Vive l’évolution in Paris
Even their fiercest defenders would be hard pressed to call Belleville or Ménilmontant, the two districts running east of the Canal St-Martin, beautiful. However, this is living Paris, not a museum – these streets of Chinese supermarkets, African clothes stores and Turkish coffee shops are teeming with a multicultural energy that has made this area an artistic centre. The hilly streets of Belleville are rammed with studios, workshops and galleries; indeed, some of the streets themselves have been turned into a living exhibition space. Rue Dénoyez is a small alley metres from the Metro. Dotted with cafés, its walls are thick with a dizzying array of graffiti. Howling monkeys and flying cartoon super heroes cover the surfaces, and every crack in the wall is filled with art detritus – a doll’s head, shards of mirror, a Jesus toy, African sculptures. These walls are a space where the shifting concerns of the local art community are projected: one wall displays a portrait of Troy Davis, controversially executed in Georgia last year. This is not aggressive or excluding street art – the cafés remain packed with locals of all ages, while the swimming pool at the end of the street, built in part as a response to the attention the graffiti brought to the area, remains unblemished.
Each year the artists in Ménilmontant host the Ateliers de Ménilmontant festival, when more than 80 studios open up their doors. Hervé Chastel is the head of the collective and says that it is a crucial way of embedding art in the local community. ‘Our way of doing things is not traditional or institutional. We want art to be a part of everyday life.’ The festival’s trail takes you into the studios of sculptors and painters – spaces that often double as the artist’s home, as is the case with Laurent Debraux. Laurent lives on a winding street of pretty stone houses, workshops and cafés. His front room is full of his sculptures, themed around the idea of movement: a dead tree that he has attached to a scaffold of wires, making the branches sway and creak once more; rotating magnets dragging iron filings around a glass jar; a tiny truck clambering up a spinning rock. ‘This area was once full of craftsmen and fabric makers, people who made things with their hands,’ he says. ‘The artists here are continuing that tradition.’
Paris’s creative expansion continues at Le 104, a cavernous new cultural space in the northeastern 19th arrondissement. Once this Crystal Palace-like structure was home to the city’s state funeral home, filled with hearses and stacks of coffins. Now it has been transformed into a covered, light-filled boulevard of shops, cafés, studios and exhibitions. Deckchairs are scattered throughout for locals on their lunch breaks to peruse works such as Leandro Erlich’s Bâtiment – a full-size façade of a house arranged on the floor, with a mirror angled above making those who walk on it appear to be walking up the wall. Clusters of students sit around on the floor, drawing the scene on their sketchpads, just as similar groups do in the Louvre – a sure sign that this impressive space is becoming a fixture of the Parisian art scene.
When a city is as sure of itself about food as Paris, there can be a tendency towards an attitude of, ‘Si elle n’est pas cassé, pourquoi le réparer?’ (‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’). Which is fair enough, when even the most bog-standard pavement bistro serves up a plate of steak frites to rival any top-end gastro pub in other cities. Yet this culinary surefootedness means that trying to come up with something new can be tricky on the established restaurant circuit. The answer? Go home.