At 11 p.m. on a Friday night in Paris, I took advantage of the late hours at the Palais de Tokyo. Before entering the Julio Le Parc exhibit, I overheard a conversation that seems to exemplify a standing problem of contemporary art. A visitor answered his phone while looking at a conceptual piece and jokingly described it. It went something like this: “I’m looking at a pile of rubble… No, I don’t know what it means… it’s conceptual.” The visitor went to the plaque looking for some sort of explanation, pondered the piece with a skeptical look, and went on.
For contemporary art enthusiasts this scene is all too common. We are no longer shocked at the pile of rubble in the middle of a white-walled room; in fact we have grown quite accustomed to visiting these exhibits.
The work of Julio Le Parc on view at the Palais de Tokyo is nothing like this. Part of the exhibit Soleil Froid (Cold Sun), this grand assemblage of painting, sculpture and interactive multimedia by the Argentinian optical artist is a whimsical masterpiece. The show is a breath of fresh air and a treat to the senses. We enter the space through a maze of full length mirrors that hang from the ceiling and move with us as we make our way inside. From this entrance to the end, our sights are stimulated with color, pattern, texture, light, movement and sound. Some works are familiar such as Le Parc’s well-known tromp d’oeil black and white paintings of geometric shapes and lines, landmark pieces from the 1950s until today. The space is experimentally curated in an active and participatory way with a focus on the effects of the aesthetic. Viewers lay on a sofa to observe the light installation on the ceiling; some works respond to our movement as we approach them, and the final room invites us to touch, play and even box with Le Parc’s punching bags depicting societal caricatures.
The exhibit is not about the degradation of the planet nor the state of global politics. The black and white imagery is not a commentary on racial tension; it is just aesthetically interesting. One does not get the feeling that we should stare at Le Parc’s mirrors and search deep within ourselves, instead we are invited to play. Le Parc invites us to engage with what is directly in front of us, to actively notice our physical reactions to the work. While Le Parc himself has always been an activist of sorts and we do find some political references, they are not laden with heavy innuendo. Of course each viewer will receive the work differently, but they are most likely to walk away from this brilliant art-viewing experience elated and with a renewed appreciation for looking.