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Paris, France – Swapping sweet dreams for after-hours art in Paris

An enchanting way to spend a sleepless night in the heart of Paris

The capital of the flâneur, Paris is a wonderful milieu for strolling, and one evening every year the city is turned over to the particular pleasures of wandering and discovering.

Nuit Blanche is an idiomatic French phrase that literally means ‘white night’. It’s typically used to express the passing of a sleepless night, however in the case of the first Saturday evening in October, it refers to the all-night arts festival established in 2002 by the forward-thinking mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë.

Usually, this 12-hour festival takes a different theme but this year it was more a concentration around certain geographical hubs - central, west, east - to allow visitors more opportunities for ambling.

Given that the festival takes place during the hours of darkness, it’s hardly surprising that so many of the installations experiment with light.

Of these, the most effective was Thierry Dreyfus’ deceptively simple light installation inside the Notre Dame de Paris, which was remarkable for its ability to force a new reading of a familiar building. Switching off all city lights around the church’s exterior, Dreyfus installed a series of internal floodlights which dimmed and brightened in a gentle rhythm. When viewed from outside, the cathedral was dark save for the glowing stained glass windows.

The installation is testament to the power of Dreyfus’ vision. On this evening the Notre-Dame felt different: less like a space for sacred worship, more a place to appreciate the power of secular creation. Dreyfus’ breathing light lungs have transformed the overwhelming grandeur of the church into a space that feels far more unified, serene, and familiar. Shock and awe has been replaced by feelings of profound calm and composure.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, of recent birds-in-the-Barbican fame (AR May 2010) exhibited Harmonichaos, a project unveiled in 2000. Boursier-Mougenot’s comically sinister, harmonica-playing vacuum cleaners are installed in a salon in the beautiful Hôtel de Lauzun, on the banks of the Seine. A private townhouse, the hôtel was originally constructed during the reign of Louis XIV and its ornate interiors have hardly changed in the following centuries. The sumptuous room where the installation is displayed serves as a delicious foil to the late-80s aesthetic of the old vacuum cleaners, while the wheezing whine of the harmonicas creates an atonal, modernist symphony.

Respite from the demands of this sleepless night were provided by Louidgi Beltrame’s enlightening film Gunkanjima, screened in the École Nationale Supérieure D’Architecture in Belleville. At 5am, this hypnotic film of Hashima Island’s ruined buildings was most welcome; it was exactly what was needed at that late hour - slow-moving images of a dystopian-Disney fantasy, a coal-mining island long since abandoned. Lying off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan, it was populated by workers from 1887 to 1974 and then left to crumble thereafter. Beltrame’s camera makes no ideological or moral statement; it only shows what’s left of this bizarre island, which resembles the ghostly remains of a work camp. The pull of the place is undeniable and Beltrame has done a great service by simply bringing it to light.

Though not as successful as it might have been, given that the space was too small and a gaggle of teenagers appeared to have used it as a bed for the night, Fayçal Baghriche’s piece, Snooze, brought Nuit Blanche to its end. A pitch-black room in the Hôtel d’Albret was filled with 300 alarm clocks resting on shelves lining one wall. The clocks ticked away all throughout the evening until precisely 7am, when the alarms all went off in (near) unison. While the noise wasn’t quite as deafening as I expected, the idea of trying to arrive on time for an alarm clock to go off is playful and amusing. As is the notion of the clock as an Alice-in-Wonderland-type symbol: 300 alarms jangle en masse, instantly transforming you from night-time dreamer back into day-time doer.

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