(Comfort #4, by the artists Lang/Baumann, was an installation of illuminated, air-filled fabric tubes at the Ecole Elémentaire.)
I had always wanted to go to Nuit Blanche, so I earnestly set out on my all-night (7 p.m.–7 a.m.) art adventure last Saturday but got off to a slow start. Nuit Blanche is a nine-year-old free arts festival that aims to introduce non-art people to the art world, with installations and performances in fabulous venues throughout town, started in Paris by town hall. The event is so successful that it has been copied around the world, in Toronto, Stockholm and elsewhere. This year the exhibits were concentrated in three areas: ouest, est and centre (west, east and center).
I waited in a not-so-long line for Thierry Dreyfus’s light and music installation at Notre Dame. After his 15-minute intro, I walked out. There were 80-plus locations to see, so I didn’t want to waste so much time listening to someone talk concept. This night was to be about action, movement, cutting-edge artists—or so I hoped. Some lines for installations were just too long, so I skipped those.
Things began looking up as I approached the Hôtel de Ville. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s neon signs imploring one to celebrate differences, and shown in many languages and fonts, had a festive quality to them. So did the lit-up Segways and the dry-ice fog coming from the info area. Luckily here you could get a copy of the official program, which made the entire evening much easier. I at last witnessed a proper art installation when I entered the police station on Ile de la Cité. In a charming courtyard sat Maurizio Toffoletti’s marble statues, many of them zigzag shaped, with a texture on one side that allowed the viewer to play the marble, and it actually made a sound. Beautiful and clever. Finally a marble sculpture you were allowed to touch.
Next was a stop at the Musée de la Monnaie for an unusual performance by an art duo called La Cellule, which included artists Emmanuelle Becquemin and Stéphanie Sagot. In their first work, dancers behind a stretchy screen moved their arms and legs, and hence moved the fabric, to create a womblike experience set to music. Beyond this was a theatrical piece set in a box of Jean Prouvé mid-century furniture and other creations. Dressed up in 1950s garb, models walked around, acting flirty, talking up a stranger, all set to music but with talking. It felt slightly sexy, in a retro kind of way. The jury was out for me on these pieces—they were a bit too clever or trying to hard. Ditto for Kiss, the sculpture with live actors at the Beaux Arts by Tino Sehgal, an homage to Rodin’s Kiss. Hundreds of us watched a couple kissing and groping each other in a choreographed ballet. The setting wasn’t quite formal enough, nor they dressed interestingly enough, to make this piece work, in my humble, non-art-critic opinion.
When I arrived at the est location, things began to pick up. The lines weren’t as long, the crowd was decidedly younger and hipper, and the venues were more interesting—maybe because I didn’t know them as well. The highlight of the night was Phone Tapping, by Heewon Lee, a short film highlighting a cityscape of Seoul, with a voice-over of a phone recording of a man talking to an older-sounding woman about how worried he is about his mother. Slowly the lights on the buildings begin to fly and buzz, forming a group, until all the lights are off the buildings, indicating the end of the day. As it turns out, the mother was neither depressed nor suicidal, as you expect early on; she was going out and partying it up until 2 a.m.—that’s why the son was worried. (You go girl!) The buzzing lights eventually return to the buildings, and the film ends. You must see it to experience it properly. The audience gasped with shared enthusiasm at the surprising turn of events. The kaleidoscope-like video by Zhenchen Liu at the Maison des Métallos (a fantastic, little-known art space) was exceptional and made one want to fall into its trance. The movie by Caetano Dias was eerie and interesting. The illuminated, air-filled fabric tubes by the artists Lang/Baumann at the École Élémentaire were brilliant.
People-watching was another highlight of the night, as was discovering pockets of the 10th and 20th Arrondissements that I didn’t know as well. Another neon installation brought me to the adorable place Ste.-Marthe. There, neon signs in foreign languages by Claire Fontaine were so well done that you took them to be actual signs. Unfortunately all the charming restos on this square were too packed to squeeze into, by I’m dying to go back there to sample tapas at Bar la Sardine or the foie gras ravioli at L’Art H, or to sip wine at Le Panier. This was bohemian chic at its most alluring. But no worries, the Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai places around the corner on the boulevard de Belleville did the trick. Nothing like being in a packed Chinese joint at midnight with a bunch of other art lovers (or folks who are loving art just for the night), sipping on pho. Full dinner with dumplings and beer came to 15 euros. There are countless places like it in the Belleville neighborhood. Just follow your nose and the crowd beginning at the intersection of the boulevard de Belleville and the rue de Belleville.
It was exciting to be out on a balmy night, in the middle of the night, with hundreds of thousands of other people standing in line waiting to see art of any shape or size. It was also inspiring. The chance to get inside some very unusual or even private venues was a huge part of the charm. I’d definitely try it again in Paris, Toronto or another city that’s adopted the idea.
What I learned for next year:
Comfortable shoes are imperative, as is a raincoat or umbrella (depending on the forecast).
I saw one smart couple who had hired motocab.com to sprint them around from hot spot to hot spot; depending on budget, I’d look into that. Vélib’ is a great second choice if you have a European credit card with a chip in it.
Don’t try to see it all, and if you don’t particularly like something, walk out. With more than 100 exhibits, there is plenty more out there that you will enjoy.
Bring your camera.
Stop often to eat or drink.
Don’t just stick to central Paris.
Other interesting festivals and happenings in October in Paris:
Fête des Vendages October 6–10
Paris Fashion Week September 30–October 8 (by invitation only)
Horse Racing at Longchamp October 3
Paris-Deauville Vintage Car Rally Early October
Pari Fermier The gourmet food trade show in Paris, October 15–18
FIAC International Contemporary Art Fair, October 21–24
Paris Autumn Festival Dance, theatre, music and film; from the end of September through December
34, rue Ste.-Marthe.
01 53 19 04 14.
32, rue Ste.-Marthe.
01 42 01 38 18.