PARIS — One of the newest cultural centers in Paris took over a cavernous funeral factory in 2008. Now established, it’s still striving to bring contemporary practice into the city’s art dialogue.
There’s no shortage of art destinations in the French capital, but most are in already touristy neighborhoods and don’t include studio practices. For engaging with contemporary art as it’s being made, there wasn’t a major venue until the opening of Centquatre (104 in French, named for its original address of 104 rue d’Aubervilliers). Lodged in the 19th arrondissement, Centquatre also hoped to add vibrancy to an area struck by poverty and gang violence. There was some controversy around the opening, even regarding the center’s perpetual open studios offered free to artists for months at a time; as this 2009 New York Times article attests, some criticized that the place “would resemble an artist’s zoo.”
I stopped by Centquatre on a weekday evening last month, the surrounding area definitely gritty compared to the more glittery sectors of the city. While gentrification has started to creep in, the first autocomplete you get in a Google search for the neighborhood is still “safety” — not very scientific, but a material representation the enduring perception of a place (at least to anglophones). Inside its brick walls, Centquatre is sleek and soaring. The building was once called a “factory of grief”; built in 1874, it was here that municipal undertakers constructed coffins, stored hearses, and planned over a hundred funerals a day. The factory thrived for over a century until public control of the funeral industry ceased in 1993.
The industrial design of the building is much more akin to a 19th-century train station than any funeral parlor, with a huge glass ceiling pouring in light. Now a public space, jugglers, dancers, and an improv group were practicing beneath the late-spring sunlight, and just a few other people were milling around the exhibitions. The current cycle, Avec motifs apparents (With Apparent Motives), has five artists working on a monumental scale, all responding to the building’s architecture. Centquatre practically demands this kind of art with its nearly 420,000 square feet.
In the entrance courtyard, French artist Xavier Juillot has shrink wrapped part of the architecture in silver to create an empty castle called “Déprime passagère” (“Passing Depression”), across from which Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou has created a gathering of telephone poles topped with a mesh of wires, bird cages, and technological scraps. The piece is echoed in an overlooking gallery by his “Favelas” — walls of bird nests referencing impoverished constructions in Brazil — and an orb of empty Christmas presents. In the interior spaces, French artist Prune Nourry has staged her 116 “Terracotta Daughters” (which I previously wrote about for Hyperallergic), reimagining China’s Terracotta Warriors to comment on the country’s gender imbalance, and French artist Jérémy Gobé has covered some of the center’s furniture in fabric and sweaters that morph the objects into strange shapes, and suspended them on the walls.
The only whiff of death was in Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s “Purification Room” from 2000, the same year the artist passed away. In the piece, found objects have been caked in dry mud as a representation of transition and purification. Centquatre did seem to be juggling a somewhat hard balance between being an exhibition center (children kept playing a precarious hide-and-seek game among the Nourry statues, much to the chagrin of the security guards) and a center for a community that’s still on the fringes of the greater Parisian cultural scene. It’s a place with much potential as it evolves and continues to bring in contemporary art experimentation, along with a new dynamic, to the neighborhood.
Avec motifs apparents continues at Centquatre (5 rue Curial,19th arrondissement, Paris) through August 10.