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November 15, 2006

Marc-Olivier Wahler

Marlyne Sahakian interviews Marc-Olivier Wahler, former artistic director of the Swiss Institute in New York, about his new position as director of the Palais de Tokyo and his unique approach to organizing exhibitions.

AK:  Your inaugural program at the Palais de Tokyo is titled FIVE BILLION YEARS . Can you speak to the relationship between this program and the exhibition of the same title that you curated at the Swiss Institute in New York in 2004?

MOW:  You can use the same title but have a completely different show. The Palais de Tokyo presents a new context and a new volume of space in comparison to the Swiss Institute. My shows are never based around a theme; I always start with a few artworks that become the bones or the skeleton, and then I build a whole show around them. For the Palais de Tokyo show, I've built the structure around the works of Vincent Lamouroux, Philippe Decrauzat, and François Morellet. This is totally different from the Swiss Institute where I started with artwork by Lang/Baumann and Michel Blazy. These artists are included in the Palais de Tokyo show but are presenting new works in a different setting.

This new permutation is interesting for me because the shows I do are very much about interpretation. For me, artwork can be seen as a kind of schizophrenic machine that gives answers that remain only on the tip of the tongue. You almost get it, but then you never quite do and it can be a bit frustrating. My shows are about the dynamic of searching and curiosity, not about an established aesthetic. It's an electric oscillation between two poles — a dynamic, not a result.

AK:  At the Swiss Institute, you organized several thought-provoking group exhibitions, including OK/OKAY, EXTRA, and UNDER PRESSURE. How do you plan to continue this style of programming at the Palais de Tokyo?

MOW:  I try to build a body of exhibitions where each exhibition relates to the one before it in a type of sequence. You could say that all of the shows you mention build up to FIVE BILLION YEARS in New York — or rather to CINQ MILLIARDS d'ANNEES in Paris. An exhibition can be like the living dead, something that keeps coming back, something you just can't kill. You can even try hacking away at it with a chainsaw, but it will always come back. There should be a sense of déjà vu with an art show, like the black cat in The Matrix. It's a bug in the system, but it's never quite what it seems either. A show is a critical tool that helps puts things in perspective. It should provoke thoughts on what an exhibition is today, how group shows should be organized, and how an institution such as the Palais de Tokyo should be in sync with artists.

AK:  The difference between the Palais de Tokyo and the Swiss Institute, in terms of architecture and space, is quite striking. Is there any difficulty in displaying the work of younger artists in a much grander, more intimidating space?

MOW:  One of the biggest problems we face with such a huge space is that it makes it harder for young artists. We've therefore created MODULES, two spaces around 70 square meters each that will present one show every month for a total of 24 exhibitions a year between both spaces. The MODULES are really dedicated to young artists and special projects. We try to work with artists that are still in school or who aren't represented by galleries yet. But we are also not limited to that; perhaps more established artists want a space where they can test a special project. Something can also begin in the MODULES and then return to the Palais de Tokyo in another form. We just had an opening for Raphaël Siboni, who is a student in art school.; we presented a trailer for a film and I hope that in six months we can show the full film. The MODULES are primarily tools for the artists.

AK:  You've remarked that the current state of contemporary art in France is at a point of transition. Can you elaborate on that comment?

MOW:  It's true that now in France there's a new generation of very young artists, around 25 years old, who totally rock and have a completely different set of references from the older generation. So it's really great to be in Paris right now, it's a very interesting moment.

AK:  Do you consider the Palais de Tokyo to be reflective of the Paris art scene, or does it exist on a global scale?

MOW:  My perspective is totally international. I never look at the nationality of an artist. It doesn't matter to me if an artist is from France, Africa, Brazil, China, the US, or elsewhere. The main thing is the work. In fact, the Palais de Tokyo will not only be active in Paris. Every year we hope to have projects in London and New York. At least once a year, we could have a special project elsewhere in the world.

AK:  The Palais de Tokyo just launched the magazine PALAIS / . How often will it be published, and what role will it play in your programming?

MOW:  The magazine will be published every three months, and its role is to multitask. It speaks to the programs at the Palais de Tokyo and can also be a space for exhibitions. For me, everything can be an exhibition space: a supermarket, a beach, a kitchen, a fridge, and definitely a magazine. We also have theoretical text, a news section, and can give an editorial carte blanche to another magazine as well.

AK:  Godard was recently quoted in a Liberation interview as saying that his Centre Pompidou show was for the dead and that his works were presented as an autopsy. How will the Palais de Tokyo remain a dynamic place, bringing life back to the Parisian art community?

MOW:  The Palais de Tokyo is the place where art should be most alive. It's a place for all generations — not just new artists but also older artists like François Morellet. It's a place for production and also analysis.

AK:  Ugo Rondinone is curating a 2007 show at the Palais de Tokyo, and in the past, you have invited other artists to organize shows, such as John Armleder and Olivier Mosset. What does an artist bring to the practice of organizing an exhibition that differs from a curator?

MOW:  The best shows that I've seen have always been curated by artists. Their way of approaching shows, the risks they take, and the obsessions they have are quite different from what a curator brings. I don't know many curators that would go so far. A curator always tries to have a show, a theme — something that begins to be organized on paper or in the head. For me, creating a show is more of a kinesthetic experience, and that's why I think artists are much better prepared to take on that task.

AK:  What do you miss most about New York, and what do you enjoy about living in Europe?

MOW:  Chinatown. It's the place where I lived in New York and the place I miss the most. What else? Chinatown! In a way, New York was quite isolated. You have to take a plane and sometimes spend half a day to get somewhere. Here I jump on a train and in one hour I'm in Brussels, in less than two I'm in Rotterdam. It's great to have that mobility and flexibility.

FIVE BILLION YEARS continues at the Palais de Tokyo through December 6.

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