Text: Liliane Milgrom
Val-de-Marne’s museum of contemporary art MAC/VAL is remarkable in many ways. Exceptional, world-class contemporary art is housed in an architectural gem in the heart of an industrial, racially diverse town very much on the outskirts of Paris. This rather unexceptional Parisian suburb has become a trailblazer in transforming a modest town into an unexpected hub of contemporary art. 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 centre. Very much in the spirit of French socialist values, the art has been brought to the people rather than vice versa. Over one hundred contemporary sculptures are scattered throughout the town. Standing like a sentry, one of Jean Dubuffet’s rare totems looms tall at the roundabout in front of the Museum.
Midweek, what one notices almost immediately upon entering 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. I was astounded by the calibre of artists represented in a recent exhibition. Superstars of the art world included Marina Abramovic, Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, Tracey Emin and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Those disappointed to have missed this show are well compensated by the permanent collection. The first gallery displays 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 notion of “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 museum video experience, which can become repetitious and frankly, 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 is Gina Pane’s beautiful and understated work exquisitely entitled Rolled up memory of a blue morning.
So whether you are new to contemporary art or looking for the ultimate 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.
MAC/VAL Vitry Sur Seine
Place de la Libération, Vitry-sur-Seine
Ph: 01 43 91 64 20
Hours: Sun-Sat 12-7pm
Metro: Villejuif-Louis Aragon (7)