Curative License: Nouvelles Vagues Sweeps Paris

The four vast industrial floors of Palais de Tokyo apparently aren’t enough to contain its latest exhibition, "Nouvelles Vagues"

Paris’s edgiest art space Palais de Tokyo now feels bigger than most major airports thanks to its expansion last year. But the four vast industrial floors apparently aren’t enough to contain its latest exhibition, “Nouvelles Vagues,” which spans 50 simultaneous shows citywide and poses the slippery question: what does it mean to be that mercurial art world character, a curator, now that exhibition-making is well-established an art form in its own right, with those who once stood behind the artists becoming the headline act?

Working with a panel of art world big wigs like Hans Ulrich Obrist and Massimiliano Gioni, Palais De Tokyo has amassed an energetically motley roster of young, international curators to provide a snapshot of the state of curating today.

Playful thinking was the keynote while exploring the Palais’s concrete halls at the mobbed vernissage that held some 30-plus exhibitions alone. Yes, there was plenty of art, much of it thrilling and new, but curator took center stage in this buzzy, hectic gathering – literally so in the case of Swedish critic and curator turned moviemaker Sinziana Ravini, who donned a hunting cap to shoot a love story amid eerie artworks in her show “Dark Moon.” (Elsewhere, curators expanded their roles by doubling as amateur divers.) But at the end of the day, the curator’s leaping off point is a strong idea, and here the concepts ranged from meditations on the perfect death to blue sky thinking in the digital age.

Nouvelles Vagues in Paris

“Companionable Silences” curated by Shanay Jhaveri

“Women artists from outside the West who’ve worked in Paris” is a deceptively straight-forward concept for what proved to be one of the Palais’s most zesty, insightful and elegantly curated shows. Stand-outs include the Indian modernist Amrita Sher-Gil’s terrific 1934 self-portrait where she poses as one of Gauguin’s South Sea Island beauties. Her challenge to a Western man’s exoticising view found a strange echo in the work of the young artist Camille Henrot, who just won the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale. Her hermaphrodite bird-people, collaged against beach scenes in pretty pastel hues were inspired by old photos of soldiers and sailors in drag as Polynesian girls.

“The Real Thing” curated by Antonia Alampi and Jason Waite

One work leapt out within this contemporary take on an old adage – all’s the world’s a stage. The Finnish artist Pilvi Takala’s video “Real Snow White” captures her attempts to enter Euro Disney impeccably dressed as the cartoon heroine. Barred from the park incase she’s mistaken for the “real character working here,” she poses obligingly with families for photos before being forced to change her clothes in a bathroom. It’s a brilliant stunt with big things to say not just about corporate structures or how Disney closely polices its fantasies, but the regulation of other borders that strangely dressed foreigners are prohibited from crossing.

“It Means It Means!” curated by Tom Morton

The British artist Charles Avery and curator Tom Morton have taken “meta” to new levels at Galerie Perrotin. For years Avery—a superb draughtsman—has been adding to the geography of his imaginary island, a pencil on paper universe where tourists, locals and fabulous beasts bring philosophical points to life. Here he’s added a Guggenheim-style museum for Morton, whose fictional mirror-world exhibition inside a real one, is based on—what else?—couples. Putting Avery’s skills to the test, the exhibition includes Robert Morris’s cubes and Charles Ray’s Ink Line, a mid-gallery thread-like line of constantly pouring ink, which an islander blunders into upon hearing Tino Sehgal’s opera-singing gallery attendant.

“Henrique Oliveira” curated by Marc Bembekoff

The Palais De Tokyo’s in-house curator Marc Bembekoff has teamed up with Henrique Oliveira to create a true showstopper with a very Brazilian twist on modernism. Oliveira has occupied his gallery with a clean white grid of huge interlocking beams. They seem a natural extension of white cube architecture, the mathematical order of which would have made Le Corbusier proud. At its center though bark erupts from the painted skin of the structure’s orderly pillars, as they twist into a knot resembling rainforest roots or a human organ. Indeed it’s this tangle of wood that seems the “heart” of installation – or perhaps the art space itself.

“Bloody Mary” curated by Jonathan Chauveau

Fashion photographer Linda Bujoli’s magnificent nude redhead reclining against a vivid scarlet backdrop is the presiding goddess of Jonathan Chauveau’s “Bloody Mary” at Galerie Torri. (The curator appeared before her in red trousers and white shirt, mixing the cocktail on the opening night.) Other artists offered up a less generous vision of sex: Gregor Schneider’s frankly unforgettable sculpture “Man Lying Down With Stiff Cock” is a black clad corpse whose very evident excitement apparently results from asphyxiation with a black refuse sack. Camile Henrot’s insertion of a tarot card into a girlie magazine spread transforms its nude female wrestlers and acrobats into unsettling portentous figures.