Monday, December 15, 2008

Musee d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne

It isn't often you encounter a suburban museum with a substantial art collection, especially one positioned in the banlieues of Paris. In America, suburbs (french: banlieues, or faubourgs) are known for being the "white flight" centers for their impoverished city counterparts. In Paris, however, the "banlieues" are famous for being in fact the poorest areas in and surrounding Paris, particuliarly the banlieues of the west side. (Remember that one short film in Paris, Je t'aime where the guy gets stabbed? Yep, close to the "bad" banlieues).

[for another oh-so-politically incorrect view of the banlieues, check out Justice's extraordinarily controversial video for Stress]

It is thus even more impressive for a substantial art museum in the suburbs (the suburb of Val-de-Marne, to be exact) to rival the Palais de Tokyo and several other contemporary art museums in Paris. It is no Centre Pompidou, of course, but I was quite charmed by it. The layout of exhibits was incredible; the current temporary exhibit of Nathalie Talec was eerie and exhilirating, completely transforming, for me at least, the idea of what an art exhibit could entail for its viewer. To go into the exhibit, you walk into an enormous dark room and see four long walls, connected in a rhombus-type shape and made out of silver and gold material. You walk inside the walls and see eight miniature rooms set up, each demonstrating various artworks by Talec of many different media. I remember one room with photographs, another with drawings inside of a book, and a third with a video and sculptures. The theme was "artist as explorer," and the entire room was made to produce an imaginary voyage to the north pole, something I believe the artist accomplished remarkably well. I was suddenly compelled to fill an entire room with knickknacks and make a pretentious artistic "journey" of my own.

Another incredible element of this museum is its portrayal of a single theme throughout, similarly to the Palais de Tokyo I talked about in a few blog entries back. The theme this particular season was the "voyage," a leaving and returning to home. I was touched, a bonafide "exploratrice" myself. It was a bizarre experience: I became overwhelmed by a type of melancholy only truly good art can produce, a melancholy that related so well to my state of mind as an international traveller. When one talks about voyage, one talks about adventure and excitement, but more often than not, one talks about solitude, depression, and a returning home. All of the contemporary art in the musee du Val-de-Marne contributed to this strange sentiment of traveller's melancholy.

My professor was interested in this analysis, but somehow didn't feel the same thing. "Perhaps," she said, "I've listened to the audioguides too much." And in fact the audioguides are quite the hilarious distraction: in order to draw the "uneducated" suburban crowd to this random-as-heck contemporary art museum, they have given out audioguides that, instead of simply describing the artwork, present a funny little skit. One person in the skit, a man, is an uneducated boor who hates modern/contemporary art ("what anoooother video? Ugh!" "What is this piece of wood? I don't understand it at all!" "I could never imagine this in our living room, what a travesty!"), and another is his more educated and suave art historical-buff girlfriend, who is the one actually describing the artwork to the viewer. Cute, yes, but also incredibly distracting.

Overall I was quite charmed by the museum, which seems so plain and unassuming from its industrial/contemporary exterior:

Frankly I am incredibly impressed that the regional government of Val-de-Marne has actually produced a successful contemporary art museum (as opposed to a mini-Louvre). Most people begin their art historical knowledge with Monet or Van Gogh, rather than contemporary art. In the States at the very least, contemporary art has a tendency of being reserved for the upper "educated" classes, the New Yorkaise bourgeois academia we all know and love. But in the museum (free for students! Vive la France!), children run free and actually seem to enjoy the exhibits! If anything, the country of France disproves the oft-said socialist assumption that art, especially contemporary art, is a bourgeois and relatively useless activity. France proves that contemporary art can, if done correctly, be infused with the essential cultural upbringing of each country's citizens, like the kids of the Val-de-Marne banlieue.

If anything, Val-de-Marne gives this artist-in-the-making a vague hope that art can one day supercede the boundaries of Chelsea (in NY) or the Gold Coast (in Chicago) and present itself, sans capitalist tendencies, to be loved and admired by the citizens of the state. My personal hypothesis is similar to Marx's: art can be used to mold the proletariat. And yet it is also different: art can be used to bring the common citizen to a greater understanding of his or her humanity (via a sort of Stendhal's Syndrome), and to infuse the citizen with a greater appreciation and sense of connection with the human experience at large.

...Or, of course, I may be giving France too much credit. As I usually do.

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