Five years ago I was wrestling with the final courses of a posh dinner at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo when Marc-Olivier Wahler, the arts centre’s director at the time, interrupted our meal to ask if we wanted to go on a “secret tour”. It was an invitation that was impossible to resist. He warned us that the going would get a little tough, and that the ladies should probably take off their high-heeled shoes. We crawled through a tiny door into darkness.
A pair of torches were switched on and we were led along a couple of corridors, and finally into a large, abandoned theatre. There were gasps from all of us. There seemed to be a whole other arts centre, or rather its ghost, running underneath the main building. Wahler talked of a plan to re-employ these generous spaces, although their spectral atmosphere felt special as we fumbled our way around. Tipsy bankers’ wives waved their shoes and wine glasses in appreciation, like a scene from Fellini.
I recalled that evening earlier this week when I saw the expanded Palais de Tokyo for the first time since last year’s refurbishment. All those lost halls and corridors have been reincorporated into the main house to create one of Europe’s largest contemporary art spaces. What has been lost in charm and mystery has been gained in sheer scale. Artists have a veritable playground with which to tease out the ever-changing relationship between art and the environment in which it appears.
Enter Philippe Parreno, whose current show Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of the World is attracting long queues of visitors in the streets outside the building (I know because he proudly showed me one on his iPhone). Parreno, whose work has always centred on ghostly presences and the dissolution of images, would have loved the underground treasure trove I discovered in 2008, but he is too busy scrambling our senses to wax nostalgic.
“Parreno has reconfigured the ways we experience the architecture of the building,” the exhibition programme warns – and it’s not kidding. It is not so much a sensory bombardment as a series of potshots at our expectations. Flickering lights all around the show do not signal problems with the electricity, but turn the tempi of Stravinsky’s Petrushka into a visual dance.
The Palais’ high windows are covered with a film that blurs our vision. A dark room is subtly lit by glow-in-the-dark posters that represent the artist’s previously abandoned works: more ghostliness. A screen manga character – Annlee – comes alive and turns into a Tino Sehgal work. She asks questions of her audience: “What is the relationship between a sign and melancholia?” The best answers come from children, the actress playing Annlee tells me later.
“What an arts centre should do is deliver an experience,” Parreno tells me over lunch in a nearby brasserie. “To show art without showing a collection.” He says a gallery for the 21st century should be able to attract our attention “in a non-authoritarian way”. It still bugs him, he says, that people question whether what he does is the work of an artist. “Maybe people should ask of painters, ‘Why are you still painting? Why are you working with symmetry? What’s so interesting about symmetry?’ ”
The exhibition’s true coup de théâtre is a showing of Zidane, the 2006 film that Parreno made with Douglas Gordon, which involved 17 cameras following the French footballer Zinedine Zidane during a match between Real Madrid and Villarreal. For the first time, the film is being shown on 17 screens, each reflecting one camera’s viewpoint. To be among them is to feel a little lost, and spied upon. Hitchcock would have loved it, I tell him as we walk around together, and Parreno smiles as if there were no greater compliment. As we leave the hall, he tells me he has just received a text message from Zidane, which is frankly spooky.
Upstairs, two automatic doors open and close like a mechanical ballet, seemingly allowing noise from the street to enter the hall – except that the doors are inside the building and do not open on to the outside world. Pianos without pianists continue to thump out Stravinsky. In reception, I am handed a DVD of two of Parreno’s films, Marilyn (2012) and CHZ (2011), which will erase themselves once they are watched.
The crowds around the show seem disoriented but not unduly worried. The art gallery has come a long way in the past couple of decades. Just along the river from the Palais de Tokyo is the Grand Palais’ lovely exhibition devoted to Georges Braque, a painter who did his best to upset the way we looked at art. Today’s generation of artists is doing similar things with the cultural institutions that house art.
Anywhere, Anywhere has that sense of experimentation about it. It is impossible not to feel a little anxiety over its conceptual feints and sleights-of-hand. It seems somehow logical, as I leave the building, that an attendant warns me that there is a gunman on the loose in the streets outside. Why wouldn’t there be? When nothing is as it seems, anything can happen. Parreno, in the meantime, has a calmer project at hand: part of his discussions with Zidane involve establishing a park in the footballer’s name. He is evidently a fan. I ask what he thinks about France’s chances in a crucial World Cup qualifier the following evening, and he says he cannot bring himself to watch the game. Art can be unsettling, but football is evidently unbearable.
‘Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of the World’, Palais de Tokyo, until January 12, palaisdetokyo.com
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