The Palais de Tokyo - A palace of contemporary arts
Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Palais de TokyoThe Palais de Tokyo is less of a museum than a self-styled "site of contemporary creation dedicated to young artists". It ushers in a new and more flexible type of stage for art in Paris more suited to the leanings of art today. The undertaking owes much of its success to Jerome Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud, designers and directors of the ambitious art project, whose rich and diverse programming perfectly illustrates the vitality of the French and international art scene.

The Palais de Tokyo, built for the World Fair in 1937, is located between the Trocadero and the Pont de 1'Alma in Paris. Its seemingly incongruous name is taken from the old Quai de Tokyo, which separates the Palais from the Seine, and actually refers more to the building's west wing now entirely devoted to contemporary art. The interior refurbishment of the long-disused building was entrusted to architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal. Their design brings out the curves of the building's large concrete arch and the natural light that filters through the crescent-shaped glass roof. The refurbishment included knocking down partitions and stripping the walls, to such an extent that only the framework remained. The resulting minimalism not only lends itself well to the constant flow of visitors, but also gives each exhibitor complete artistic freedom in displaying their work.

The minimalism designed to enhance visitors' freedom of movement has met with some raised eyebrows. Many have taken umbrage at the building site fences separating exhibits and the small van acting as ticket office. Although such detractors should bear in mind that the entire project was put together on a shoestring. Still, the Palais opened in January 2002 amidst fierce controversy. For some, the new centre was nothing more than a "mock squat" and several associations of squatter artists were quick to describe the initiative as "cynical counterfeiting". The storm was instrumental, however, in setting the new centre apart from the imposing network of cultural institutions. Compared with the revered Musee d'Art Modeme de la Ville de Paris, which shares part of the same building, the Palais de Tokyo is bursting at the seams with innovation and creativity reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Factory.

The Palais de TokyoJerome Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud, the centre's directors through to 2005, invite artists from around the world to exhibit their original works. The Palais' financing comes equally from government subsidies and private sponsors, which guarantees objective artistic choices. While a traditional museum is expected to represent the major movements in art history, Sans and Bourriaud seek to support new projects. Think more research lab than art gallery. Maybe their talent lies in their youth (both men are in their early forties), enabling them to easily identify the current concerns underlying the contemporary art scene. Over the last two years, the pair have staged four themed exhibitions: Hardcore, highlighting the latest forms of militancy, GNS, a revival of the concept of territory, Playlist, the proliferation of cultural navigation systems, and Live, the new relationships between art and music. With this form of expression, Jerome Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud have elevated the humble curator to art critic.

With Sans and Bourriaud at the helm, the Palais de Tokyo has become the setting for state-of-the-art exchanges and associations. As exhibition commissioners, they fiercely defend what Boumaud refers to as "relational aesthetics" (art which sets out to represent human interao-'Jon and its social context, rather than merely filling a symbolic autonomous and private space). An entire generation of artists (Daniel Buren, Maurizio Cattelan, Domique Gonzalez-Foester and Rirkrit Tiravanija, to name but a few) work on the premise that art should be interactive, that an exhibition serves more as entertainment than an art critics' bastion. Often, it is the general public's response that completes the artistic process. Granted, "These experiments sometimes fail," admits Jerome Sans. "There are other possibilities and not all meet with everyone's approval: their value lies precisely in the discussion of them."

Innovation is another reason behind the Palais de Tokyo's success. For instance, it is the first contemporary art centre in the world to be open from midday to midnight, six days a week. And gone are the traditional museum attendants, replaced by expert guides ready to answer visitors' questions and information panels throughout. The centre also holds exhibition previews with admission free of charge, making for fun, lively events. And a suggestions box is available for visitors at the entrance. For art novices, the Palais' animated website offers a fun introduction to contemporary art. The centre's terraced cafe, chic restaurant, art bookshop and boutique are all in keeping with the directors' aim to create a 'living' museum. The Palais de Tokyo is turning the traditional museum on its head with its new cutting-edge concepts, earning the centre international critical acclaim.

The figures paint a promising picture. In just two and a half years, the centre has welcomed 600,000 visitors through its doors and a staggering 236 artists have exhibited there. A recent report by France's Ministry of Culture confirms the Palais' success. Other projects, such as retrospective exhibitions on well-known contemporary artists and permanent collections provided by the regional contemporary art funds, are also being considered to broaden the centre's appeal and guarantee its future.

Let's just hope that the proposed changes do not compromise the Palais' flexibility (admittedly a difficult task with 11,500 m2 of exhibition space left to occupy). The late Pierre Restany, the world-renowned art critic who theorised on the concept of "New Realism", was delighted to act as honorary President of what he called "one of the rare adventures in art today". The Palais de Tokyo is certainly injecting a breath of fresh air into French culture.

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