Animal Blood, Corpses, Concepts Litter Paris Triennale

"Motion-Emotion" (2011) by Anne Messager. The installation is on view at the Palais de Tokyo through Aug. 26. Photographer: Andre Morin/Palais de Tokyo via Bloomberg

The newly overhauled Palais de Tokyo in Paris is the largest exhibition space for contemporary art in Europe, say the organizers of the sprawling opening show, “La Triennale.”

It covers 22,000 square meters (236,800 square feet). French officials seem to think that -- as in fairy tales -- the third time is lucky. In 2006, the government mounted “La Force de l’Art,” an exhibition at the Grand Palais that was supposed to provide the country’s contemporary artists with a showplace they couldn’t find on the international market.

The success was modest: In six weeks, the exhibit drew 80,000 visitors. The sequel in 2009 fared even worse.

For the latest attempt, the name and venue have been changed. The exhibition now is called the Triennale. And it’s not for lack of money, the organizers assure us, that the Palais de Tokyo, home to France’s collection of modern art before the opening of the Pompidou Center in 1977, now looks like an unplastered, unpainted shell. The press kit defines it as “a rebellious undeveloped plot, the anti-museum par excellence.”

The circle of participants also has been enlarged.

By entrusting the show to Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born U.S. curator and director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the French government has abandoned its propaganda effort. The Triennale, which has the poetic subtitle “Intense Proximity,” doesn’t focus exclusively on French art.

Of the 120 artists in the show, only about a quarter are French or work in France, with 16 from Africa.

Congo Voyage

Not all are still alive. The exhibition starts with a documentary made in 1928 by the French writer Andre Gide and his then lover Marc Allegret about a trip to the Congo.

A 1935 photograph by Walker Evans portrays an “African Negro,” another picture, by the ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, from 1937, shows a tattooed woman from the Amazonian rain forest.

It’s interesting that the show stresses the ethnological aspect of items coming from what used to be called the Third World. That’s the opposite of what the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris tries to do, namely to wrest them from the anthropologists and present them as artworks.

Other than that, you find the usual mix of deliberately artless videos, photographs and installations. Paintings and drawings take a back seat. Concept is more important than execution.

Many works have a more or less decipherable political subtext.

Exotic Sculpture

Some are very big. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by “The Blind Leading the Blind,” a monumental sculpture hanging from the ceiling by Peter Buggenhout, a Belgian artist who uses exotic materials such as animal blood and coats of dust.

The lower floor is dominated by Hamburg-based Ulla von Brandenburg’s colorful double skateboard ramp, mysteriously titled “Death of a King.”

Death is also the theme of a video by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Quoting Donald Rumsfeld (“Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war”), he depicts corpses and mutilated war victims.

Annette Messager’s installation “Motion-Emotion,” a collection of dresses, fabrics and dolls flapping in a breeze stirred by electric fans, fills an entire room. The catalog interprets it as a symbol of life where “everything is moving, changing, deforming, transforming, from birth to death.”

If that convinces you, you’ll probably also enjoy the rest.

The Triennale is at the Palais de Tokyo, 13 Avenue du President Wilson, Paris, through Aug. 26. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include: Martin Gayford on London art, Ryan Sutton on food.

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