Op Art was there before.

Argentinian born Julio le Parc did much more in his long career. On a fairground of art, one may throw balls at evil Junta men or box sandbags designated as "judge", "journalist", "poet", "artist", "critic", etc. Imagine stories according to your point of view, move around to see "journalist", "police" and "actor" in a line, or "priest", "intellectual" and "doctor". Then land your punch. Play darts (no steel points, but Velcro) with an "imperialist" in the bullseye; the "independent intellectual" still scores more than the "policeman" or the "indifferent". Push buttons on various other machines, this is Relational Art at its best (btw, Nicholas Bourriaud was a co-founder of Palais de Tokyo). When Julio le Parc created these political works from the 1960s onward, they seemed like the only possible reaction to the South American turmoil of revolutions and counter-revolutions. After despair comes humour.

Leave this show and descend to the Tokyo (Palace) Underground.

There is art. A lot of it. It's everywhere. And it might be just too much, too rough and too scattered. Greece is everywhere, these days.

No matter, how attentively you look out, you will miss half of the works on two basement floors. One exhibition blends into the other, some bigger, some consisting of only one work. You could get the (unfair) idea Palais de Tokyo provides a showcase for every Parisian gallery.

Occasionally there is a (voluntary?) link between two artists. Hicham Berrada's astonishing videos and photos of chemical reactions find their place next to Clémence Seilles' installation of a wind machine that is supposed to be a relict from a future, when the natural phenomenon no longer exists (don't ask why or how). Here the beauty of scientific manipulation, there the mourning of nature lost. Cold sun, cold fusion.

Other eye-catchers include Pierre Paulin's collages with writings, CD's and tape bands; he also uses anachronistic 16mm film to show himself typing a poem on a computer screen. Never mind the technique, it's content that matters. An optimistic approach to technological change, soon all text will exist on-screen only.

Hurrying on we fall upon a Jaguar E-Type transformed into a hearse. Not created for a Goth kid in an all-new episode of Pimp my Ride, but a work from François Curlet; it also features in a film shown in a separate room. Roll in peace.

Last year's winners of Prix Marcel Duchamp, Daniel Dewar & Grégory Gicquel present toilet bowls and kitchen sinks in pottery. Probably they realized that if there were an award for the "cleanest restrooms in a public institution", Palais de Tokyo would win.

Whatever drives you there, be it drugs or diarrhea, sex or solitude: You'll be fine. Even on PdT's opening nights that - thanks to free beer and mojitos for invitees - are crowded like a Metro train in rush hour, their shimmering cleanness and airy peace rest untouched. A theory says most people don't dare to enter these heavenly refuges and use them for what is their raison d'être, thinking they must be art installations (after some serious consideration I discarded the alternative of my being mistaken and having abused an installation for physiological needs).

Back to the exhibition, D&G (Dewar & Gicquel, what else) also created stop-motion animation videos of statues. At least, copulating clay is funny. The British-French couple won the Marcel Duchamp Award with the commission for an anonymous collector, who had asked them to design his funerary monument. Their proposal showed him in a diver's suit ready to dive deep down and rise again unharmed. Now they need to stay in public focus, and they surely have much talent.

It's too easy getting lost in the multitude of micro-exhibitions that follows no apparent order or system, despite some colored lines on the floor. Palais de Tokyo is like the internet without Google. No, without a browser or any GUI at all.

Not every artwork is fit for presentation in an industrial ruin of cathedral size. Thrown in here they struggle for notice. Any artwork interacts with its place of exhibition; and usually one of them needs to be adapted to the other. An artist who understands this is Joachim Koester from Denmark. He invented his own space to remain undistracted by the messy surroundings. Wooden palisades limit a narrow passage, the ambiance reminds of a mine (and horror classic My bloody Valentine). At the center videos influenced by Polish playwright Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) and American spiritualist John Murray Spear (1804-1887) are waiting for the visitor.

Palais de Tokyo is undoubtedly a highly important and most fascinating institution. It willingly opted against grandeur, against megalomania and seeks to be an anti-authoritarian experimentation space instead. One has to respect this, but the outcome is not fully convincing, either. Like children presented with a whole toy factory, the people in charge don't really know where to start. In the best case somebody is there to take them by the hand and organize an exhibition, a curator or an artist. Where this does not happen, the result is chaos. And not necessarily a creative one.

Oh yeah, there is a half-pipe in the first basement, a permanent installation by Ulla von Brandenburg. Street credibility.

Season 1 - Cold Sun, Palais de Tokyo, February-May 2013



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