Cold Day in Hell

Left: Artists Julio Le Parc and Marta Le Parc. Right: Jean de Loisy, president of Palais de Tokyo. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

WHEN I ARRIVED in Paris for the Palais de Tokyo show “Soleil Froid” (Cold Sun), the oxymoron could have doubled as the weather forecast. It was frigid as hell, yet the city seemed more convivial and fun than ever.

The festivities began on the last Sunday in February with a cocktail party at the Tokyo Art Club in honor of Argentine artist Julio Le Parc, whose retrospective of optical illusions was the main attraction among the eleven exhibitions that opened that evening. Pleased as punch, Palais head Jean de Loisy exuberantly greeted guests as they poured into the raw space at the top floor of the gargantuan building, orange paint peeling off the walls and a view of the Eiffel Tower from the terrace. As usual, French decadence managed to look effortlessly cool, just as the plainest Parisian woman has a way of tossing on a scarf and carrying herself that makes her très jolie. The film Amour had just swept France’s César Awards, and the suave César host Lambert Wilson showed up in a parka and jeans. Orlan arrived with a vertical multicolor punk do. The artist’s son Yamil was the picture of cool, poised on a stool as his band played tango. Fabric artist Martha Le Parc, Julio’s wife, posed regally in a smart fur cape and hat, and when Yamil sang a song by Chagall’s son David McNeil everyone joined in.

Left: Actor Lambert Wilson. Right: Yamil Le Parc.

The crowd filed downstairs to visit the show, passing first through a disorienting curtain of shiny reflective strips, which augured the hallucinogenic visions to come. “It’s funny, Le Parc was offered a show next door at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972,” dealer Frédéric Bugada recounted. “But he couldn’t decide if he should accept or not, so he asked his son to flip a coin and when it came up tails, he turned it down.” What looked like a pristine geometric painting was composed of reflected light; a stunning mobile looked like a gigantic red glass chandelier. Le Parc was kicked out of France as a revolutionary in the late 1960s, and it seems fitting that a member of the International Brigade of Antifascist Painters would experiment in “visual instability.”

Around the corner from the labyrinthine spectacle was one big room devoted to “Hell as Pavilion,” curated by the Deste Foundation’s Nadja Argyropoulou. The mesmerizing patchwork of art in every medium by young Greek artists and their predecessors was punctuated by Vlassis Caniaris’s 1974 Coexistence, consisting of a deconstructed Greek flag sewn over the top of the German tricolor, hinting at a circular history. “Le Parc said to me, ‘So you are the political curator!’ ” Argyropoulou gushed. “I told him that everything in Greece is politics or drama, and he asked me to tango.” Naturally a political scandal overshadowed the exhibition as well: The beleaguered Greek government refused to lend two Byzantine icons due to their strictly religious nature and what was seen as a derogatory use of the word hell in the title. Apparently they did not get the ironic reference to two French films referencing the chasm in mentality between north and south. The propensity for Hellenic drama was evoked humorously in Vassilis Karouk’s video Troades, in which several young women sitting in chairs on an urban hilltop dressed in widow’s black posture rather unconvincingly at lamenting the Trojan War.

Left: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac and curator Xenia Geroulanos. Right: Dealers Claudia Cargnel and Frédéric Bugada.

To my amazement, the maze did not end there: In the meandering spaces downstairs were eight more shows, including Hicham Berrada’s aquarium-like videos and installations, and Joachim Koester’s fantastic immersive wooden-slat structure hosting videos—a dark trip within a trip. The first, Reptile Brain or Reptile Body, It’s Your Animal, depicted what seemed to be a group of nudists communing with their animal nature. One of the actors resembled the artist: “No, really, that’s not me!” Koester denied. In a section near the end, a robotic animated dog informed us, “There is no difference between time and the other dimensions of space.” Was this meant to be reassuring?

Upstairs, the Greek delegation had already taken over the museum restaurant, Tokyo Eat. “It’s so nice to be in Paris and not at FIAC,” said Anna Gavazzi of Sadie Coles Gallery. The grungy unisex bathroom upstairs felt like a club, with everyone walking in on one another with their pants down, Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” blaring, just like New York in the ’80s. “This is the kind of museum Greece should have, caring more about the program than the building,” said the Breeder’s George Vamvakidis, noting the unfinished nature of the newly redone Palais de Tokyo. “But nothing beats the excitement and unpredictability of Athens—you never know when your next tear gas will come.” We stuffed ourselves into a taxi and headed to David Lynch’s club Silencio, which lived up to its quiescent name, aside from a small controversy when the bouncer refused to let artist Thanos Kyriakides in with his guide dog, Eureka. And a Greek curator who decided to entertain us onstage, backed with the disquieting Lynchian red velvet curtains. Someone joked that the place was “Eurotrash,” and we pondered whether Greeks would soon be barred from that clique.

Left: Artist Joachim Koester. Right: Artist Jannis Varelas, dealer Andreas Melas, and Anna Gavazzi of Sadie Coles.

On Monday Le Figaro reported a fascination with the Byzantine and punk on the Milan runways, as if reflecting the Palais milieu. In spite of a cold rain that evening—froid sans soleil—it seemed as though Tout-Paris were crushing the door for the public opening, and the lights on the Eiffel Tower were pulsating as if in accordance. About the crowds, De Loisy exclaimed, “It is our pleasure—it keeps the building alive!” All of Athens seemed to be at “Hell as Pavilion.” “It’s like the movie Groundhog Day,” someone said. “Next day, same people.” Bugada & Cargnel hosted a dinner for Le Parc at Tokyo Eat, where many of the artist’s fawning female fans wore his bold geometric jewelry designs. Yamil held up his phone to show the dashing eighty-four-year-old Argentine artist the number of visitors reported: 9,400! Things have certainly changed since the ’60s.

Left: Dealer Helena Papadopoulos. Right: Deste Foundation's Nadja Argyropoulou and Tzirtzilakis.

Left: Artist Xavier Boussiron. Right: Artist Thanos Kyriakides and Eureka.

Left: Dealers George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis of The Breeder. Right: Palais de Tokyo's Julie Narbey and artist Nick Devereux.