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by Michèle C. Cone
Paris is trying to beat New York on the car-congestion problem. Biking is the latest fad here. Gray-haired gentlemen in suits and ties with their briefcases in the baskets in front of them ride through busy streets with aplomb while young women pedaling in high heeled shoes wind their way through stopped traffic as if they had done it all their lives. On weekends, entire families ride together like small armies, causing a near crisis when the stoplight turns red and someone is left behind, usually a child.

So far biking, though popular, has not made much of a dent in car traffic (nor could it hope to during the chaos of the recently settled transit strike). I suspect that it never will. On the other hand, Paris’ socialist mayor may have a more sweeping project in mind, that is, to eliminate private car use altogether by introducing city-owned four-wheel-drive electric vehicles (he uses such a vehicle himself) that one can pick up and leave in a garage as readily as one does with the bikes currently available on racks throughout town.

"The Third Mind" at the Palais de Tokyo
Tempted as I was to use a bike to get around during my latest expedition through Paris, I was too scared, and walked a lot instead. My first stop was the Palais de Tokyo, a modernist building overlooking the Seine completed in 1942, where a show entitled "The Third Mind" is on view until Jan. 3, 2008. It is the third exhibition to take place there under the directorship of Marc-Olivier Wahler, formerly head of the Swiss Institute in New York.

Wahler’s strategy is to give "carte blanche" to an artist who then selects works by a group of his contemporaries. His choice this time around is the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, who is known for the wide variety of his own artistic output. For "The Third Mind," Rondinone was inspired by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, whose art-making specialty included cutting up sentences and reassembling the fragments to discover fresh meanings.

Rondinone seeks to achieve a similar goal with his juxtapositions of artworks. In one room, a monumental V-shaped floor piece by Ronald Bladen frames and extols Cady Noland’s shiny metal installations, which are rife with suggestions of violence, and Nancy Grossman’s equally suggestive dark leather masks. In another room, a subtle drawing on large white sheets of paper pinned directly on the white wall by Toba Khedhoori dialogues with The Split Up Conflicted Sink, a large white sink-like form installed on a diagonal by Rober Gober. Further along, a small, ethereal painting by Vija Celmins tames the mood of the busy mixed media installation by Karen Kilimnik.

The show includes well-known and not-so-well-known artists. While the Swiss-born Urs Fischer’s reconstruction of his own studio, entitled Madame Fisscher (in honor of the symbol of the house as one’s mother?), does not rise beyond its messy appearance, the paintings of his compatriot, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, lined up on all four walls of the same gallery, are very much worth looking at. Consisting of 75 identically shaped small works in warm harmonies, they each depict a different interior which, when looked at up close, turns out to be the inside of a small train station -- hence the collective title Wartesale (waiting room).

Installed together, Fischer’s studio and Schnyder’s train stations subvert the idea of a "private" as opposed to a "public" space, and hint at the lack of a clear demarcation between them, at least in an art context. Whether one likes the art on view or not, "The Third Mind" proposes interesting confrontations, and the presentation of the works, including their lighting, shows a talented curatorial eye at work. Quite a contrast from the Fluxus-inspired anti-art conceits of Wahler’s predecessors at that institution. (Some may remember one such incarnation, when the Palais de Tokyo interior spaces were tampered with, the bricks underneath the white plaster walls randomly exposed in a postmodern gesture against the tyranny of the white cube.)   

Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine
When on foot, you try to see as much as you can within the same neighborhood. So I headed from the Palais de Tokyo to the nearby Palais de Chaillot to check out the newly opened Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. Situated across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower is a building called the Palais de Chaillot, a two-winged white structure like the Palais de Tokyo. It is home to a national theater and to several museums, including one formerly known as the Musée des Monuments Français. It was there that tourists lacking the time or opportunity to visit major historical monuments dispersed throughout France came to see France’s architectural patrimony in one single place, in the form of large maquettes of vintage buildings, including famous old churches and the plaster replicas of the sculpture they contain. Dating from the 1930s, this odd museum was initiated in great part to provide jobs for unemployed artists.

Now, under its new name, the museum is one of three architecture-related institutions that also include the Chaillot School of Architecture and the French Institute of Architecture. In this new complex visitors can see in one place not only miniaturized historic monuments from medieval times but samples of French architecture from 1851 to 2001.

Unfortunately, except for a few amazingly handsome maquettes (of the Bibliotheque Sainte Geneviève by Henri Labrouste, and La Cité radieuse by Le Corbusier, and of a building by Jean Nouvel called Le Nemausus), views of recent buildings are mostly computer-based video presentations that cannot compete -- esthetically at least -- with the earlier models and drawings. More will have to be done to make contemporary architecture as appealing to the eye as do the hand-crafted maquettes, which show, for instance, sections of both the inside and the outside of a Romanesque church in bird’s eye view.

On the other hand, the new school of architecture -- which advertises itself via a breathtaking three-dimensional rendering of Gaudi’s famous Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, assembled from a mechano erector set -- should have no trouble making kids want to become architects. 

Whenever you visit a culturally rich city like Paris, someone will say that you are there at the wrong time. Thus in my case. I was too early for the show "Les Années Folles" at the Musée Galliera across the street from the Palais de Tokyo, and the "Alfred Kubin" show at the Musée d’art moderne next to it. I will also miss the opening of Giacometti’s reconstructed studio at the Pompidou Center. And most disappointing of all, I will have left before "Courbet" opens at the Grand Palais. In such a situation, one has to stretch one’s attention beyond the obvious, and so I did.

"Diaspora" at the Musée du Quai Branly
On the ground floor of the new Musée du Quai Branly (located not far from the two Palaises, though across the Seine from them), devoted to art of non-Western cultures, I saw a show called "Diaspora" (on view until January 2008) that I found inspiring. Its subject is emigration from Africa, and the mix with other cultures that follows dispersal.

This "sensorial" exhibition of film, video and sound by artists both black and white is divided into bays that one visits in total darkness. Inside one of the bays you can watch a pair of large videos featuring dancers whose movements are a mix of modern and African dance by the French choreographer Mathilde Monnier with dancer Karim Zeriahen. Another bay is devoted to flamboyant couture dresses by John Galliano ornamented with African beading and pearls inspired by Masai collars and pectorals. Installed on four mannequins, the sumptuous costumes briefly emerge from darkness and sink back into darkness one at a time.

Caroline Cartier’s installation focuses on only one visual prop, a translucent toy ladybug lamp set on the ground in total darkness. Children’s voices are heard talking about their father and how they use one language to speak to him and another one at school. The show ends with a large (ca. 8 x 48 ft.) lightbox by Agnes Godard, a photomontage of African men, women and children, some in local costume, some in western dress, caught just moving or standing. One hardly notices at the far right that two young white women have joined in.

The mood throughout the show combines a sense of transition and of dream. Dream and hope are best articulated in a large ceiling video by Jean-Pierre Bekolo showing a young black woman in white overalls floating in a black starry sky, the next astronaut, no doubt. Dream and nostalgia exude from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s slightly out-of-focus video, appropriately entitled Shadows, and from Yousry Nasrallah’s vid, The Bottom of the Lake, shot as if under water.

The latter video evokes life in Nubian villages before the Nasser dam was built on the Nile, and speaks of the displacement of Nubian populations when their villages were submerged. The show was the idea of the film maker Claire Denis (author of Chocolat), who invited the artists to "vivify, as they pleased, what the African diaspora has brought to the worlds that welcomed them." (Admirers of African art will also want to see the show of art from Benin on view next to "Diaspora.")

Although the Musée du Quai Branly is popular, with its three postmodern buildings by Jean Nouvel in different styles, colors and textures, it is not "fashionable" with the Parisians who set the tone. This parisianisme -- so called because it is a uniquely Parisian turn of mind that gives a dictatorial thumbs up or thumbs down to everything from way of life and appearance to activities like biking -- can lead to strange decisions. On the subject of biking, for example, while the bikes made available by the city are designed with broad metal guards to protect clothes from the greasy chains, they do not come with a helmet.

Asking Parisians to wear a helmet would not go over well, unless it were fashionably designed, which has so far not happened. The helmet is not compulsory and most Parisians have decided not to wear one, even if that decision makes biking more dangerous than it should be. Conservatism in architectural taste apparently does not translate into safety on the street.

Parisianisme even affects language. Thus the Paris art world refers to La Chapelle Saint Louis de la Salpétrière, a church where interesting shows of contemporary art take place, as "La Salpet" (pronounced "Salpett," which in French is also means "dirty fart").  

Alexander Ponomarev at La Salpet, more
A Parisian critic friend introduced me to the word "Salpet" and drove me to see the place itself, a gorgeous complex of Romanesque chapels around a central nave located near the Gare d’Austerlitz. Any such container has to be intimidating for a contemporary artist. I hear that several artists have had success using that space, but I am not sure that the tower-like structure by the Russian artist Alexander Ponomarev falls in that category. From a small porthole at the base of his piece you can see something of the Paris skyline above, an experience that is slightly uncanny but hardly one with the dramatic quality of the views that unfold as you climb along the Pompidou Center escalators.

The "Salpet" offering is just a taste of the several shows of Russian art that can be seen in Paris throughout the fall. Work by the AES+F group, who represented Russia at the Venice Biennale this year, went on view at a space on rue Charlot called Passage de Retz, Nov. 7, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008.

Meanwhile, "Moscopolis," a show of contemporary Russian art with an architectural bent, can be seen until the end of the year at Espace Louis Vuitton, off the Champs Elysées. Coincidentally or not, Vuitton has just opened a Moscow branch. At any rate, you enter the gallery on rue Bassano and ride up a totally dark elevator designed by artist Olafur Eliasson. In some ways, Russian art that appropriates official architecture of the Soviet era emanates an ambivalence toward its past that is reminiscent of the German artist Anselm Kiefer’s response to the architecture of the Third Reich, but post-Soviet-era art demonstrates more high spirits and great humor.

I particularly enjoyed a video called Parade by Ksenia Peretrukhina, which reminded me of Soviet paintings of athletes marching happily through the streets of Moscow carrying banners. Here, the artist "reconstructs on the basis of a single figure, cloned using digital collage, the first parade filmed in 1937 under Stalin. Just like at the time, the female character follows lines drawn in chalk on the ground of Red Square and is dressed in clothes found in former wardrobe studios."

Overall, Paris -- the city where I was born on Avenue de Suffren (or, as I like to say, "at the very foot of the Eiffel Tower") -- continues to exert contradictory feelings in me. I rarely get lost here, Paris is embedded in my genes. Give me the name of a street and an innate GPS begins to work in my head. This is a way of saying that I am at home here.

But how at home am I? After I stopped at a small gallery on rue de Seine and engaged in conversation with the owners and the artist whose works were on view, I realized the distance between us. Charming, hospitable and computer-savvy, they ganged up on me like brave soldiers defending a turf no larger than a handkerchief.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).