This day was perhaps the most intense – and certainly most enjoyable – seminar of the week. Having had a relaxing walk towards Reid Hall with a leftover ham and cheese baguette and stopping briefly at Patisserie Boulangerie for an espresso, myself and everyone else were plunged into deep discussion about revolutionary animals by Professor Derek Ryan. However, it took a much unexpected turn halfway through.
He began by introducing the little-known field called animal studies that manifested within the last decade. This is an inter-disciplinary field that focuses on how we, as humans, view animals, addressing issues relating to animal ethics and brutality, to name a few. We then talked about the founding of the Ménagerie in the Jardin des Plantes in 1793, becoming the first civil zoo in the world. This zoo was revolutionary due to its public nature, as opposed to the private collections of exotic animals owned by the elite who used them to emphasise their wealth and status.
We explored the writings of Jacques Derrida and even the art critic John Berger – I didn’t even know he wrote a book called Why Look at Animals? (2009). As soon as he made the analogy between the viewing of animals in zoos and the viewing of paintings in an art gallery, I instantly thrived. The viewing of the latter is usually for entertainment and we see them as material objects. Is this not true of visitors seeing animals in a zoo? There is also the issue of natural habitation: zoo animals are not in their natural habitats, while paintings, in most cases, are – obviously altarpieces and frescoes are exempt from this argument.
Already we have identified problems with human perceptions of animals. Animal studies is very much addressing the problems with anthropocentricism, the belief that humans are the most significant species on the planet. As a result, inequality is at the heart of the discussion and we ended up debating about experiences of being a vegetarian, a woman in society and parallels with feminism. After the seminar, I even spoke to Derek about being an introvert in a society that has a preference for extroversion and its associated traits. It was a very active discussion and everyone participated very strongly.
For the 2nd time of the week we had pizza for lunch again. I must admit, my heart sank with disappointment at the sight of those boxes. However, it was free food, so I couldn’t complain. We took the bus afterwards, getting off at Gare d’Austerlitz for a short walk into the Jardins des Plantes.
My first impression was that it was a very nice walk in the park – even passing a carousel that I grew very fond of very quickly – but as soon as I noticed the area of botanical flowers and a few people tendering to them I realised that this doesn’t happen very often in England. This brief, but beautiful moment gave me a little more hope for what was to be expected at the Ménagerie, our first stop in this area of greenery.
The Ménagerie, unlike most zoos I’m used to, was not a structure that stuck out like a sore thumb with a lots of billboards advertising its whereabouts. In fact, it was quite the opposite, quite indiscrete and merging very well within the layout of the gardens. Even the entrance was very banal – had it not been for the poster on the fence I wouldn’t have known the ticket office was next to me.
Walking around this nicely-sized zoo felt no different to walking aimlessly in a public park. The main difference was obviously the animals on display and their living quarters. I say ‘living quarters’ because, as mentioned earlier, these are not the animals’ natural habitats. In fact, one of the little monkeys was clearly trying to dig himself out of his abode, only to be told off by his father. The cry was disheartening.
As I explored the place further, I recalled the seminar discussion and I had a gradual depreciation for the zoo while my sympathy for the animals increased. However, certain scenarios did lighten up the mood. While observing a small herd of goats, I was able to witness a fight for dominance, characterised by their head-butting; this happened several times. In another section, a girl was drawing some red pandas – I went up to her and said, referring to her drawing, “C’est très beau!” I was surprised I managed to say that without hesitation…
It wasn’t too long before the group of us exited the Ménagerie. I even found out that I completely missed the wild cats section, and I failed to find the ostrich from last night – the girls did, however. While waiting for a few others, I decided to take a brief stroll in the botanical gardens but it wasn’t particularly exciting. Our next stop was the Grand Gallery of Evolution, part of the National Museum of Natural History of France – yes, national museum – where we ran through a few delays because we had no idea where to get our tickets.
Once we were inside, we were welcomed to four floors of exhibits. The first two emulated the sea level and the ground level, displaying the diversity of animals in each; the third focused on the roles and effects of human beings on the environment and in evolution; and the fourth was on the evolution of life – I did not have enough time to visit this floor, but I heard very good things about it from the only biomedical student in the group. It was lovely walking around these displays, many of them well placed.
Taking it slow, we focused more on each other and the varying amounts of random comments we’d make, than the exhibits themselves. Our translator girl told me she had a thing for bears, leading to a photograph of her ‘intimately’ kissing a polar bear. In another, she attempted to give the illusion of mounting an Aldanra giant tortoise from Seychelles. She’s also afraid of spiders, so one photograph shows her extreme response to hearing about very large spiders – earlier she asked me about large jumping spiders in Malaysia, to which I told her about having seen huge ones in Hong Kong. One of the other girls – one of two journalists – tried to kiss a moose. Another cheekily poked a ram’s bottom…or was she stroking its wool? Basically, we’re a very quirky group when we feel like it. One photograph shows them beside a panda with outstretched arms, attempting to imitate its pose – they must have felt very awkward after that.
However, after passing the section on dodos, I found myself feeling as if I entered the British Museum’s Enlightenment gallery, except I wasn’t in London. I had in fact entered the gallery of endangered and extinct species. I remember seeing within the dimly-light gallery a coelacanth on display, while another seemed to contain what appeared to be a lynx – it was very big and fluffy.
We were due to meet at Le Bal Bullier at 6:30pm to welcome the Campus2Campus Challenge runners who ran 200 miles from Canterbury to Paris. In the process they raised over £5,500 for Pilgrims Hospices. Our walk to the café/restaurant was an interesting one. Certain members of the group were relatively adamant about taking the Métro back, while myself and the majority didn’t want to waste a perfectly sunny day and wanted to walk: the walk prevailed. Guiding the group through winding streets and back alleys, we eventually made it. On the way, I discovered that a certain domed structure was in fact the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, located in the former Church of the Val-de-Grâce. Its dome could easily be seen from the terrace of our hostel.
Upon arrival, we were each treated to a free drink of up to €5. Being rather fond of white wine, I opted for a glass of Sauternes. I remember the waiter quietly utter the words “C’est fantastique!” to me – the result was definitely not disappointing. We didn’t really know any of the runners – or their supporters – so we chatted amongst ourselves. Gradually, we gave up our seats so that they may have a full reunion and catch-up. Meanwhile, a good number of us headed to Green Dog for dinner. This time their menu had changed, offering meal deals – I went for the hot dog again, and later went for an Oreo cheesecake (YUM!). Having spoken to the manager and his staff the first time round, we got to know them quite well – two of them had actually lived and worked in London before. I still remember their dedication to business by buying a flat-screen TV to offer viewings of the World Cup football matches, like the premise next door – we saw it installed and working on this second visit. Mid-way through dinner, conversation somehow turned to the sharing of embarrassing sex stories – I shall say no more.
Next on my list of exhibition venues was the Palais de Tokyo, a venue that opens at noon and closes at midnight. We walked to Raspail station – passing a very large group of roller-skaters on the way – took the Métro and got off at Trocadéro station. Passing the back of the Palais de Chaillot, we walked eastwards to our destination, stopping briefly for photographs with the Eiffel Tower. My first impression of the building and its atmosphere was one of youth and also of sophistication – based on the many people in smart-casual dress. It took us a moment to find the entrance…on the other side of the building…but it was interesting nevertheless.
The Palais de Tokyo is a building of two parts built in 1937. The eastern wing houses the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, currently exhibiting a retrospective of Lucio Fontana – he’s the guy who slashed some canvases and called it art. This wing represents the building’s dedication to modern art. For contemporary art, the western wing houses the Palais de Tokyo / Site de création contemporaine – a “site for contemporary creation”. Unlike its eastern counterpart, this wing does not have a permanent collection, so when we visited it was during the 2nd part of their exhibition L’État du Ciel (14th February – 7th September 2014). This is a programme of exhibitions that offers a “homage to many artists’, poets’ and philosophers’ reflections on the physical, moral and political factors that shape our world” and “addresses the current time, a political time in which seeing is already a means of action.”
Personally, I wanted to see the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition Aujourd’hui le monde est mort [Lost Human Genetic Archive] (25th April – 7th September) which “explores the nature of time and perception, and the origins of consciousness” through the use of multimedia installations which present differing scenarios and narratives. Due to the lack of time, I was unable to visit this show, but as a group we experienced something that most described as “the best time of their life”: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Flamme éternelle (24th April –23rd June 2014).”
“Eternal Flame as an artwork – as opposed to a cultural event – is standing up for Art as experience…inviting philosophers, writers and poets, because I think that confronting their ideas and their thoughts can help us confront the time we are living in…confront the reality we are in, and…confront the world we live in.”
The title for the piece comes from the idea of feeding a flame.
“Eternal Flame is a work of art, it is a sculpture dedicated to what is active and never stops: thought.”
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “food for thought”, doesn’t it? In this case, food is thought, and we feed it into Hirschhorn’s piece to keep it alive. As an audience, we are also encouraged to create our own ‘works of art’. This took the form of drawings, quotes, printed images and the best part: lots and lots of polystyrene. This led to much polystyrene-throwing and the turning of our young ‘responsible’ adults into out-of-control reckless children. One of the girls even admitted that “it was like being a child again.”
Flamme éternelle very much places the audience at the heart of its creation. By entering Hirschhorn’s 2,000 square-metre installation we become active participants in its ever-changing dynamic. This could take the form of our sensory perceptions of the environment, the taking in of information projected by the various philosophers, writers and poets – or even the DVDs we can watch on the five-or-so TV screens – in turn, influencing us in unexpected ways, perhaps channelling it into the discussions we have within the venue. Flamme éternelle, in a nutshell, is a celebration of ideas, and the venue acts as a channel for us to share these ideas.
The amalgamation of everything in this exhibit far surpassed the expectations of us students, many of whom came with the idea of €1 drinks as an incentive – in fact, the experience cannot be fully expressed in words. Cheap drinks certainly did offer themselves up to us – I resorted to white wine and can of Coke. The bartender even said “What do you want ‘cause I’m about to close.”
With polystyrene in our hair – and my wine – we left the Palais de Tokyo as it approached midnight. This could only mean one thing: the Eiffel Tower will sparkle. Fortunately for us, we had a superb view of the tower from the almost empty Passerelle Debilly, an arched footbridge built to accommodate visitor traffic during the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Coincidentally, the Eiffel Tower was also built as an entrance arch to the earlier Exposition Universelle of 1889, in turn becoming a symbol of the Exposition and a universal and cultural icon of France.
As the iron lattice tower sparkled in front of us, we welcomed in our first weekend in Paris. With two full days of freedom – and no seminars – ahead of us, we began our journey back to the hostel. We walked along the Avenue de New York, passing the many tourists in front of the Jardins du Trocadéro on Place de Varsovie who tried to get a better view of the tower. Many more huddled below the tower as we walked along Pont d’Iéna, the bridge which connects the tourist attraction with the district of Trocadéro. It was there when we lost most of the group, who walked straight ahead towards the Champ de Mars while three of us made a right turn with the intention of finding the Champ de Mars – Tour Eiffel RER station. This was short-lived – it was closed – and after gathering everyone up, we took the Métro from Bir-Hakeim – I tripped briefly on some gates through a pitch-black area along Quai Branly.
Rather than getting off at Raspail, we got off at Montparnasse – Bienvenüe station – where we had a little trouble finding the exit. Facing the exterior was Tour Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper in France until it was overtaken by Tour First in 2011, located in La Défense. The tower is one of several attractions that offers a view of Paris from its observation deck on the 56th floor. As we walked along Boulevard du Montparnasse and the skeletal remnants of a market, we were met with a couple of abandoned boxes near Reid Hall. These cardboard boxes were filled with thrown-out books – Oh Mon Dieu! Who would do such a thing?! A few us had a little rummage to see what we could find and I ended up taking back with me a copy of The Keys to Creativity (1988) by Peter Evans and Geoff Deehan – hoping it will aid me with next year’s module exploring artistic ‘genius’ – and The Heart of the World (1990) by Alan Ereira. The latter, however, gave me a surprise within its pages that I did not expect, while remaining true to the romantic belief that Paris is a city of love.
I found a love letter…