One of the things I like most about contemporary and installation art is how it reaches across boundaries; out of the canvas, off the wall, into so many of our senses. The most engaging contemporary works are interactive, unexpected and even disconcerting. They draw you out of your comfort zone, challenge your preconceptions and engage you in unusual ways. The Palais de Tokyo, a meandering modern and contemporary art space standing side-to-side with the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris near Trocadéro, is brimming with this kind of provocative art.
Across its temporary and permanent collections, the Palais de Tokyo is beautifully immersive and multi-sensorial. Stepping into the museum’s lofty opening room, I was faced with a grand piano, classical music flowing from its unmanned keys, as delicate silver shavings drifted down from above, across the open lid and onto the floor.
Wandering further into the museum, we entered a cavernous, dark room, strung with clusters of pearly light bulbs reminiscent of Golden Age cinema fixtures, which abruptly flicked on and off, flooding random corners of the blackened room with light. The room was simultaneously unsettling and mesmerising and we found ourselves standing there in silence for a long time.
For a while, I couldn’t put my finger on what felt so different about the Palais de Tokyo, compared with similar contemporary art spaces I’d visited before. But when we came across a giant rotating bookshelf, part way between a door and a wall, which provided the only entrance into an enclosed room, I realised what that difference was. Here and there throughout the museum were spots that felt… just a little bit… dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong; I am sure the Palais de Tokyo has its priorities in order and is up to scratch with all the interminable safety codes they must be held to. And as a big sister of young children, a frequent traveller and a teacher, I am a total safety fiend.
But, in true dedication to the engaging, the unsettling and the disconcerting of contemporary art, the Palais de Tokyo felt even more engaging, unsettling and disconcerting than your average museum. That rotating bookshelf, which was manned only by visitors and unsupervised by staff, could easily squish someone coming through the other side. But the experience of stepping gingerly through the heavy, improvised door mimicked how you might feel discovering a real rotating bookshelf, in a dark mansion, opening into a secret chamber. And the haunting, shadowy stairwell leading from one transfixing room to the next made us feel like we were exploring something extraordinary, rather than traipsing through just another white cube. The Palais is even open until midnight if you truly wish to draw yourself away from the typical museum experience.
If you want to be challenged, to break down the boundary between yourself and the space around you, to be immersed in art rather than distanced from it, then head to the enthralling Palais de Tokyo. Just, please, watch your step.