Racy Public Art Exposes Paris’s Invisible Borders

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Joep van Lieshout at the unveiling of Domesticator at the Centre Pompidou. Photo: Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt for Carpenters Workshop Gallery

This week, after a social-media barrage declared it obscene, officials refused to install a sculpture called Domestikator in the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre. The same piece was then accepted by, and set up outside, the Pompidou, a contemporary-art museum less than a mile down the road.

The piece in question, by the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, is of a forty-foot-tall humanoid apparently copulating with a four-legged creature. A staircase leading to a doorway in the humanoid’s hip invites the public inside.

The piece is apparently intended to pay tribute to “the ingenuity, the creativity, the sophistication, and the persistence of humans to change the world into a better place.” But what interested me was why the artwork had been deemed appropriate for one part of the city and not another.

When people talk about Paris as “a great walking city,” they are referring not only to its beauty but to the thrilling proximity of its diverse neighborhoods. Just last weekend, in celebration of this unseasonably warm October, I wandered from my apartment in the rapidly gentrifying ex-abattoir district of the nineteenth arrondissement, through the African immigrant quarter known as the Goutte d’Or, down the film set Frenchness of the rue des Martyrs, past the tourist-infested Opera, and then window-shopped at the hyperluxury boutiques of rue Saint-Honoré. Though the whole walk took barely more than an hour, I traversed so many barriers of class and culture that there are whole countries one could cross and not see more.

These barriers are unofficial yet strongly defined: there are never groups of track-suited North African men hanging out on the snooty street corners of rue Saint-Honoré, no middle-aged executives in the hawker’s crush outside Metro Barbés, no tourists in the nineteenth.

This week, there were the obvious aesthetic-conservative arguments that Domestikator would have proved an unsightly blot amid the sedate Renaissance stylings of the Tuileries. But that would hold true for much of contemporary public art, and it is not something that the Louvre has been afraid of in the past.

What interested me was the idea that certain parts of Paris might be permitted to be more offensive than others: the invisible barriers traversed on my walk didn’t only demarcate classes and cultures but also came with implicit ratings of, for want of a better phrase, parental guidance.

From the Domestikator controversy, we can infer that the Louvre and its immediate surroundings carry a General Audiences certificate: the area is suitable for families, school trips, and wealthy, older, conservatives. Meanwhile, the Marais neighbourhood, where the Pompidou is located, though only a twenty-minute walk away, is, through its association with contemporary art, fashion, and Paris’s gay culture clearly more of a PG-13. Its civic art has a licence to be more risqué, and to include, for example, an oversized depiction of bestiality.

This idea can be dialed out to other cities, as well. Would Domestikator be welcome in Manhattan’s Chelsea, for example? How about the Upper East Side? Would London tolerate it on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square, or would it be banished further out, to Hoxton or Bethnal Green? Of course, there are also cities that brandish a near citywide guidance certificate: in Berlin, for example, I imagine Domestikator could be placed almost anywhere; in Dubayy, it would barely make it to the proposal stage.

Running against the grain of this guidance system can garner certain pieces of civic-art outsized attention. In 2014 , in Paris, Paul McCarthy’s Tree, a sculpture resembling a giant green butt plug, was installed in front of the Ritz Hotel. The piece was subject to a massive right-wing backlash, vandalized by protesters, and the artist was accused of “humiliating” the city. But put that exact same sculpture in a less conservative district, and it likely would not have raised more than a few eyebrows.

The question becomes, then, whether by relegating Domestikator to a neighborhood whose rating is already PG-13 has stripped it of some of its purpose: to shock.

Domestikator was unveiled on Wednesday, and yesterday I cycled over to pay it a visit. The stature was tucked by the Pompidou’s southwest corner, its red, geometric design seemed almost camouflage against the building’s postmodern facade. It would have been more exciting in front of the Louvre. But I was still in Paris and the great thing about the invisible barriers in a small city is how easy they are to cross. I got back on my bicycle and headed west, towards the Tuileries, the Domestikator still on my mind.

Chris Newens is a writer living in Paris. 

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