To be on two shows which open in the same foreign city within a week of each other means you can go to both openings! A real stroke of luck.
Exhibition No. 1 opened at the MAC-VAL Museum in Vitry-sur-Seine, just south of Paris (take the Metro line 7 to Villejuif, then catch the 180 bus for four stops to be dropped right outside the MAC-VAL). A bit of challenge for Parisians. Like going to Randburg or Bellville for locals.
The museum was the first in France to concentrate only on contemporary art, and it’s a very handsome modernist building with beautiful natural light. Mikhael Subotzky and Mary Sibande have both done residencies here. The current exhibition, ‘Tous, des sang mêlées’ (rough translation: ‘All, of mixed blood’) is about hybridity and post-colonialism and is conceptually based on the writings of Stuart Hall. It features an international group of artists including Yinka Shonibare, Mona Hatoum, Adrian Piper, Lawrence Lemeoana and James Webb.
James has installed his ‘foreign birds call’ piece – placing a speaker in a tree which intermittently gives out the bird calls of a bird from a completely different part of the world … calls which are noticed as inappropriate – or not – by passers by. I fall right into his trap. I do know a fair amount about birds and their calls, and forgetting all about James work, I comment to him that it is very strange to hear babblers here in France.
There is a very nice dinner for the artists in the MAC-VAL restaurant. Curators Julie Crenn and Frank Lamy are there, of course, and the opening is noisy and enthusiastic. And although the Le Carmin hotel directly opposite the museum is really tacky – getting out of the lift, the passage is dark until your exit triggers the electric lights, and my bedside table is a red suedette covered bar stool with cigarette burns – the thin sheets are clean and the water is hot and all the South African artists are staying in the same place. (One evening when I return at 10 p.m. a group of disgruntled would-be guests are standing in the street outside. The hotel front door is locked and there is no receptionist).
Hotel No 2 is a totally different affair – the sleek Hotel Mathis is small and discreet, located across the street from the Gagosian Gallery, with thick white cotton sheets, a solicitous concierge and instant room service. Bliss.
Exhibition No. 2 opened on April 25 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a spectacular museum designed by Frank Gehry, which floats like a ship with billowing silver sails above the trees of the Bois de Boulogne. This one is called ‘Être La,’ or ‘Being There,’ and it’s a group show of South African artists, many of whom have come to Paris for the opening.
The museum is a most impressive and complicated multi-level structure of rooms and spaces, and during the installation period, to get down to the basement room where all the curators and the installation team work at laptops with breaks for lunch, requires an escort with an access key.
In the largest space upstairs, Kemang wa Lehulere, Nicholas Hlobo, Athi Patra-Ruga and Zanele Muholi each have a wall. When I arrive three days before the opening, Kemang has been working for two weeks on a highly detailed wall drawing in his signature black and chalk white palette.
My work, the two channel video It’s a pleasure to meet you, is in an angled space as viewers come out of that big room, and with great high quality projectors and four speakers, two per screen. I’m more than happy. To the left, is the series of evocative small portraits by painter Thenjiwe Nkosi, each with notes about the subject.
Of course, being in Paris is not just about preparing for and being present at exhibition openings. One of the best things about being here is the opportunity to visit other exhibitions, and the only difficulty is knowing which ones to choose.
Lambent light suffuses the quiet domestic scenes of the incomparable Vermeer, viewed at the end of a two hour wait at the Louvre. At the Pompidou, there is an extraordinary retrospective of the work of American expressionist, Cy Twombly. His nervous lines and marks swoop and stutter across the canvases of a lifetime’s work, and his roughly assembled sculptures of found materials, daubed with white, are well served against a background seen through the Pompidou windows of the pale buildings of Paris catching the last of the light.
At La Villette, the Simon Njami curated show, ‘Afriques Capitales’, introduces to a Paris audience some of the works seen on the Dakar Biennale last year, and many new ones. The exhibition hall is painted black inside, and some of the artists are presented inside box-like rooms, making viewing a journey of discovery.
‘Être La’ opens on the 25th, strictly by invitation, and towards evening glamorous crowds descend on the Louis Vuitton. Earlier in the day, for the press, formidable director Suzanne Pagé has put her curatorship of the exhibition into context, and now Moët and music are being served on the terraces at the top of the museum, with breathtaking views of Paris. The only pity is that it is too cold and windy to spend much time up there.
The night after the opening, William Kentridge’s collaborative performance piece with composer Philip Miller, Paper Music is on the programme. Accompanied by a pianist, singers Ann Masina and Joanna Dudley have performed this work in many venues to much acclaim. But Ann is ill and has not left Johannesburg, so Joanna must carry the whole performance herself. Which she does, to perfection.
Afterwards there is supper for twelve at the luxe Monsieur Bleu, an airy restaurant attached to the Palais de Tokyo, with William, Philip, and Joanna – now looking totally stunning in a burgundy sequined Dior top with a high neck and long sleeves, and a shiny skirt in paler burgundy and ochre splotches.
Ahead lies the participation in a panel discussion in the FLV auditorium on the following night. It is led by French journalist Roxzana Azimi, with Achille Mbembe, Sean O’ Toole, Rory Bester and Hlonipha Mokoena. And straight after that – the limo whisks us off the airport, and it’s au revoir, Paris.