PARIS — After a renovation that nearly tripled its size, the revamped Palais de Tokyo swung open its doors Thursday, inaugurating what is now the largest – and perhaps dustiest – contemporary arts center in Europe.
The dust is not a mistake. It's part of an unfinished look meant to inspire artists now allowed to run free within its walls.
About 50 artists began a 30-hour stint of around-the-clock creation to celebrate the center's new life at the imposing Art Deco building on Paris' Right Bank.
The renovation, that cost some (EURO)20 million ($26 million) over 10 months, opened up a dizzying 22,000 square meters (nearly 237,000 square feet) of space. That's more than three soccer fields.
Visitors stepped with trepidation over the center's four floors on Thursday, past dusty columns, partially painted concrete and exposed cables.
Was the renovation incomplete?
The unfinished look, so said the center's President Jean de Loisy, is deadly intentional.
"The landscape here is different from any other center in the world," de Loisy told The Associated Press. "Nothing is perfectly clean, nothing is perfectly painted on purpose. It is so important in art not to control everything. It's all in favor of creativity."
Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand was even more enthusiastic, telling the media he envisaged artists working throughout the space, including "across the windows of the rooms via the stairs and ceilings."
Wherever artists chose to express themselves – whether in nooks and crannies, or more conventionally on walls – one thing is sure: they won't be pushed for space.
The renovation project opened up the Palais de Tokyo basement: some 16,000 square meters (about 172,000 square feet) of previously unused space that had collecting dust for over 20 years.
It was left empty in 1995 after France's prestigious cinema school, the Femis, relocated.
A decade of political wrangling culminated in a decision last year to bring the imposing center back to its full size.
Now, the four large, dark screening rooms that were used by the cinema school are again alive with creativity.
One room – that President Nicolas Sarkozy this week claimed to have loved – is host to a celestial installation called "Star Studded Cave" made by French artist Julien Salaud.
Strands of luminous fabric are constructed across the cinema ceiling in the shape of deer, with forms that resemble a sort of star chart of the sky at night.
Also unlocked in the renovation is the south side of the building, and with it a breathtaking view of the Seine River and the adjacent Eiffel Tower.
"Now, tourists will be able to walk straight from the Eiffel Tower over the footbridge and into the museum, because we have a new entrance next to the river on the same level," Palais de Tokyo curator Julien Fronsacq said. "It's exciting as everything is in close proximity now."
One of the most striking events is a window installation by Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay. Over each of the seven long windows on the building's facade, Marclay has installed a vinyl print that mixes comic book references with Gothic stained glass.
If it sounds eclectic, Marclay said that's because the new open space helped him feel freer from the stuffy constraints of normal exhibition spaces.
"It's a site of experimentation. And look, it's the first time I've used translucent vinyl. The space here gave me more freedom as now there's a sense of `you can't fail' precisely because it's an imperfect and unfinished-looking space."
British artist Oliver Beer, who's conceived a dramatic choral performance for the opening, saw the vast space as a challenge.
"It's such a bold and dynamic thing ... ," the 27-year-old Beer said. "You can't just come and hang your art up. The building actually provokes the art. You have to weave your art on in. Sometimes the building will win, sometimes the artist. That's the interest."
Beer, a rising star on the art scene, is exactly the type of artist the Palais de Tokyo champions.
Highly democratic, the center will continue periodically exhibiting six young, new artists every two months.
In a similar vain this week, in an event called BYOB – or Bring Your Own Beamer – literally anyone with a video-camera and an idea can come and project their work in any part, even the ceiling or stairs, of the art center.
The low-budget attitude is as useful to up-and-coming artists as it is to the center itself – only half funded by the government. The Palais has to come up with (EURO)6.5 million ($8.5 million) of its estimated (EURO)13 million ($17 million) annual running costs. It pins its hopes on sponsorships and a target of 500,000 visitors a year.
Though only time will tell if the venue is a financial success, Palais de Tokyo staff seem upbeat and confident, despite the dust. Faced with a loose electrical wire hanging from the ceiling, speckled with uneven paint, the center's director for visitors, Tanguy Pelletier, was jovial.
"Is it art?" asked Pelletier laughing. "No, this time, it's not intentionally like that. But, don't worry, it'll get fixed."