“It’s good that people have to wait—it’s like a rock concert,” remarked Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of the Palais de Tokyo, last Wednesday night, as a growing crowd anxiously paced outside the entrance to Loris Gréaud’s “Cellar Door.” Two years in the making, Gréaud used every second before the gate rolled open to prepare his unprecedented solo show. (This was the first time the institution’s entire space had been devoted to the work of someone under thirty.) Eager to get a look at Gréaud’s ambitious project—the expansive charred forest, the paintball arena, and the full-scale replica of his 2005 exhibition at Le Plateau—I’d snuck into the space early. Inside, Gréaud was racing around, cell phone glued to his ear, pausing only briefly for a photo op with soprano Marie Devellereau. Bedecked in diamonds and flaunting an open-backed black lace gown, Devellereau was slated to perform that evening, singing—with the support of a sixty-piece ensemble from Radio France’s Philharmonic Orchestra—the eponymous libretto specially written for “Cellar Door.”
Well after the official 8 PM start time, Gréaud gave the go-ahead to allow everyone inside. As the crowd spilled in, peeking into the central “Production Studio,” checking out the crumpled neon sculpture, Distortion of Space, Gréaud cracked a smile. We were now in his thrall.
While exploring the surreal facsimile of Gréaud’s Le Plateau exhibition, I came across Caroline Bourgeois, chief curator of that venue. She explained that the Palais de Tokyo installation was the exact inverse of the show presented earlier: The entrance had become the exit, and vice versa. She was clearly enchanted by the project, dubbing it “tellement genial.” We were interrupted by gunshots, a signal that the paintball action had begun. Inside an immense black net cage, three geared-up combatants were in battle, dodging behind black sculptural outcrops as they unloaded pellets of Gréaud’s patented M46 paint.
As the action continued, I chatted with Wahler. “The project’s scale scared the hell out of a lot of people.” He continued: “The curator has to protect the artist by putting things in perspective—be the guy that spots the core of the work and lets it blossom. Like a coach, if you have a striker and make him play defense . . .” Gréaud himself seems to have a clear sense of his project. When questioned about the influence of the previous generation of French artists, Gréaud differentiated himself from “those artists from the ’90s—Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe.” He sees his work as “antiromantic”: “Rather than producing illusion, we are bringing utopia into reality.”
That night, at least, dream and reality seemed to converge. Once the paintball battle finished, Devellereau and the musicians took their places, playing a series of enchanting excerpts from Cellar Door the opera. After the performance, I met Aaron Schuster (described by Gréaud as “a philosopher and a magician”) and curator Raimundas Malasauskas, the duo responsible for the libretto. Malasauskas explained that “the opera functions as a synthetic version of the whole exhibition.” Schuster clarified: “It’s more an interpretation of the project than a summary.”
A little after 9 PM, a small party made its way over to Tokyo Eat, the museum’s trendy restaurant, for a dinner hosted by Gréaud’s Paris gallery, Yvon Lambert. I took my seat next to Nicolas Bourriaud, former codirector of Palais de Tokyo and father of relational aesthetics. Bourriaud and I discussed his book coming out this summer, Altermodern, as well as his work on the Tate Triennial. (He has proposed replacing the institution’s colonialist method of categorizing artists as “British” or “International” with the contemporary, and decidedly more jet-set, triumvirate of terms: “UK-born,” “Resident,” and “Passer-by.”) Bourriaud was quick to remind me that he had included Gréaud in “Notre Histoire . . . ,” the last exhibition he curated (along with former codirector Jérôme Sans) at the Palais de Tokyo. “It’s like I was planting little seeds, and now they are starting to grow.”
At a nearby table, I spoke with Mark Sladen, director of exhibitions at the ICA London, Gréaud’s next stop. He offered me one of Gréaud’s “Celador” candies—a reference, perhaps, to a neologism J. R. R. Tolkien cooked up in a 1955 discussion of the euphony of cellar door—from his gift bag. I chose a red one, but the whole idea is that the candy has no actual flavor. “You can project any flavor onto it,” Sladen explained, “but it’s actually quite hard to find inspiration. It’s so wonderfully inert.” Back at my table, artist Saâdane Afif compared the candy to a monochrome canvas or an empty film screen—“you project what you wish.”
After midnight, the crowd began to thin, so I went over to say good-bye to Gréaud, joining the queue next to his table, where he’d been holding court between Wahler and LVMH Foundation artistic director Suzanne Pagé for most of the dinner. The person ahead of me quipped that it was like “giving oblations to the king.” “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Gréaud asked when I finally reached him. Wahler cheerfully assured me, “Tomorrow, we’re going to party.”