Palais de Tokyo: What Is Art?

An ad for Levi's or art? You decide.

The typical dinner-and-a-movie combination gets a makeover in Paris, where there is so much to see and do that I’d rather spend time in a museum than watching a movie that I’ll be able to see when I get back to the States (and for much cheaper). Despite our mild hangovers after Glenn’s surprise party, Shaun and I headed to the Palais de Tokyo, the museum of contemporary art that hosts temporary exhibitions rather than maintaining a permanent collection. It is the only Parisian museum open until midnight, convenient for us late-sleepers that still want to experience culture. The small museum is minimalist and feels almost like being in a warehouse in Brooklyn, and is filled with the stereotypical hipster-art students that wear a constant look of “I don’t give a damn”. Unfriendly, blank, and more than slightly pretentious, the attitude of the museum was not the only off-putting part. The current exhibition, “Fresh Hell” by by Adam McEwen, was inaccessible and invited laughter from Shaun and I as we pondered how the hoodie of a sweatshirt pinned to the wall could possibly be art.

David Hammons' 1993 work "In the Hood"

My complaint about modern/contemporary art is this: how can art be appreciated if it can’t be understood? While I understand the existential and artistic reasons for creating some of these pieces, many times it’s hard to see the purpose and beauty of a piece if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Louis Vuitton’s Espace Culturel does a fantastic job of solving this problem: their “Qui Es-Tu Peter?” exhibit provides a book in French and English as well as a tour-sheet that gives a glimpse into the artist’s brain in order to allow the viewer to fully understand the meaning behind the work. This made the exhibit easy to follow, and easy to appreciate. The Palais de Tokyo provides no such accessibility: the descriptions of the pieces that are mounted discreetly on the wall are ambiguous and hard to understand, providing nothing but a pretentious excuse for an explanation. This is a museum that tries too hard not to try, and it’s a look they can’t pull off.

I shouldn’t hate on the exhibit too much though: it did have its redeeming works. One piece was a video installation that revisited the wife of a photographer who documented the Algerian Revolution in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, and as the old woman passed between her native language (I couldn’t discern what it was) and French, you became engrossed in what she was saying about her husband passing on her work so that his messages would be revealed. You feel like you are being let it on a secret or discovering some great truth.

These statues were once part of Notre Dame, and though they were destroyed during the revolution, they were rediscovered in 1977.

Another piece that caught my eye was the first installation of the “Fresh Hell” exhibit, which featured 3 of the heads of the Kings of Judah in glass cases (not real heads, obviously, but statues), and in the background a wall of metro tickets, messages on paper, flyers, museum passes, drawings, and other “trash” that had been stuck to the wall. The King of Judah heads were originally part of the Notre Dame Cathedral here in Paris, but were thought to be lost during the Revolution in the 18th century. In the late 1970’s, when construction began on Chaussee de l’Antin in Paris (a metro stop), the heads were discovered buried safely, and were taken out to be put on display, primarily in the Musee de Cluny. It was an interesting fusion of medieval and modern art, but I didn’t really see the point – I just really appreciated the history and meaning of the statues.

We also really enjoyed a wooden labyrinth that was installed as part of the exhibit, and found it not only enjoyable but an interesting interactive work. Once again, we didn’t understand the meaning behind it, but nonetheless enjoyed wandering it, primarily as a way for me to escape the creepy security guard who was hitting on me. In the room right next door, it had been made to look like a warehouse (well, more of a warehouse – the whole museum kind of looks like one), and was set up with the stands of New York grocers, green and symmetrical and placed thoughtfully throughout the room. This seemed to be a commentary on the economic recession that happened in the 1990’s, and the empty stands seem to echo the feelings of emptiness – empty wallets, empty shelves, empty refrigerators – that permeate the United States today.

Shaun wanders the labyrinth.
The empty grocer stands that fill one of the Palais's large warehouse-like rooms.

Though the Tokyo Palace had its redeeming qualities, I wouldn’t go back there for another exhibition, and I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they are an art expert or looking for a good laugh. The exhibition seemed to beg the question, what is art? I have always held true to the thought that art should serve a greater purpose: literature and fine art are a vehicle for social change and reflection, and without it we really have no voice. Though I understand the personal connection, it is hard for an audience to understand these pieces, and I have always found it easier to appreciate literature or art when it has greater message that reverberates somewhere inside me. I didn’t feel that any of the work in this museum achieved this, and was disappointed.

But hey, at least I can cross it off the Bucket List!

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