Daniel Buren’s ‘Les Deux Plateaux’ has been in the Palais Royal for over 25 years and yet still looks new. The controversy that ensued when it was installed in 1986, though, might be foreign to audiences of today; the installation is now seen as a highlight of central Paris.
This is Buren’s best-known piece, but he’s been creating works and controversy since the 1960s. In 1969, recognising the significance of the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form,’ held in Bern, Switzerland, in which he had not been invited to participate, Buren added his artwork to the city unauthorised, covering billboards with his stripes. Two years later, the Guggenheim removed one of his works from a group show the night before the opening after other artists began to argue that it was having a negative impact on their own works. In 1972, Harald Szeeman, the curator who hadn’t chosen Buren’s works for ‘When Attitudes Become Form,’ included Buren in Documenta 5, one of the most significant exhibitions of the twentieth century.
Stripes have been Daniel Buren’s signature since 1965. Buren’s life has often played out against the landscapes of France, from his birth in Boulogne Billancourt to his recent work adding stripes to trams and tram stops in Tours. It was at the Marché Saint Pierre, a textile store still open in the 18th arrondissement, that Buren first found his inspiration in striped fabric. In many of his works, white and coloured vertical stripes are alternated, 8.7 cm each.
Buren’s pieces are often closely linked to site. He often worked in the street, without authorisation, in the 1960s; Bern was not the first place he climbed a billboard. Buren’s piece for Documenta 5 consisted of striped wallpaper replacing white walls, imposing his signature presence even as audiences looked at the works of other artists. Many of Buren’s interventions were radical in a way that can be easily forgotten now, as his institutional critique paved the way for so many artists working since that many of his innovations –such as artist wallpaper– are now widespread.
‘Les Deux Plateaux’ was Buren’s first permanent public project. It made headlines across the world.
Buren’s installation consists of 252 striped columns, made from marble and concrete, with accompanying red and green lights and swirling water feature running under a metal grill, which forms part of the surface visitors walk on. The columns are evenly spaced, but sometimes vary in height. At one point there’s a break in the ground allowing visitors to look down at water flowing around a column. Buren’s columns fill the almost 10,000 square feet of the Palais Royal’s forecourt, which dates from the 17th century.
It’s now a fun place to watch people, the cold linearity of the concrete and stripes offset by human warmth. There are often children running and jumping; tourists pose for photographs. Workers sit down to chat or eat lunch. There always seems to be somebody danging a magnet into the streams of water in the hope of picking up coins and there always seem to be people watching to see if any coins are obtained.
In 1986, though, things were much less chirpy. Eight days before the installation was due to for completion, angry residents in another wing of the Palais Royal halted construction. They had petitioned for a city court order, claiming the installation violated monument protection laws.
Prior to this, the Commission of Historical Monuments, a body without legal power, had voted against the plans for the Palais Royal. Le Figaro, frequent critics of Mitterand’s government, called the planned installation “a disfigurement”. IM Pei’s plans for the Louvre pyramid, begun in 1985 and completed in 1987, were seen as another example of the socialist government disregarding heritage. Le Canard Enchaine responded with the suggestion that the conservatives were blind to anything modern. Soon, the argument became less about Buren’s work and more about divisions made along political lines.
Two months after work on Buren’s installation, the Conservative government won power. As the New York Times put it in their 1987 report on the state of Paris (which makes for very interesting reading, describing many now established sites when they were new), they “decided to tolerate rather than tear down” Buren’s installation, perhaps due to the high cost of removing it so close to completion. Buren had also, in the meantime, won the Golden Lion for his French pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennial, further cementing him as a significant artist internationally.
While Buren’s work is fiercely modern, it wasn’t as divorced from the buildings around it as many felt. The stripes match the awnings on the windows of the Ministry of Culture, which overlooks the installation. The columns, too, are the same dimension as those of the Palais Royal itself. In hindsight, it’s a work very integrated into its environment.
After this controversy, Buren went on to worldwide fame. He’s since had a retrospective at the Pompidou, designed scarves for Hermés and directed performances in Metz. He’s well-represented in collections internationally and the Guggenheim, over thirty years after casting him out, gave Buren a retrospective in New York in 2005 and built a bridge designed by him in Bilbao.
It seems, now, that most of Buren’s critics have fallen silent. They’re currently working on some construction for the Comédie Française, making things in the forecourt a little less neat than usual. Nonetheless, those wandering through are eager to interact with the installation, each in their own way. It’s a lively place, and the injection of Buren’s work into the 17th century setting has given it a dynamism that sets it apart from other (also lovely) areas in the Palais Royal.