‘If you saw Paris last summer, you saw it the way it looks today, for in most respects it has not changed an iota. Old cities are monuments to themselves, not easily altered, and with difficulty even repaired.’ This dispatch is from The New Yorker magazine correspondent Janet Flanner (aka Genêt), writing in late summer 1975, a year in which newsworthy items included ‘freak rose creations’, such as the lavender one honouring the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. At the time, Flanner had been filing her letters from Paris for 50 years (not counting a wartime hiatus in New York). So, you can’t really blame her for allowing curious blooms to obscure how the demolition of the central market Les Halles in 1971 to make way for the shopping mall and transport hub, Forum des Halles, and the imminent construction of the neighbouring Centre Georges Pompidou might change the urban landscape. After all, Flanner was a woman of the Left Bank.
For the decade and a half that I lived in Paris, I tended to avoid the Forum des Halles – it was easy enough to venture into it only when I needed to take the RER train to the suburbs. This avoidance also relates to the fact that my preference for walking over taking public transport, no matter how time-saving the latter may be, is amplified and hindered by my incapacity to read maps. In a city of flâneurs and flâneuses, my strategy was to develop beaten paths.
Beaten paths breed familiarity and, as such, they also leave room for a different sort of discovery, perhaps not of the entirely new, but of things in flux. In February, I took my usual route from the Pigalle area, anchored by the Kadist Art Foundation and the more recent addition of Galerie Allen, to the centre of town, via a route that deposited me in the belly of Paris, where architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti’s renovation of the Forum des Halles is underway. It is six years since the architects won the commission and how successful it will be – both in practical terms and popularity – is still hard to discern. But the metal and glass canopy that undulates over the area like a waxy yellow-hued leaf or sea creature now offers an unprecedented and breath-taking east-west axis view that stopped me in my tracks.
When I first moved to Paris in 2000, I became familiar with the contemporary art scene mainly through the galleries in the centre and the Marais, by trekking from my Right Bank digs to Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the rue Louise-Weiss galleries that began to take over a few streets in the 13th arrondissement. Some ten years later, the contemporary art map started to consolidate further north when Castillo/Corrales and Balice Hertling opened their joint storefront venture and joined Galerie Jocelyn Wolff and Cosmic Galerie (now Bugada & Cargnel) in Belleville, thus paving the way for new galleries like Samy Abraham, Marcelle Alix, Antoine Levi and others to settle there.
This past year in France has been scarred by tragedy and political controversy, including the current government state of emergency that will have lasting historical consequences. It remains to be seen how national cultural politics and policies will evolve now that there is another new Minister of Culture and Communication, Audrey Azoulay, and territorial reform has altered the country’s political geography. The past 12 months have also ushered in changes to the city’s contemporary art scene, including the founding of Paris Internationale, a new contemporary art fair initiated by a consortium of galleries from Paris and Zurich that was the talk of the town last October. On my most recent trip, I headed to Belleville knowing that Castillo/Corrales had just closed shop, putting an end to a unique artist-curator-publisher-run fixture in that neighbourhood. Next door, Jocelyn Wolff was presenting French artist Colette Brunschwig’s flinty abstract works on paper in a soberly renovated and expanded grisaille gallery that incorporates its former neighbour’s space. Uncoordinated timing found me facing some Belleville galleries shuttered, while others have moved off the main drag (Crèvecœur), or have recently settled in the neighbourhood (Sultana) from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the central map is being redrawn, too. Formerly situated on rue Louise-Weiss in the 13th district, near Air de Paris and Bétonsalon, Triple V has kept its old gallery as a project space while inaugurating a new location in an old textile factory, a stone’s throw from the Palais Royal, with a lively presentation of new work by each of the gallery artists. Cortex Athletico, formerly of Bordeaux, has recently taken over Art : Concept’s Haut Marais gallery off the rue Saint-Claude. In its new space closer to the Pompidou, Art : Concept showed Vidya Gastaldon’s ‘Healing Paintings’ (2013–ongoing). These are anonymous flea-market finds that the artist overpaints with exquisitely detailed chromatic inventions, sometimes populated with fantastical fauna and flora that crawl and ooze over the edges of the canvases and frames. Bingeing on tastefully neutral galleries over several days straight can become a somewhat dull and dreary affair. Gastaldon’s paintings have just the kind of transgressive pleasure you might feel while sucking on a fizzy candy during church; they gave me enough peppy enthusiasm to push through the weekend.
One of the advantages of frequenting the same contemporary galleries over the years is that you get to see how individual artists develop over time, especially with solo exhibitions. Group shows offer an opportunity to reconsider the relationships that develop between the work of different artists and, while any synthetic overview is bound to draw false conclusions, there was not much on show that explicitly addresses our current global state of affairs. (One exception was Thomas Hirschhorn’s exhibition ‘Pixel-Collage’ at Chantal Crousel, which confronts the viewer with devastating images of mangled bodies destroyed by violence and war.) Serendipity did, however, map a common interest in territories and landscapes, urban and peripheral, across four group exhibitions taking place in the city at the moment of my visit: ‘Concrete Cities’ at mor charpentier, ‘Accueille-moi paysage’ (Welcome Me Landscape) at Marcelle Alix, ‘Fertile Lands’ at Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard and ‘Territoire’ at Jousse Entreprise. Each of these exhibitions provided a glimpse into the ways in which artists and curators have been, or are currently, taking a decidedly anti-monumental position with respect to the local, geopolitical, geological and ecological conditions of spaces and places – from the apartment block, to the prairie, to the coastline – via science-fiction, documentary and imagistic renderings of real and fictional locales.
Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
First published in Issue 179