Paris is fizzing with the new — in art, politics, hotels. It’s just a shame that they’re not taking care of the old too, says Josh Spero
IT’S GENERALLY BAD form to go on holiday and spend all your time looking at an electronic device, but what happens when the iPad is the idea? Somewhere between gimmickry, practicality and luxury, hotels have started furnishing their bedrooms with 652 grams of Apple’s innovation. Perhaps I should say l’innovation de Pomme, for it was in the Pavillon des Lettres in Paris, just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and around the corner from the Élysée Palace with its new inhabitant, that I encountered this trend.
The Pavillon does not lack for a conceit: its 26 rooms are each named after an author whose name begins with a different letter of the alphabet, and a quotation from them is stencilled on to the dark grey walls. I confess I was hoping for Ovid, Proust or Shakespeare, who knew how to have a cracking time, and dreading Ibsen, Kafka and Woolf, neurotic nightmarish companions. We ended up with Honoré d’Urfé, the 17th-century aristocratic author of a pastoral romance, a copy of which lay next to the bed, untouched. On the iPad were works from each of the authors, including Hamlet in French: être ou ne pas être?
It was not to be, as the charms of Paris are sufficient to keep even the most ardent litterateur out of the bedroom.
While everywhere from Venice to Kiev to Sydney has a biennale, Paris’s ‘refuses to participate in today’s conventional art world’, which explains why it gets little credence or attention. However, the city’s flagship Contemporary gallery, the Palais de Tokyo, has just reopened after a renovation which ripped its guts out — as positive an evisceration as you can get. It is now staging a triennale (more fashionable than a biennale, I think) through its 236,000 square feet of gallery space.
We went a week after the Palais had astounded its first visitors. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s work has made the cavernous gallery spaces look like an earthquake had hit a couple of days before, its epicentre somewhere near the avenue du Président-Wilson. The walls lacked gouges of plaster. Beams and pillars and joists were uneasily exposed. High metal barriers demarcated spaces. The art is less haphazardly put together, but at least two installations of domestic detritus reinforce the sense you’ve just missed a natural disaster in a residential neighbourhood.
The triennale, Intense Proximity, aims ‘to consider… what it means to create today in the context of a diversified and globalised French artistic scene’ and in keeping with that rubric, the art was sufficiently oblique. Ivan Ko?arić drew a large blue circle after several attempts across stuck-together sheets of paper, then filled in a segment of it with a blue felt-tip, perhaps suggesting an eyelid, a porthole, an aeroplane window or even the horizon, upside down. Monica Bonvicini presented Deflated, a cube of tightly packed chainlinks which appeared to have sunk in from one side, like an unsuccessful soufflé; giving the impression of breath to a defiantly solid object made this an intriguing work.
There was anti-immigrant, anti-Europe graffiti on the staircase — clearly an installation as it was perfectly misspelt — and plenty of video art, some pieces oblique and gestural, others musical and political. Annette Messager cheerfully and spookily hung clothes from the roof and put electric fans underneath to inflate them and blow them this way and that.
One of the great triumphs of the Palais, aside from having queues of people waiting to see a deliberately ruined building filled with difficult art, is getting Christian Marclay — the artist behind The Clock, the 24-hour video piece composed of snippets of movies — to install stained-glass windows. These, working in his comic-book style, have bright pink and yellow panels, with onomatopoeic words like K-RASH and SPOOSH! dynamically splashed across. Despite the French art scene’s clear disdain for the neoliberal art market (popular FIAC art fair aside), Marclay is the most bankable artist around today.
The Pavillon Des Lettres
NEOLIBERALS, AS THE French call English and Americans free-marketeers, had taken a bit of bashing before my weekend in Paris between the first and second rounds of the presidential election. François Hollande had promised a 75 per cent tax on the highest earners (great, they’ll come to London). Sarkozy was tacking far to the right to win over Marine Le Pen’s six million first-round voters; her chief themes were the awfulness of free markets, global trade and the euro, as well as her father’s anti-immigrant policies.
French engagement with the election of the latest pale imitator of de Gaulle has been high, with an 80 per cent turnout in the first round (a level that Britain has not seen since Churchill was re-elected in 1951), and there was evidence of interest on every street corner. Posters for Sarko and Hollande were slapped on noticeboards and temporary stands and even the stonework of the Pont de l’Alma, where a red-and-white right-wing poster proclaimed: ‘Vous voulez la Gauche? Vous aurez la Grèce!’ (‘You want the left? You’ll get Greece!’) The official poster for Sarko had him looking meditative yet authoritative in the foreground, while the background was a calm blue sea and a Mediterranean early dusk. The legend read ‘La France Forte’, but on one I saw a commentator had changed the F of ‘Forte’ to an M and drawn a ship sinking in the distance.
EVIDENCE OF LISTLESSNESS was clear at Versailles. Although this marbled, topiaried prison can beat any other house and garden for grandeur, it is peculiarly unimpressive. Instead of the clever displays of items seen at the refreshed Kensington Palace or even the recreationalists in contemporary costumes beloved of English castles, the halls and reception rooms are vast and empty — except for the millions of visitors, of course — and the private rooms only glancingly dressed for tourists. The visitor is, perhaps unsurprisingly, treated as a cow to be led around the building rather than an interested and informed viewer.
While this is a dismissive approach not so much to French history as to tourists, there were worrying signs of disrepair. The rooms for the temporary exhibition of large battle paintings by one of Napoleon’s generals (no scenes from Waterloo, surprisingly) were in a poor state, with rotten ceilings and peeling walls. Even worse, one of the gardens, the Star Grove, whose historical shape had a clearing within a pentagram of hedges within a circle of hedges, does not appear to be there any more: it’s just the circular hedge and large, ugly lawn. It may have been destroyed in the terrible 1999 storms, but nothing has been done to restore it since.
Versailles has benefited from recent generous philanthropy — it is the grandest project in France one can be associated with. One solemn plaque you glimpse as you’re thrust round the building reads: ‘La restauration des salles d’Afrique et de Crimée a été réalisée grâce au soutien de LVMH à l’occasion du 250ème anniversaire du Moët et Chandon.’
Further, bending — as every museum must — to commercial imperatives, Versailles has installed a Ladurée concession, which Louis XIV might at least have approved of, and some less impressive food shacks in the gardens, meaning there are now more pizza boxes than pompadours at Versailles. In the extensive giftshop, there is every film of Marie-Antoinette’s life except the decent Sofia Coppola version, with its punk music and candy-coloured tableaux, and a special stand for the Nintendo DS game Marie-Antoinette et la Guerre d’Indépendence Américaine. You, too, can help the feisty French queen relieve the Siege of Yorktown! If Nintendo is intending to turn further episodes from her life into games, might I suggest that Marie-Antoinette et Madame Guillotine may not be entirely child-friendly?
THE PAVILLON DES Lettres (pictured above), while child-friendly, is aiming for a different crowd. Thanks to designer Didier Benderli, each room is supposed to be infused with the spirit of its author-patron; never having heard of Urfé, I hesitate to venture an opinion as to whether his spirit pervaded the furniture. Like pets and their owners, some of the guests seemed straight from the authors — a Madame Bovary-ish married couple, a Baudelairean young thruster. No one out of Aeschylus, thankfully. (In France, that’s room E for Eschyle.)
On your iPad, you can take a virtual tour of your room, which is somewhat puzzling since you are already in your room, and they have newspaper apps downloaded. It makes certain things you’d usually ask the concierge — directions, opening hours, Metro maps — much easier, saving both time and face. There’s nothing quite as humiliating as asking, ‘Où est le Louvre?’
Hotels across the world are adopting iPads to make a guest’s experience easier and more sophisticated. At the Eccleston Square Hotel in London, an iPad in every room allows guests to order room service and book a personal training session, while the Upper House in Hong Kong lets you check in on an iPad. At the Plaza in New York, your iPad can adjust the room’s temperature, although as they have a tendency to grow rather hot, it’s perhaps not quite as the hotel intended.
You can frown at the way this removes particular areas of human contact from travel, already a pretty dehumanised (and dehumanising) experience, forcing travellers who are paying for the luxury of good service into the impersonal embrace of Apple. You can also say it’s a gimmick. You would not be wrong on either count. But like replacing a complex system of bells with telephonic room service, it’s the way of the future.