Every year Paris stages Monumenta, a temporary installation by a single artist in the vast iron and glass spaces of its Grand Palais.
I remember describing last year’s work, produced by the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor: “The whole thing is vast, magical and utterly bonkers. I can’t quite find words to explain the experience. You enter inside the ‘balloon’ first of all, and everything is red and hot and echoey and womb-like, with shadows of the ironwork structure of the building playing on the surface far above you. Then you get to wander round, still in the enormous Beaux-Arts hall of the building, but now outside the sculpture. It’s like seeing the workings – now you understand that it’s a multi-sphered purple shape nestling under the dome, but you also have the new experience of seeing the huge, organic shape filling that vast space, like an alien life form gradually permeating everywhere in the void. I can’t imagine the genius of the man to imagine and then create something quite so preposterous, or so perfect. Poor Daniel Buren, who I think has been commissioned to do Monumenta 2012.”
Now a recent return visit to Paris has allowed me to see Monumenta 2012. This year’s artist is indeed Frenchman Daniel Buren, perhaps best known for his fun, controversial black and white columns in the cour d’honneur of the Palais Royal in Paris.
His installation, called “Excentrique(s), Travail In Situ”, is a mass of raised, coloured, transparent disks. With their narrow supports, they reminded me of umbrellas and – in the way the light shines through them to create pools and patterns of colour – of contemporary stained glass. Buren himself has compared the structures to trees in a forest, especially appropriate among the green ironwork of the space.
My favourite elements of the installation lay above and below the disks: 45 metres up in the roof, Buren had added a checkerboard of blue panels to the central glass dome, allowing for a dramatic interplay between the colours of the disks and the glass of the roof above.
Then, on the floor in the centre of the hall, lie a number of circular mirrors, which on approach create sudden striking reflections and contrasts (although something of a risk for anyone in a skirt…).
There is a certain defensiveness I think about the scale of this year’s installation. Buren has claimed that monumentality is a quality as much as a particular size, while an appreciative critic has argued that, at three metres high, the relative smallness of the Excentrique(s) allows the monumentality of the Grand Palais itself to shine through. But for me, having seen 2011’s purple balloons, I found Buren’s transparent disks rather domestic and almost timid: they lacked the extraordinary spatial confidence that Kapoor (and before him, Richard Serra) had demonstrated. They may be thoughtful and pretty, but they lack the sense of marvel that is Monumenta at its best.
Monumenta 2012 continues at the Grand Palais until 21 June.