I spent 3 weeks in France and did not see the Mona Lisa

A quick disclosure before I begin: I want to acknowledge that it was a privilege to have the circumstances permitting me to spend 3 weeks in France. There are many people who work in the arts, and many who enjoy the arts, who do not have the same privilege.

I am an artist. I am a francophone. These two components of my identity, along with many more, propelled me to spend time in France, a place that is rich in significance because of the history we have been taught and the cultural influences we continue to receive. But this was not my first visit to Europe. Thus, the gravitational pull of the imposing churches and cathedrals along with the notorious museums were less inescapable as they had been. In fact, I decided within the first few days that I would not set foot in any of them. Instead, I wanted to experience art and culture in the other ways it was embedded into this foreign, yet cousin like, society. I was deciding to forgo seeing the Mona Lisa, even though I stood outside Le Louvre; nor did I see any Cézanne, Degas, Renoir or any of the other classical painters that are mandatorily learned in schools throughout the Western world and for which I now had access to see in their original form. Regret is absent from me; even though I acknowledge that I surely would’ve learned much by standing in front of these masterpieces.

What I experienced while walking in the streets was that every neighborhood had its art demarcations. Most of it, if not all of it, is art that will not survive six centuries à la Mona Lisa (1503); most of it, if not all of it, will not be remembered because of the person who painted it (as most are displayed, unsigned); most of it, if not all of it will not be taught in classrooms. Nonetheless, the street art, singularly and collectively, exerts an influence in how we see the neighborhoods and how we see ourselves, often in relationship to the space where they exist, the space where we exist. They speak of the people who live here or those who came here, in order to say something, something to others who are visiting, or to those who live along side the art in a more sedentary way.

”L’eau est le miroir de notre avenir.”

-Gaston Bachelar

By simply walking the streets you see art everywhere. But not all of my art experiences were lived in the streets. I did spend time seeking out theatres or artist run centers, places where art is housed, and allowed to come to be. Some of my favorite moments include descending into the basement of ‘Le Consortium’ in Dijon to take in a musical performance. The packed room came to be by walking alongside contemporary art, walking through a sculpture filled courtyard, and down some stairs to a most simple basement. In this basement, spectators could sit on the floor or in folding chairs, or stand while listening to the similarly unconventional musical offerings of a local musician and another musician from a reserve near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Other noteworthy moments include walking into ‘La Sucrière’ in Lyon, an old sugar refinery that is now the prized center of Lyon’s biennale and a raw space where artists from around the world are given two things: money and permission. The results are spectacular.

My conceptions of art, of myself, of life were challenged, awakened, or simply played with; allowing me to feel like my time was well spent. There was the discovery of 59 Rivoli in Paris, an abandoned building where visual artists squatted. Today, the building receives support from the municipal government, because the community boldly affirmed its importance, as their creators inhabit it. And inhabit every inch of it. Every stair, every door, every corner either has an art marking or someone currently creating. Some perforating stone, some transforming broken skateboards, and even some painting nudes on canvas, as is being done in countless classrooms. The building itself is far from the Pantheon built by France, a monumental building, erected strictly to honor les grands hommes de la patrie: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola… and one woman, Marie Curie. But one can only assume that if a country will build a Pantheon for its former creators, it perpetuates a culture that makes space for its current creators, which easily explains 59 Rivoli and its 6 floors of artists.

I think that’s what I understood from it all. You build Le Louvre for sculptures like the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and paintings like The Raft of Medusa, Liberty Leading the People; all masterpieces of art. But you also make room for those capturing the relevance of today through art, and for those pushing concepts of ourselves through art. Meaning that of course, in Paris, you can see a show where men dance on pointe in tutus, meaning that of course you can walk up to Montpasse and talk to a Cuban immigrant that does street art illustrating famous French revolution quotes (la rue reconnaitra les siens), meaning that of course you can trickle into 16th or 18th century cabarets where Drag Queens belt out French classics; after all, Edith Piaf started singing in the brothels of Normandy and in the street of Pigalle.

One travels because they want to be inspired. And we often bring some of that inspiration back with us. This was the case for me. I am now unapologetic about drinking Rosé wine. I am unapologetic of having papier maché creatures in the halls of Artspace. I am unapologetic about encouraging art to claim space.

But as one who manages space, I am also motivated to make space. I am also motivated to properly compensate artists so that they can earn a living dedicating themselves to a social good. I am motivated to carry the narrative that art is not strictly an economic industry (although it is an economic variable that is most impressive), or that art is not a domain of charity, but that art is an element of society that is so important that we should be demanding Pantheons, and at the very least allowing it to claim the spaces we have.


text by Eric Plamondon

art by Yoel Jimenez