At the Carnavalet Museum-History of Paris, the exhibition “Paris is pataphysical” offers to stroll through a capital fed by the imagination of the French designer. A journey in two parts, to the land of the incongruous, through the prism of Pataphysics, the “science of imaginary solutions”.
Let’s say it right away, this exhibition is in every way paradoxical and singular. Paradoxical, because it is orchestrated by a designer-art director who generally does not like to see his works exhibited, and singular, because it proposes to embark on a phantasmagorical journey evoking a destabilizing Paris, while being funny, disturbing and bizarre. This is the first time that the Carnavalet-History of Paris Museum has invited a contemporary artist to talk about the city,” explains Valérie Guillaume, director of the museum. Here, Philippe Starck presents his personal vision of the capital and that of his own Parisian creations, via the ‘Pataphysics. But what is Pataphysics? “ In 1898, Alfred Jarry wrote a book entitled “Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll” (Gestures and opinions of Doctor Faustroll), defining this science as that of “imaginary solutions”, she recalls. On June 14, 2021, Philippe Starck was co-opted as Regent of the Collège de Pataphysique, holder of the Chair of Practical Abstraction & Speculative Concretion. It is in this capacity that he was called upon to create this exhibition.
In a first part devoted to his “inner” Paris, devoid of labels, but fed with explanations to be downloaded via an application, the spectator quickly takes the measure of what awaits him. At the entrance, he is greeted by the wax avatar of the designer, as if escaped from the Musée Grévin – “the museum of the real” in his words, which calls out to him in his recognizable voice: “come and see this exhibition where everything is to be felt, […] where, as you will have understood, there is nothing to understand … You will simply have to dampen the air, listen to the vibration, the music of the air … “.
Among other objects, videos, photos and models, a drawing of the Eiffel Tower, apprehends “the Great Bone” as a sculpture made of wind and air, a model of the lock of the Canal Saint-Martin opens on “ether-nity”, a map of Paris by the artist Jack Vanarsky, in 1997, sees the ring road becoming straight and horizontal … Between air and water, this “pataphysical” and mysterious vision of Paname leaves a little perplexed, despite the application’s illuminations Fortunately, most of the objects in the second and subsequent rooms speak for themselves. In 1972, the pataphysicist Jacques Carelman (1929-2012) created an exhibition of “untraceable objects” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Fascinated by the vision of this character, who is also a painter, sculptor and illustrator, Philippe Starck presents some of them here, in a very hushed atmosphere. Three chairs “dance the French cancan”, a surprising piano is sliced by octaves, while a bicycle has snowshoes instead of wheels… In other words, artifacts outside their conventions of use, with a Dada and surrealist aesthetic, illustrating this science of “imaginary solutions”.
An offbeat design with a message, in the service of power and pleasure
Further on, in the succession of different spaces, the subject is rooted in the heart of real Parisian places that the designer had revisited in a phantasmagorical way. In one of them, he takes us back to the atmosphere of the famous Bains-Douches (1978-1984), with its emblematic white ceramic tile design. At the time, Philippe Starck had taken the definition of “shower baths” where you could wash yourself, by proposing a “sweat bath institute”. These former public baths were transformed, by his care, into a nightclub very popular with the Tout-Paris who sweated, to the sound of the best music of the time.
In 1983, Starck also imagined, for Danielle Mitterrand, a room at the Elysee Palace that will literally scare the first lady. Indeed, at the designer’s request, the ceiling painted by Gérard Garouste featured a Mexican character intoxicated with mezcal, in the artist’s purest style, namely disturbing and expressionist. Reproduced here on a circular device, hung from the ceiling, which is activated by a joystick, the fresco accompanies the furniture in the room revealing the ephemeral nature of power: the legs of the table imagined by the designer are foldable, the seats evoke outdoor furniture, and the Richard III armchair is opulent at the front, but naked at the back…
So many irreverent and unexpected objects in such a space. The same is true in the next room, where Starck presents, among other things, the furniture for the office of the Minister of Culture Jack Lang (1985), in which the designer saw fit to reproduce, in one of the cupboards, the painting “David cutting the head of Goliath” by Caravaggio. Its somewhat dramatized vision of the ministerial function will not retain the favors of the interested party… Finally, among others, the clock of the Café Costes (1984-1994), place des Innocents, does not give the time, its staircase has “spirit” and its chairs have three legs, “so as not to trip up the waiters”. While at the Caffè-restaurant Stern (2014), passage des Panoramas, two jewelled coyotes inhabit the premises, in the company of other chimerical animals…
Immersive, this exhibition conceived as a Dada poetry, can disappoint anyone who does not dare to leave the codes. You have to accept to be carried, with few beacons, in the heart of sometimes frightening, sometimes marvelous stories, to accept to forget the external reality, to penetrate a pataphysical world where the objects seem to come from parallel universes. Where artefacts float, poetic and mysterious carriers of subliminal messages, thanks to a durable scenography, imagined by the Atelier Maciej Fiszer, privileging the contrasts of light.
“Paris is pataphysical, Philippe Starck”, Carnavalet Museum-History of Paris, 23 Rue de Sévigné, 75003 Paris – until August 27, 2023.