Culture Vulture: Are we too precious about art?

Taking a work of art from a typical gallery or museum set-up allows viewers to approach it more honestly

From a distance, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris looks like your typical cultural institute.

The facade of the building, which skirts the river Seine, is dominated by soaring stone pillars and boasts a forecourt dotted with sculptures of reclining nudes.

But the Palais, one of the world's leading centres for contemporary and modern art, is anything but staid.

As I strolled through the forecourt on a warm Sunday afternoon earlier this month, fleet-footed skateboarders clattered past, putting on a show for the teenagers perched on parapets, their legs swinging two storeys above the ground.

Next to a gently curving staircase, a model in a geometric Valentino red gown struck a pose for the camera, while on the far side, men and women danced in pairs to the steady strumming of a guitar.

The inside of the centre is similarly unceremonious.

Instead of whitewashed walls and focused, bright lights, the order of the day is raw concrete and exposed wiring.

It is a masterpiece of industrial-chic, the precise shade of grunge which shrugs off decorum but exudes style.

If other galleries and museums are adults, the Palais is a teenager, full of verve, pluck and ruthless questions.

Yet, in the midst of all this chaos, arranged by the rules of its own indeterminable order, is art.

I was at the centre to interview Khairuddin Hori, a Singaporean curator who took up the post of deputy programming director there last November.

It is a big appointment, but he has slipped easily into the role.

He rattles on animatedly about upcoming exhibitions and is charmingly starstruck by the illustrious stable of artists and curators who regularly drop by for lunch.

As he gave me a tour of the 22,000 sq m space, he acted as my art safari guide, pointing out works which I would not have noticed if I were alone.

"Look up," he told me, as we passed through a seemingly empty space.

In one of the corners, nestled near the ceiling was a drooping web of nails, brooding overhead like a patient spider.

The work, by French artist Tatiana Wolska, was held together not with glue but by magnets.

As someone who is used to the museums here, with evenly spaced works, careful signposting and do-not-cross lines marking the gallery floor, the guerrilla art of the Palais de Tokyo was slightly unnerving.

What if I missed a work? Where is the artist's statement? How do I put this in context?

As we continued around the centre, the impromptu art kept coming.

One of the staircases was flanked by lurid floor-to-ceiling block text posters from John Giorno's The Wall's Shout, an exhibition which ended in 2013.

As we wandered between galleries, I stumbled upon a tiny three-walled alcove off a corridor, which housed black-and-white photographs in frames.

Elsewhere, just beyond a cordoned off section of the centre, Khairuddin pointed out a massive, organic entanglement of tree branches which emerged from arrow straight white beams.

There were also more typically presented exhibitions in the centre, such as the ongoing Le Bord Des Mondes (At The Edge Of The Worlds), where exhibits are neatly displayed and presented with accompanying write-ups.

But for me, the deepest impact was felt when stumbling upon the pieces off the designated path, without the constellation of gallery lights to guide me.

The wild artwork, unlike its domestic cousin, is a much more slippery species.

It takes keen eyesight to hunt it down and a willingness to pry beyond the surface without any ready point of entry.

My trip to the Palais de Tokyo made me rethink the age-old question of the value of art and how presentation and labels can make a vast difference to how it is perceived.

One of the most famous rejoinders to this question was Marcel Duchamp, with his readymade urinal Fountain (1917). Some pooh-poohed it, some lauded his vision. Would a fountain by any other name still be art?

Just earlier this year, there was an auction which clearly demonstrates how much a proper provenance can change the value of a work.

In 2013, Britain's Lady Hambleden put up 300-plus items for auction at Christie's, one of which copied the 18th-century landscape artist John Constable's well-known painting Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows. The work sold for £3,500 (S$7,200).

But the anonymous dealer who bought the painting had a hunch and, this January, the work appeared on the auction block again.

This time, it was deemed not a copy, but the genuine article by Constable expert Anne Lyles, a former curator at Tate Britain.

The work fetched an eye-watering US$5.2 million (S$7.4 million).

With a subject as contentious as art, the truth is that sometimes, without the so-called authoritative write-ups and provenances with which to frame it, there really is not much to go on.

Strip away the explanations and all you are left with is an instinctive response.

Unfortunately for Lady Hambleden, the Constable did not quite work for her.

"The painting was so black, so sombre and a little nightmarish, with dark clouds and a ghostlike cathedral, I never considered it as important," she was quoted as saying.

For me, while it was disconcerting to respond to a work head-on, without any guidance or direction, I found myself approaching a work viscerally instead of intellectually, which was a welcome change.

Also, without a cut-and-dried answer key, I mulled over the works more. I tried to open my eyes to the work itself, instead of to an artist's statement which can sometimes serve to obfuscate instead of enlighten.

In Singapore, there have been attempts to take art out of the galleries and into the world.

Take for example the popular OH! Open House, an art walkabout which has placed artworks in Central Business District offices and Housing Board flats.

The latest edition is on at Joo Chiat this weekend and next, and takes participants through the area's shophouses, alleys and hotels.

By and large though, art here remains very much a prisoner of the typical gallery set-up, which I think is a great pity.

Sometimes, releasing the work from such confines can be like taking off a pair of blinkers, allowing it to breathe and allowing the viewer to react to it more honestly.

And for me, at least, that will be a refreshing change.

lting@sph.com.sg