In Paris, eyes stay wide open to art
The annual all-night Nuit Blanche draws a record 2 million and gets some added excitement from France's rugby victory.
By Geraldine Baum Los Angeles
October 7, 2007PARIS — The Tuileries garden, usually cloaked in darkness, was ablaze with open flames this weekend like it hasn't been perhaps since extremists burned the palace to the ground in 1871. In the nave of the St. Paul-St. Louis Church in the Marais district, enthralled throngs looked up in apparent reverence at eight large white balloons suspended in the shape of a question mark.
And hundreds of people choked two squares outside the Comedie-Francaise to get a glimpse of its famous troupe of actors doing slam poetry on the sidewalks. Paris pulled an all-nighter over the weekend, from dusk Saturday to dawn Sunday, for its annual Nuit Blanche, or White Night, a cultural extravaganza that attracted a record 2 million people this year.
Armed with cameras, cellphones and maps, people came from all over the city and suburbs to roam among 150 art exhibits, installations, "happenings" and performances. This idea of infusing the city with culture over one night was originated six years ago by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and has spread to capitals across Europe -- and this year to the Middle East and the United States.
Paris has long sent new ideas into the world -- about the rights of man, about proper hemlines, about new ideas. This new new idea is to hand the city over to contemporary artists, the more experimental the better, and allow them to unleash their creativity into the shadows of public spaces: in churches, on building facades, around courtyards of historic mansions, even inside telephone booths. Everything is free to spectators, and the cost to the city is relatively low, organizers say. Paris spent about 1.5 million euros (just over $2 million) this year -- less than one euro a person.
"Even a cup of coffee costs more than a euro in Paris nowadays," said Christophe Girard, the Paris bureaucrat who with Delanoe dreamed up Nuit Blanche. In a memo to the populist mayor proposing the event, Girard described giving citizens an opportunity "to wonder and to dream and a chance for artists to show why they love the city.
"It's unclear whether these sleepless artsy nights advance the grasp of culture, but mayors have eagerly adopted the idea from Rome to Riga, Latvia; Brussels to Bucharest, Romania; and across the Atlantic to Toronto. Istanbul, Turkey, inaugurated its first such all-nighter this weekend, and the idea is being rolled out in Miami Beach, Fla., next month.
Nuit Blanche also has been exported to cyberspace: Artists created a special 3-D exhibit for the Internet virtual world Second Life to coincide with the Paris event. And hundreds of Palestinians gathered in the garden of the French cultural center in the Gaza Strip this weekend for a rare evening of culture in the impoverished territory. By flickering candlelight people listened to concerts, watched movies on a big screen and exchanged exhibits with Parisians via videoconference.
"On such nights we feel that we are still alive and we can connect with the world," said musician Abu Hmaid, who was among the performers. "We live in a big prison and we want to show what is inside us, our culture and creations ."Organizers said they hoped to offer similar events in other Palestinian cities next October. And the cultural phenomenon is still spreading. Grainne Millar, who runs a cultural center in Dublin, Ireland, came here this weekend to check out the Paris model. City Hall held a seminar for future organizers such as Millar, who said she encountered people from Singapore, Japan and Austria.
"It's really a brilliant idea because it's the one night a year the arts and culture completely transform a city and it's not, for once, done within the white walls of a museum or a gallery or a theater," said Millar, as she sat in a cafe watching a video light show projected onto a wall across the plaza. Just as she was finishing her croque-monsieur sandwich, a band of young men, their faces painted like the French flag, streamed past her. "How perfect!" she exclaimed. "Something for everybody tonight!"
About 10:45 p.m., Nuit Blanche bumped up against France's victory in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals over top-ranked New Zealand. A literal roar rolled through the city on news of the 20 to 18 upset. Exuberant fans singing "La Marseillaise" spilled out of bars and collided with art-loving "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians) and their families, creating a Paris street theater of their own.
"I'm not very sensitive to the arts," said Flora Kroub, a giggling twentysomething who had spent the better part of the evening watching the game in a bar but later happened upon a phone booth-turned-art installation titled "Decompression."The piece, which involved listening to the sounds of the ocean in the telephone booth, was meant to block out the world, for all of six seconds.
Kroub decided to give it a try, but as she got in, a crowd coursed up Sebastopol Boulevard screaming "Go France!" "Well, at least I tried to get a little culture tonight," she said before slipping away with the revelers. In the Tuileries garden, however, the atmosphere created by 2,000 tiny open flames was unavoidably magical. "It's fire, it's fire," Antoine Arceanain, a 7-year-old Parisian sitting on his father's shoulders, squealed as candlewicks in flowerpots, arranged by the hundreds on giant metal sculptures, were simultaneously lighted....
Special correspondents Hamada abu Qammar in Gaza and Julie Chazyn in Paris contributed to this report.