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2010 article for Vingt Paris: MAC/VAL

Sick of Paris?

MAC/VAL – Worth the visit

In the unlikely event that Paris is beginning to get tiresome,  Vingt Paris art correspondent Lilianne Milgrom offers a contemporary art experience just outside the Paris metropolis.


Val-de-Marne’s museum of contemporary art MAC/VAL is remarkable in many ways.  Notwithstanding the exceptional, world-class contemporary art exhibitions, this architectural gem is situated in the heart of an industrial, racially diverse town very much on the outskirts of Paris. Depending on your viewpoint, Vitry sur Seine is either an unexceptional Parisian suburb of 80,000 residents, or a notably historic town. In 52 B.C. it was the site of a famous battle during the Roman invasion of Gaulle, in which the French were defeated. This paved the way for the Roman occupation of Paris (then named Lutèce) that lasted for some three hundred years.  

Perhaps to make up for this ancient defeat, modern Vitry has become a trailblazer in transforming a modest suburban town into an unexpected hub of contemporary art. Very much in the spirit of French socialist values, the art has been brought to the people rather than vice versa. One can find over 100 contemporary sculptures scattered throughout the town. Standing like a sentry, one of Jean Dubuffet’s rare sculptures looms tall in the roundabout in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vale-du-Marne (MAC/VAL). Inaugurated in 2005, the museum was designed to house both permanent and temporary cutting-edge exhibitions, as well as a 150-seat cinema for cross-disciplinary performances and an impressive research center. 

The first thing that endeared me to this museum was the fact that I was given free admission for just for pronouncing my status as an artist! I later discovered that registered French artists receive this perk in most museums. What one notices almost immediately upon entering the museum is the relatively small number of visitors. Locals confirm that most of the groups and individuals who frequent the museum are from the immediate surroundings. This is a museum much underutilized and underappreciated. I was astounded by the caliber of artists represented in the last exhibition. Superstars of the art world included Marina Abramovic (recently performing at MOMA in New York), Christian Boltanski (solo exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris earlier this year), Sophie Calle (represented France at the Venice Biennale), Tracey Emin (the bad girl of the British art scene) and Felix Gonzalez-Torres (the subject of countless international museum retrospectives).

I was hugely disappointed to have missed this show but was well compensated by the works on exhibit in the permanent galleries. The first gallery displayed a powerful installation by Beirut-born Mona Hatoum featuring scores of suspended swings whose individual seats were etched with maps of cities the artist had visited. Hatoum’s swings are a metaphor for the imminent danger of collision between nations, and represent the constant movement and displacement of peoples throughout the world.

Other highlights included Pierre Buraglio’s found objects which validate the notion that mass-produced functional items can possess a lyrical beauty and inherent art-worthiness when viewed out of context. This concept puts into question the very much contested question“What Is Art?”

Film director, videographer and artist Agnès Varda’s video Zgougou’s tomb is breathtaking. Octogenarian Varda puts a fresh spin on the slew of obligatory museum video experience, which have become repetitious and frankly, quite boring. Zgougou’s tomb is projected in a darkened room on a floor covered in sand and surrounded by plants. Varda creates a mesmerizing environment in which a story about the burial of a beloved cat unfolds.

The works presented at the MAC/VAL address the debate over contemporary art and its standing within the tradition and history of Art. France Culture radio recently aired a series of in-depth philosophical discussions on this subject. One of the guest speakers laid out four common reasons why the viewing public often dislikes works lumped under the Contemporary Art umbrella - the art is not considered classically ‘beautiful’, it is aggravating, it leaves the viewer cold, and it requires one to be educated about it in order to appreciate it (here the MAC/VAL does a very good job of providing explanatory audiovisual aids). France Culture’s panelists reached a consensus about one very interesting point, namely that contemporary art is about thinking rather than feeling. If one keeps this in mind, then beauty often follows. A good example at MAC/VAL was Gina Pane’s beautiful and understated work exquisitely entitled Rolled up memory of a blue morning.

Whether you are new to contemporary art or looking for the ultimate contemporary art experience, the MAC/VAL is a must-see. While you wander around the spacious galleries, the building’s design cleverly filters the natural light into every corner. After one’s fill of art, the trendy café awaits, followed by a stroll through the lovely grounds surrounding the museum. All this just a metro and bus ride from the center of Paris. Pas mal.

Posted by Lilianne Milgrom on 3/20/13 | tags: mixed-media video-art conceptual

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