PARIS — Organizing 236,000 square feet of exhibition space around one theme seems like an impossible task, as impossible as the coldness of the sun. However, since it was reborn in 2012 as Europe’s largest non-collecting art museum, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris has been focusing on exactly that: massive presentations of temporary group and solo exhibitions in its Place du Trocadéro space, all around a central theme, with the current being Soleil Froid (Cold Sun).
It did verge on slightly cosmic chaos in its effort to present “the surface of a strange world which nothing real must enter,” a premise based on a surreal paradoxic from French poet Raymond Roussel, but overall I enjoyed the experience of the museum much more than the French capital’s other more visible art museums, like the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay, which even with their nontraditional buildings (an inside-out Renzo Piano-design and a repurposed old train station, respectively) tended to put me into a fatigued stupor after a while.
The Palais de Tokyo, even with some of its art being a little lost in space, had something in every exhibition that was engaging in a different way. That’s not to say I didn’t leave totally exhausted, but it was more like the burn-out of a star, which having used up all its energy expanding into a red giant finally fades into a dense deadness. It also really helps that this museum is open until midnight every single opening day, for optimum late-night art brooding.
The best of Soleil Froid was definitely the exhibition by Argentine kinetic and pop artist Julio Le Parc, even if I got lost in the entrance mirror maze and had to ask a museum guard for help to navigate. While Le Parc may not have a huge international profile for his installations that play with light and perception, the size of his art is monumental. Le Parc was born in 1928, so he has been working for decades and the exhibition was sprawling. Although it’s his first big showing in France, he was actually kicked out of the country in 1968 when he protested major institutions with the Atelier Populaire, and he left the offer of a retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1972 to a coin flip, which he lost.
Julio Le Parc obviously has a lot of fierce personality, but there is an alien nature to his installations that can make them hard to connect with. For example, this giant orb of red plastic reflects light beautifully like some sort of crystal disco ball, yet it’s something we bask in the cold glow of, an illumination without much warmth. I also found his two-dimensional work to be forgettable, rigid geometric works without any of the creativity that he shows in his stunning installations that turn a room into a starscape, or an otherworldly labyrinth of light.
Another favorite was Brussels-based artist François Curlet‘s Harold and Maude-referencing “Jonathan Livingston,” a film where an actor cruises around the countryside searching for a body, presumably, although it’s more of a tribute to those endless, solitary quests embodied by the avian hero of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was silly and morbid, but so entertaining that I accidentally watched it twice as it went through its loop, which I suppose is the point of chronicling a never-ending journey to find oneself.
Curlet had several galleries devoted to his FUGU exhibition, named for the deathly poisonous, but apparently delicious, Fugu fish. Some of the art felt a little too obvious, like the gravestone modeled as a TV for a nice memorial to our commercial lives, but it ended on a high note with the “Rorschach Saloon,” where you push through two ambiguous shapes (I see two sea cumbers kissing, you?) into a “decompression chamber” featuring bottles of vodka and whiskey as stand-ins for the two sides of the Cold War (pick your poison).
While it’s appealing to namedrop Raymond Roussel in a press release, the Palais de Tokyo does also have a whole exhibition responding to the writer’s boundaries-of-reason pushing ideas. New Impressions of Raymond Roussel, is a group exhibition of contemporary artists who were inspired by the writer who proclaimed: “My soul is a strange factory.” It’s kind of all over the place, with art from everyone from Man Ray to the Collège de Pataphysique society of metaphysics to a topsy-turvy interview with Salvador Dali, but what really caught my eye was Jacques Carelman’s “La Demoiselle ou La Hie” from 1975. For the piece, the artist actually built the mosaic made from 15,000 human teeth that Roussel descried in his book Locus Solus.
The most interesting art in the New Impressions of Raymond Roussel, however, goes to the late Mike Kelley with his installation “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude),” one of his installations based on creating the terrain of Superman’s home. Yet comics references aside, it was just a really transporting and strange feeling to walk into this haunting grotto that appeared to be preserved by pumped-in oxygen (as of course, Superman’s once-home had to be), with just the glimmers of a cavern of fabricated gemstones and illuminated sci-fi touches keeping it from being harrowing.
In something of a side-exhibition to Joachim Koester‘s solo show, which was a little too hippie ritual-centered — with its “reptilian brain” explorations — for me to get into, was the “Seismology Room” based on a research project on art, science, and counterculture in enlightenment by Lars Bang Larsen and Yann Chateigné Tytelman. In this room was a talking fox framed within a box of mirrors. The fox told the story of when he’d once witnessed a solar eclipse, and thought he’d seen the moon, but later decided it was actually contact with another planet. It was captivating, as the fox would dissolve into fractals mid-reminiscence, stuttering with an odd innocence as it recounted this transcendental incident.
A final favorite in my evening at the Palais de Tokyo was another somewhat hallucinatory, spellbinding experience with Hicham Berrada’s “chemical theatre,” where experiments staged to have ongoing reactions in the museum are projected or captured like samples of mystical landscapes. The young Paris-based artist’s work is at its best when it has the same strong sense of wonder as one of those magic rocks crystal growing kits I had as a kid, where adding water to some ordinary looking lumps in primary colors causes them to sprout into a surreal and fantastic watery landscape. The whole Palais de Tokyo has something of this effect, where even if the heavy theme of the Cold Sun can be hard to totally grasp, it’s like this connecting water that allows the eclectic assembled art to flourish into odd and unexpected experiences.
Soleil Froid (Cold Sun) is at the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris) through May 20.