Sturtevant vs Pergola: Musée d’art moderne vs Palais de Tokyo, Paris

The Pont de l’Alma is a strange place. It is engrained in the collective British unconscious as the spot the nation’s Queen of Hearts breathed her last in an upsetting death smash. Since then, it’s become a focus for global, slightly hysterical outpourings of grief. Hilariously, it has been monopolised in recent by tribes of ghoulish Michael Jackson freaks trying to surf the grief wave. Its also a great place to get a snap of your nearest and dearest standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. A photo opportunity and a session of celebrity mourning all before lunch. Sounds like the perfect city break.

Just a short stroll up the road and you can stir your emotions in a more culturally-enriching way. Both the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris (MAM) and the Palais de Tokyo (PdT) can be found in the vicinity, if you can tear yourself away from thoughts of car crashes.

The Parisian contemporary art scene is a bit complicated. Apart from all the tiny private galleries, there are three main spaces: the Pompidou Centre, the MAM and the PdT. Both the PdT and the Pompidou belong to the state (that’s France to me and you), whilst the MAM (as it’s name suggests) belongs to to the City of Paris. They differ in mission a little – the Pompidou and the PdT show, loosely, early contemporary and contemporary/cutting edge art, whilst the MAM focuses on a slightly earlier period. There’s an inevitable overlap between all three, getting polar-necked Parisians all hot under the (black, woollen) collar.

Whilst the MAM is traditionally more staid, reserved and respectful, the PdT has a reputation for being more experimental, producing works of art designed to challenge our assumptions and make our aunties blush. With their first big shows of 2010, its the former that has come up trumps, leaving it’s close rival looking a little dull.

Pergola at the Palais de Tokyo is a bit of a mess. The accompanying blurb talks about Le Corbusier, ‘silhouettes of erased lives’, ‘haunted modernity’ and the ‘melancholy of the Renaissance’, all phrases which promise a lot, but ultimately left me feeling a little confused and underwhelmed. The show is the ‘first opportunity to discover’ works by Charlotte Posenenske, alongside the work of Valentin Carron, Raphael Zarka, Serge Spitzer and Laith Al-Amiri. It’s all a little drab – Posenenske’s ventilation shafts and curved sheets of aluminium, despite this being the first major retrospective of her work, are the type of thing you’ll see at any English regional art gallery. They remind me of the work of Anthony Caro: big, bold brutal, and pretty bloody booring. Predictably, there’s also a film, made by Zarka about skateboarders. I hate skateboarders. They have no place in art.

In the other building, the Musée d’art moderne’s Sturtevant: The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking is a revelation. Elaine Sturtevant is a US-born artist who lives and works in Paris, this being her first major French retrospective. She works within the context of major themes in conceptual art, so nods to Marcel Duchamp, Paul McCarthy, even John Waters abound. The show is everything Pergola isn’t; fun, witty, moving and engaging. The House of Horrors installation (yes, a real-life ghost train) is the centrpiece. It is genuinely scary. I shrieked like a girl.

Support the Palais de Tokyo; go and see both shows. It’s Sturtevant that will linger longest in the memory. Maybe not as long as the People’s Princess, though…..

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