how the french art scene came back from the dead

Much has been written about the artists leaving Paris. Much less, however, about those who are coming back. In the last five years, the French art scene has revitalised itself, as new alternative and independent spaces have brought together DIY art...

by i-D Staff and Ingrid Luquet-Gad
07 October 2015, 3:40am

Had the quiet days mythologised by Henry Miller become too quiet?When he published his novella Quiet days in Clichy, about the love affairs of two struggling American writers in Paris during the interwar years, he nurtured the arty down-and-out myth that Paris was becoming famous for; in the city's garrets and old maids' rooms that birthed a vision of Paris as home to the avant-garde of the art world. Or at least, that was the picture that generations have taken from it, a romantic world of existentialists in cafés, surrealists on boulevards, black polo necks, Gitanes, espressos and red wine.

Who, in their teenage bedrooms in the suburbs didn't dream about being part of a joyful gang, a bande a part, where money was scarce but ideas were plentiful. A cliché? Obviously. But one of Paris can't shake, and, ironically, freezing the Parisian creative spirit in an image golden age long gone. For everyone who arrived hoping to live that cliché it was easy to be disappointed. Not just because the clichés weren't true, but also because in the beginning of the 2000s, France was stuck in the bureaucracy of century-old institutions. Artist's were leaving because they were slowly suffocating in French capital. That unrestrained creativity and lifestyle must be surviving somewhere, so they left for Berlin and London and Brussels.

Much has already been written about the artistic movement out of Paris, much less, however, about those who came back. Indeed, in the span of only a few years, the French artistic landscape had changed. Modestly, but The French scene was attractive again for its youngest actors. When least expected, that spirit was surreptitiously showing up again.

@theshrink, curated by Simon Dybbroe Moller, 2014, Shanaynay Paris. Photo © Naoki Sutter-Shudo.

French artist and a curator, Christophe Lemaître spent a few years in Maastricht, Holland, working as an associate researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie. "The new scene happening in Paris," he explains, "is first and foremost linked to the appearance of the artist-run spaces. In 2008, when I graduated from art school in Paris, there were almost no galleries for emerging art and young artists any more, apart from Bétonsalon and Treize. I founded a gallery similar to those artist-run spaces, called Super, then, in 2011, Shanaynay opened in Paris. Their ambition, as well as their international approach, was indicative of a new hunger for young artists to work in Paris, and for people to see their work, and in less than two years, a whole range of new spaces began to open and appear."

Founded by Romain Chenais and Jason Hwang, Shanaynay was, as Sabrina Tarasoff, curator and part of the current team says, "a response to the lack of independent exhibition spaces in the city. To be a bit dramatic, it was the transformative experience that turned into the idea of opening Shanaynay". Shanaynay is an artist-run space, a phrase that, symptomatically, has no French equivalent. These alternative and independent spaces are not galleries in the traditional sense in that they are not commercial, and neither are they museums or art centres similar to the French Fonds Régionaux d'Art Contemporain as they do not seek to build a collection. If one had to define them, the easiest would be to point out their heterogeneous and dissimilar nature, which also enables them to go unnoticed and slip through the net of Paris' mainstream art press. This is helpful, as the main issue in Paris is often that there is already too much, that everything is covered in too much history, too many clichés, is too big and too old.

Treize, -1, Exo Exo, Tonus, Glassbox, Palette Terre, but also the multifunctional space castillo/corrales, whose identity is reinvented for each project, all of these are new, young, exciting galleries spread across Paris, many concentrated in Paris' more salubrious north and east part, but not exclusively though. In those hybrid spaces, also functioning as libraries, ateliers and shared work spaces; exhibitions, concerts, lectures and performances happen. Sometimes these galleries have a storefront, but many opt for a more elusive presence. Thus, to visit -1, one has to make an appointment before heading into an underground car park, Palette Terre is located in a private apartment, while Tonus, on its Tumblr, boasts of being located in the "ill-famed 15th arrondisement". However, the Facebook events for openings at these hyper-connected spaces often register more attendings than those of established structures.

La galerie Tonus, Paris. Photo © Eric Giraudet de Boudemange

The DIY spirit and sense of community formed during the openings (the mood is cans of beer not champagne), the anti-establishment ethos as well as the experimental programmes featuring young artists all embody precisely the spirit and the energy that Paris had been lacking for many years. There had still been quality shows in the institutions, of course, but a certain lifestyle was missing. Speaking about the two years she spent in Berlin, art-critic Camille Azaïs explains that, like many, she first started getting acquainted with the artworld because of the atmosphere (exhibitions held in private apartments or in an old supermarkets), before taking the step to dig deeper and get familiar with the quality of the artworks.

In a report about emerging art spaces, French cutting-edge art magazine 02 gave its own version of the issue, trying to establish the specificity of the artist-run spaces compared to the numerous art centres, who are also innovative, non-commercial and also prone to openings that feel like, and often turn into, parties. "Not many privileges remain for those independent spaces, except maybe precisely all the shortfalls that one can identify about them; amateurism, nonchalance, youth, lack of a sense of public service mission, no obligation to produce specific results… in short, a certain passive resistance to the law of efficiency prevailing in present day media and professional art spheres", editor Patrice Joly concluded.

So yes, artist-run spaces are widely correlated to a certain lifestyle, which surrounds and envelops the presentation of the artworks and the curatorial propositions themselves. Tonus is a good example of this, founding its identity on "raising questions about potential links between art and other aspects of contemporary life; leisure, gastronomy, fashion, entertainment, music…" But art, the one that leaves kids dreaming in their teenage rooms in the suburbs, also means -- precisely as it did during Paris' inter-war avant-garde golden age -- trying to live a life against the mainstream, something these spaces unequivocally do.".


Text Ingrid Luquet-Gad
Photography galerie castillo/corales

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