October 5, 2006 at 10:10 am | Posted in art, vie quotidienne | 10 Comments

When it comes to art, most people have a certain threshold of acceptability. For some, if it lacks the precise detail of a Vermeer, it can hardly be considered art. For others, the swirling colors of the impressionists barely qualify. But even the most open-minded of casual art appreciators — the people who accept without question the portrait of a soup can, or a paint-spattered canvas, or a larger than life comic strip — even these people tend to balk when faced with a single fluorescent tube, propped up in a corner.

Is it art? you ask them. No, they reply, not that.

Well, all those people need to be stuffed into a cart and dragged to the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris to see the Dan Flavin retrospective there (and quickly! It’s closing Sunday).

Once you get past the first room of early works, you find that Dan Flavin worked in only one medium: various standard lengths of fluorescent light tubes, in assorted standard colors. It may not sound promising, but as I wandered through the galleries, striving to compose a few coherent sentences on the works, all I came up with was: Unspeakably beautiful. Unsatisfied, I crossed that off. No, Indescribably gorgeous. Or maybe, Unutterably sublime?

Really, it’s beyond words. An overwhelming green glow plays tricks on the senses, transforming ordinary daylight into a post-apocalyptic pink haze. An intense purple hue emanates from the end of a pure white hallway, and when you reach the room, it’s as if you’ve become engulfed in the rich pigment. Even the white tubes peek tantalizingly from around corners, drawing you forward to experience the full magnitude of the light.

I can’t imagine there’s a soul on this earth who has the slightest aesthetic sense who could fail to be moved by this display.*

All that said, there was one black smudge on my otherwise transcendent experience: a museum guide came over and told me not to take photos. But this wasn’t a simple “Madame, priez de ne pas prendres des photos” or “La photographie est interdite, madame.” No, this jerk-off wanted to have a conversation with me. My first photo snapped, he hustled over to me, his finger wagging, his eyebrows leaping ferociously. “Pas de photos?” I asked. He shook his head fiercely, so I made a big show of putting away my camera, figuring that would make him back off. But he did not back off — for some reason, he felt we needed to discuss my crime.

“You thought you could come here, and take photos?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this. “Eh… oui?” I tried.
“You’ve never been in a museum before?” he sneered. Huh?
“Huh… bah… si, monsieur. Just last week I was at the MoMA in New York, and they had no problem with my camera.”
“This looks like New York to you?!”**
What could I say to that? “Monsieur, que voulez-vous de moi? You told me to stop taking photos, I stopped.”

After that, we stared each other down for another few seconds, until I decided to just walk away. I didn’t want to give him another chance to start in on me. Lesson learned — in the future, I’ll just play the idiot American and avoid this obnoxiousness.

So, no photos! Sorry. But you just have to get an idea of how gorgeous this was, so everything that follows is reconstructed out of official published photos and photoshop.

Flavin 3

Flavin 4

Flavin 5

*Although I admit, I’m particularly interested in how office workers might react to this exhibit. Having myself spent a few years in a cubicle farm, I’m know how soul-deadening fluorescent lights can seem when you have to live under them each day. To me, this show is a commentary on and antidote to the misery of the corporate drone, but maybe others will have a different experience.

**A particularly stupid point, since photography is allowed in most of the Louvre and Pompidou. But I didn’t think of that at the time.



  1. I was about to say with the photography…

    Maybe it was his first day. Zealous, a bit?

    I’d heard of the show, but never have the time to go to them. I’m glad to know that it was en”light”ening.

    I’m so funny, I kill me…

  2. Strangely enough, he disappeared shortly after, and even though I walked through the exhibit three times, I didn’t see him again. Maybe he was in fact the curator or something? The other guards seemed vastly more chill (they were all wearing sunglasses!).

  3. Maybe the guide was trying to flirt with you, in a backwards, elementary school kind of way? Even in the parts of the Louvre where photography is not allowed, like around the Mona Lisa, the guards are not offensive. It’s not like the work needed to be protected from exposure to bright light. And thanks for you’re description — it really makes the exhibit sound interesting, even though I would hardly ever be one to seek out modern art.

  4. Amanda may be right. You may be lucky not to have been pelted with a spit-ball from the secret straw of the infatuated curator.

    LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) allows non-flash photography…I even had a guard tell me it was okay, relax! So hmmmph.

    Love the blog. I’m one of those who sometimes finds my limits pressed a bit in modern art museums. Like the torn up cardboard boxes I once saw on the wall of the Norton Simon and had to think, “Man, I’ll bet his parents are feeling like they got their money’s worth for art school now!”

    But then, I do get to remind myself that I am not a complete skeptic. I was strangely moved by an exhibit in a museum in Iceland that just involved a microphone hung on a long chord alone in a big wooden-floored room. There was another on the floor. You were encouraged to turn on the top one and pull it back to swing it past the floor mic, and the result was an eerie feedback.

    That was okay by me as art. Shrug.

  5. I know a lot of people have difficulties with conceptual art, but I am a big cheerleader for it. I’d be happy if I could convince even one or two people to look at something with new eyes.

  6. Wow, never hit the Musee d’art, but that sounds like a drag. The Pompidou Centre was much more easy-going about picture taking. When I went, my friend Jen photographed just about every painting in the place.

  7. I’m not sure, but I think it might have had to do with the fact that it was an exhibition. I believe Pompidou lets you take pictures of their regular collection, but they’re website is a little ambiguous about photography in the exhibit space.

    I guess I’ll find out soon, when I go to the Yves Klein exhibit!

  8. You know, my only run-in with trouble with curators and security when snapping pictures was when I was taking pictures of Bruce Nauman’s “Works With Light” – another light based artist who worked mostly with neons.

    Ironic, no?

  9. Wow, Jenna, that is weird. I’m a big Bruce Nauman fan — I would have been sorely tempted to take photos of his works as well.

  10. I have a flickr set of them here:

    …and I also realized I must have been completely out of it when writing earlier. My comment is barely readable…this is your brain on the internet…

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