Cities: the Tentacular and the Sporadic
One of the overwhelmingly impressive aspects of the city landscape in Paris is its division of cultural spheres. It is after all divided into two heterogeneous universes—the left bank and the right bank— each with their own identities, density of air, pace or speed, legacies. The images are so different on the two sides of the Seine River despite the physical closeness and the numerous bridges. But bodies of water are not always dividers, especially those that run through the cities instead of serving as borderlines. Among such cases, the Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong presents an almost perfect isomorphous scenery with the skyscrapers of the business tycoons and the onrushing streams of capital.
On top of that layer, Paris is also highly striated. It’s all about streets—not blocks, not cardinal directions, but streets. The museum on Rue Beaubourg, the comic book stores on Rue Dante, the Chinatown (or more precisely, the China street) on Rue au Maire, the cluster of galleries from Rue Chapon to Rue de Turenne… These streets, highly structured and clearly divided, generate linear centers of gravities summoning different groups of people. In each street, there is a symbiotic system with competition, communication, and synergy, which is maintained and invigorated by all the players that decide to move in and be part of the game. For veteran gallery goers, this means that you walk into one of the gallery streets and an hour later, you basically know already what’s going on in the city’s art scene. But if you happen to let your mind wander and walk into the wrong street, even if it’s just the neighboring one, next thing you know you are probably lost in scarfs and rhinestone necklaces.
Looking at the major European models, J. Pedro Lorente compares museums to cathedrals in the sense that they both are fundamentally urban phenomena. With its incomparable art history and abundant resources, Paris is a city where one could see the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Pompidou Center, Tracey Emin at the Orsay, and the wide-spectrum tree show at Cartier Foundation all at the same time. Balancing the sheer scale of the museums while staying within their reaches, galleries assemble together and cherish an idea of connectedness.
Such a system hasn’t made its way out of the European model, with the possible exception of NYC. In the case of Tokyo, despite the great number of museums there, very often it is the public and private spaces in the surrounding prefectures that present exhibitions that are more innovative or daring. Within the city, galleries and museums are so scattered that it is not uncommon to find an art space in the middle of a residential area with no other cultural attractions nearby. The discreteness helps to break away from the structure seen in Paris which is often hierarchical due to the historical legacies, but Tokyo doesn’t make a smooth case for decentralization either. On the contrary, the hierarchy here resides deeply in the people and resources in circulation, in spite of their remarkable mobility required by the geographical distribution. The microhistory and microsociology are fairly active in circles set in their ways, where the grand narrative is never replaced. If anything, it’s rather reinforced by the actors from the micro scenes trying to join the grandiose invitation-only party backstage. Such is the Tokyo paradox, the inherent fear of change within a city that has experienced near total destruction twice in the 20ieth century and continues to gleefully tear down and rebuild at will. There was recent discussion that one of the few remaining ‘authentic’ areas of the city, Yanaka, would suffer a similar fate, prompting various petitions to ‘preserve’ it as is.
Last Summer in Beijing, Stephen Sarrazin used the concept of ‘ecosickness’ to frame a cultural environment whose parts are so disconnected as to do away with the body, with the biosystem, and posit the fiction of a fractured sustainability. Paris is a ‘walking’ city once you avoid its congested main arteries, which believes in communities (from Blanchot to Nancy) that are connected by the streets, vessels whose flows carry us from from Thaddeus Ropac to Almine Rech, from the Swiss Cultural Center to Rue Chapon’s Galerie Tokonoma, providing a sense of measure. Paris currently suffers from other ills, and others streets have witnessed gatherings of groups feeling excluded. All is not well.
Z. with S.