Saturday, December 6, 2008

Palais de Tokyo

What is street art? What is contemporary art? In my opinion, street art is a subdivision of contemporary art, whether or not it is commissioned, whether or not the artist is trained, whether or not it is legal. Graffiti is temporal contemporary art, however rarely we see it in museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for example, has to my recollection never housed a street art exhibit; those you find on the south-side, hidden in warehouses. I remember going to one in high school, a hipster haven complete with noise rock and an impromptu fashion show.

It is perhaps in street art that the gap is bridged between the punk and the hipster, between the world of consumerist productivity and anti-establishment tendencies. This is where Paris's Palais de Tokyo comes in, quite possibly the most fascinating museum in Paris and certainly one of the most unique museums I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The Palais de Tokyo is Paris's contemporary art museum, and yet are not presented with a capitalist market the way you would in, say, MoMA, or the New Museum, or even the MCA. The most fascinating thing about it is its centralization around a theme, rather than an artist in particular. In fact, many times the artist isn't listed. The theme was "folklore," although what I perceived was less folklore and more revolution (in fact, the website titles it "from one revolution to another"). It treated the "folk" of four countries: the US, the UK, France, and Russia. What is meant by "folk" is often misconstrued, but in general, "folk" refers to the lower classes, and the traditions surrounding them. Folk is community, and folk is kitsch.

Folk, however, is also anger and rebellion. So we are presented with the Russian Revolution and its avant-garde, thriving from 1917-1930. We are presented with Rock and Roll in France. We are presented with the punk and glam rock movements in the UK (the Sex Pistols and David Bowie, respectively). We are presented with multiple communities in which the working classes attempted an art devoid of consumerism, an art simply for the act of creation. One of the most moving pieces was a series of photographs of things the artist "happened upon" in the UK-- a poem abandoned on the street, a letter written in chalk on the sidewalk, graffiti. And it is here where street art comes into play: the ultimate working class expression of the desire to create.

I discovered a few years ago, and was hooked. Since then I've been constantly on the look-out for beautiful street art. One of my favorites in Paris was by "Miss Tic," a graffiti artist who uses stencils of sexually appealing brunettes paired with enigmatic philosophical, cultural, or just plain cool statements: "Je suis la voyelle du mot voyou," "Je prête a rire mais je donne à penser," "Idéaliste devenez idéal,"et cetera (translations: I am the vowel of the word punk, I am ready to laugh but I am given to thought, idealist become ideal).

The effect of seeing street art in a contemporary art museum (not the street art itself, but depictions of it and artworks that relate to working class ideology) was overpowering, and magnificent. Somehow I felt that the rest of my Paris Museums class was less than inspired. I, on the other hand, was ready to grab a can of spray paint, buy a leather jacket, and go out into the world. Even the architecture of the museum enhances the "folk," as they call it, or the polemic inherent in the museum. Here's a photo I found online of the ceiling:

It immediately brought to mind the street art show on the South Side, complete with warehouse brick. See how the ceiling, purposely left bare, purposely left with wires hanging in a haphazard manner, immediately brings to mind all things urban, and how the very walls mimic the look of cement?

Magnificent show. I wish it was permanent.

More details at the Palais de Tokyo website

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