Thirst for change on the contemporary art scene in Paris was finally quenched by the opening of the Palais de Tokyo, the self-styled 'site of contemporary creation'. Built in 1937 for an exhibition of technical arts, the building has suffered from a lack of purpose ever since, and functioned as a temporary deposit for various state collections until it was closed in 1998. The following year it was selected to be a new space for contemporary art. Writer and critic Nicolas Bourriaud teamed up with independent curator Jérôme Sans to become the project directors, and architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal were brought in to redesign the interior.
Immediate impressions signalled that this is an anti-institutional institution. The space is huge, cavernous and raw - the structure and pipes are exposed, the paper is peeling off the walls and paint is slapped about with a defiant lack of finish. Anyone familiar with the ex-industrial spaces used to display art in New York, London or Berlin will not find this surprising, but for France it is something new. Unlike other cities, Paris has lacked an experimental space for art, and its galleries and museums are often restrictive. However, despite appearances to the contrary, what is immediately striking about the Palais de Tokyo is in fact how very French it is. The self-conscious radicalism of the building and the haphazard presentation of the art typify the 'trash aesthetic' so important in French art since 1960. One has only to think of Arman filling a gallery window with rubbish, Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé co-opting ripped street posters, and countless other artists rummaging hopefully around the city's flea markets. Contrary to their International Style reputation, the French do seem to be fatally attracted to mess.
The exhibition itself confirmed this view. Diverging from his usual practice, Wang Du literally created an oversized rubbish bin, which he filled with old magazines, newspapers, shredded paper and televisions, which blared live news reports. In case you miss the point, the catalogue states that this is 'a critique of the hegemonic power of the mass media in contemporary society'. Further into the main gallery, past Yamaide Yun'ya's 'create your own' graffiti wall, were several large broken slabs of concrete by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Grey, ugly and defiantly obstructive, this work is intended to draw attention to the mechanisms of power inscribed in architecture. Although these projects all use informality and disruption as a strategy to critique institutional structures, they fall into the trap of confirming their authority.
Beyond the mess, another pattern emerged: most of the work was in some way interactive, ranging from a row of artists' video games to various convivial 'environments', such as the decoratively patterned pink lounge by Michael Lin in the basement, complete with matching cushions and fresh flowers, and Meshac Gaba's ambitious 'Museum of Contemporary African Art'. Many of these works follow in the footsteps of Rirkrit Tiravanija's participatory art practice (such as the works by Surasi Kusolwong, Navin Rawanchaikul or Audiolab). But despite their touchy-feely intentions, the environments were often abject spaces which left visitors wondering what to do. Most successful were the works in which interaction is oblique rather than explicit. Several works by Monica Bonvicini were on display including her entertaining text piece What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough, Dry Hands? (1999-2002).
The notion of art as a space for social exchange is the materialization of Bourriaud's theory of 'relational aesthetics'. His idea is that as life in general becomes more regimented and controlled art is responding to notions of 'interactivity, conviviality and relationality'. Art objects, he proposes, need no longer be defined materially or conceptually; instead, we should think of them in terms of the communicative processes they generate. Bourriaud and Sans have devised the Palais de Tokyo as a space that can provoke new relationships, between both the art and its viewers and the artworks themselves.
There is no doubt that the intention behind this ambitious enterprise is laudable, and that Paris benefits from an alternative and experimental new art space. However, it can also be said that individual work suffers under this philosophy. While it is desirable to have an arena for experimental art, if individual voices get lost in the cacophony, then the viewers are none the wiser about what this new art is about. The presence of the French 'trash aesthetic' derives from the wilful lack of coherence in its display. Although good in theory, in practice the sprawl of works is awkward and intimidating to navigate. Bourriaud and Sans are taking bold new leaps in the display and production of art and revel in their ability 'to take risks'. While the possibility of failure is embraced as a step on the road to discovery, there is a danger of leaving the tax-paying visitor feeling several euros poorer and perhaps a bit cheated. But the jury's still out.