Palais de TokyoThe anti museum
It is neither timid nor apologetic but rather an assertive, confident kind of place that announces its credentials from the start. The décor is resolutely distressed, with pockmarked concrete walls, exposed steel girders, long electrical flexes trailing around the ceilings, bare light bulbs and chipped paint.
It is my firm view that there is no such thing as too many cups of tea, so when I last went to Le Palais de Tokyo, I made straight for the cafe. It sits in the lobby with 1950s school room furniture, and a dour aesthetic. I drank my cup of very Parisian, and very horrible Earl Grey with hot, frothy milk, and watched a group of visitors here to look at the art. They wandered around the entrance area, looked approvingly at an installation of builder’s tools in the middle of the floor, and nodded sagely at a cluster of silver helium balloons that bobbed across the ceilings. They turned as one, when inexplicably but somehow appropriately, a man walked slowly across the wide expanse of concrete floor with a huge sack of carrots on his back.
Le Palais de Tokyo calls itself an ‘anti-museum’. It is housed in an iconoclastic space created in 2002 in a building constructed for the 1997 Exposition Internationale. It is neither timid nor apologetic but rather an assertive, confident kind of place that announces its credentials from the start. The décor is resolutely distressed, with pockmarked concrete walls, exposed steel girders, long electrical flexes trailing around the ceilings, bare light bulbs and chipped paint. A sign directs visitors to one of its bars, the dystopian-sounding Le Smack.
As I nursed the final dregs from my cup, and I was suddenly reminded of a scene from Sex and the City when Charlotte welcomed a famous rock star to her contemporary art space. Their conversation went something like this:
ROCK STAR (pointing to the wall): I’ll take that piece. How much is it?
CHARLOTTE: Excuse me? That? Oh, no. I’m sorry. That’s a fire extinguisher.
That’s exactly how it turned out at Le Palais, too, on the day of my visit. The lobby was open, the cafe was open, but the galleries were closed for refurbishment. The builder’s tools were just tools, the silver balloons were just the remnants of a private party, and the man with the carrots, was just a man with carrots (what he was doing with them is, of course, another question). A black suited attendant explained that the next exhibition would open in a month, and the visitors shuffled shamefacedly away, tricked by a museum that was not only anti-, but on that day at least, also non-. This year Le Palais will host an exhibition called ‘L’Etat du Ciel’, a ten-part event which includes, amongst other things, an installation entitled ‘Eternal Flame’ featuring ‘nearly 200 intellectuals and poets in a debate focusing on the interconnections between art and philosophy and the ways in which these affect our consciousness.’ It promises to be as wonderfully, eccentrically Parisian as Earl Grey with hot, frothy milk.
To add to my entertainment, music started. Deafening blasts of an amplified woman’s voice with electronic backing, interwoven with the sound of a powerful drill. As the fragments played on, yet more visitors arrived to be tricked by the non-art. A young woman in a lace tee shirt, tiny shorts, and Lurex sandals ran into the café, a Balenciaga carrier bag dangling off her arm. ‘I need food’ she commanded in an American accent. ‘Do you speak English? I need to take food downstairs.’ ‘You cannot take food downstairs,’ said the French waitress. ‘It’s closed and you ‘ave to eat it ‘ere.’
‘No. I can’t. It’s for ‘un superstar’. Don’t you understand? I’m looking after ‘un superstar’ and she needs food downstairs. Now.’
I was gripped by the entire exchange, and the waitress was sufficiently impressed by the thought of a hungry superstar to start rustling up something that she might like, while I quizzed the excitable American. Who was this ravenous superstar? It turned out that the young woman in Lurex sandals had been given the job of looking after the British singer M.I.A., an artist still notorious for flashing her middle finger during the televised 2012 Super Bowl. M.I.A. was downstairs performing a sound check for a party to be given at the gallery that night in honour of Alexander Wang, the head of fashion house Balenciaga. The fragments of music I had heard had been coming from M.I.A, but it turned out that just as the carrots had only been carrots, the drill was only a drill.