An unconventional mise en scene

Paris – The Palais de Tokyo contemporary art center has something of a grunge feeling about it. It is located in the heart of Paris, a walk away from some of the most touristy and commercial neighborhoods of the city, between the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees, yet its casualness is closer to a «shabby chic» style than traditional elegance. Three years ago Nicolas Bourriaud and Jerome Sans – currently co-directors of the institution – established this unconventional, experimental space with the idea of making accessible a very modern, multi-disciplinary and alternative insight into current trends in art. «Translation,» the exhibition currently being held at Palais de Tokyo, draws works from one of the most famous collections worldwide, that of the Cypriot-born businessman Dakis Joannou. With works by 22 renowned and well-established artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Vanessa Beecroft and Joseph Kosuth, the exhibition is not exactly the most «alternative» one imaginable, at least not in its content. Yet the display of the works is one of the most unusual and unconventional contemporary mise en scene seen in art. Designed by M/M Paris (a duo of graphic artists – Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak – known for their work in fashion and art), the exhibition offers the viewer an experience that far exceeds a run-of-the-mill museum visit. Moreover, it places the works in a completely new context, thus attaching new meaning to them and even changing their appearance. Staying true to the institution’s initial concept, curators Nicolas Bourriaud, Jerome Sans and Marc Sanchez have dared to put on an unusual display that raises interesting issues about contemporary art, its relationship with popular culture and the role of curators, museum directors and collectors in shaping our understanding and our vision of contemporary art. A curious blend of surprise and uncertainty meets the viewer upon his entrance at the expansive, open space of the Palais de Tokyo. Instead of isolated artworks, he is greeted with something akin to a construction site, a setting borrowed from the urban landscape. The space is occupied by different-sized compartments covered wall-to-wall with posters of graphic motifs, all the same for each compartment. Each compartment contains an artwork. Like presents in a box blown to life-size dimensions or statues in the side chapels of cathedrals (which is an impression that the collector had), works like Ashley Bickerton’s «F.O.B,» which replicates the flesh of a flabby torso, Cai Guo-Qiang’s suspended, wooden construction, or Yinka Shonibare’s dummy wearing a dressing gown are as much as part of their surroundings as the surroundings are a part of them. «Every art work has its own box. The box is a dialogue between a very strong environment and a very strong work; I think none of them loses. I think the work is strong enough to communicate with and resist the environment, and the environment strong enough so as not to be only an environment but also to produce meaning, to oblige you to see the work in a different way,» Bourriaud told Kathimerini English Edition. Other works, although still not visible upon entry into the exhibition, are not contained in boxes but rather occupy large halls and, again, are surrounded by a tapestry of graphics. Highlights include Nari Ward’s impressive installation, Vanessa Beecroft’s photograph on gender discrimination and Koons’s balloon-like «Moon,» each made a part of a tapestry of graphic motifs or fashion-inspired images. This interplay between contemporary art and a setting that evokes the world of fashion, design and even popular or street culture (one translates into the other, hence «Translation») is central to the exhibition. Art seems to be thrown off its high pedestal, but at the same time it gets a new kind of attention. Different ideas and concepts enter into an in-between dialogue and create multi-layered references. This multi-faceted dialogue lies behind the term «alter-modernism,» one of the concepts that Nicolas Bourriaud has introduced into contemporary art theory. Bourriaud, whose books «L’esthetique relationelle» and «Post-Production» have earned him an international reputation in the field of art theory since the mid-’90s, claims that alter-modernism describes a new sensibility that distinguishes contemporary art from that of the immediate past. Alter-modernism in a very broad sense is about making connections between different sets of meanings and cultures. «Nowadays artists feel the necessity to plug into his or her own culture and to plug into the international culture. Artists have to deal with this double plugging, which creates new sets of meanings. This kind of double plugging on the local and the global [levels], and the way that each artist organizes the itinerary of signs from local culture to global culture is what I would call alter-modernism,» Bourriaud said. The idea of «double-plugging» extends to all aspects of the Paris exhibition. «It is a good example of a project which obliges everybody who takes part in it to reconsider his or her position. We have to reconsider our position as an institution and as concept providers, M/M have to reconsider what the territory of a curator and of a graphic designer is and Dakis Joannou as a collector also has to reconsider his own position. ‘Translation,’ then, is a way to generate thought, which is exactly what the world of art needs today,» Bourriaud said. According to Bourriaud, artists today are resisting homogenization and the uniformity of the art world. «Translation» is an example of the same effort, in this case made from the curatorial side. It is also an opportunity for the collector to view his art collection under completely new light. This is exactly that Dakis Joannou opted for. After «Monument to Now» (a more conventional, museum-like but huge presentation of works from his collection which was presented last summer in Athens), he was interested in an alternative curatorial reading into his collection and took the opportunity when curators from international institutions approached him with their proposals. He chose the Palais de Tokyo concept for a start (there are plans for another presentation of the Dakis Joannou collection in Vienna). Joannou, who is usually heavily involved in the concept of each exhibition that presents his collection, chose not to become involved this time. When he saw the exhibition on the opening night, he was pleasantly surprised. Known for his openness to new ideas, he was delighted by the outcome. «I have never seen the work of Beecroft or Shonibare exhibited in a better way,» he said. The thousands of people that walked into the Palais de Tokyo at the night of the opening were probably pleasantly surprised as well. They were perhaps a bit bewildered at first, but intrigued to discover a new way of looking at contemporary art. And, to see the grunge, youthful interior of the Palais de Tokyo acquire a strange elegance borrowed from the world of art and design alike. «Translation» will run through September 18. (

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.