Two days ago, Paris made a pair of decisive moves. Let’s start with the simpler one, a statement that elicited huge sighs of relief from most quarters, not least the art world…
It all began in 2017, when superstar American sculptor Jeff Koons and the then US ambassador announced a generous gift to the City of Paris: a gigantic (of course) Koons sculpture ‘commemorating the victims of the massacres of 2015.’ It’s a hand holding up multi-colored balloons that resemble a bouquet of tulips. The hitch turned out to be that this work existed in only the mind and mock-ups of the artist; it would be Paris’ job to come up with the estimated 3-4 million Euros needed to create and install it where directed… in the heart of chic Paris, in front of the contemporary art museum Palais de Tokyo, far from the sites of the attacks of 2015. Thirty feet tall. Weighing 33 tons.
Toute Paris exploded. Some were appalled by the gift that keeps on taking, others by the proposed work itself. (See photo. You be the judge.) Hundreds of artists and gallery owners signed protest letters. Some called Koons’ approach to art ‘market-driven mass production’, utterly un-French, and his offer ‘product placement.’ Other, lonelier voices rather bravely defended the quality of the work. Since then, private donations have paid for its realization, which is stored in a studio in Germany.
This week, the Culture Minister deflected the Sword of Koons dangling over our heads by declaring the proposed location ground technically unstable, and unsuitable, and that a more appropriate spot would be found ‘on the periphery, easily accessible to tourists.’ (How far out is far enough? one wonders.) However, her meeting with the various stake-holders didn’t go too well. Koons and his entourage are livid, to say the least. So – no new location for Koons’ bouquet yet. Update expected in June. Wait – weren’t there massacres in Nice as well? And Marseilles? Maybe one of those towns would embrace a free monument by the world’s best-paid artist.
MEANWHILE, IN ANOTHER PART OF THE CITY…
At six a.m., police and gendarme commandos rolled in to clear the illegal encampment at Porte de la Villette, a populous and un-chic area – at the periphery – where about 1700 migrants/refugees (Mifugees? Refugrants? We need a new word here) have been living, some for a year or more, in a sea of small tents crushed together side-by-side along the canal. Sanitary conditions had become horrendous, rats ran riot, fights broke out constantly. After two accidental drowning deaths the government took action. Notified ahead of time, the inhabitants, mostly young men from the Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, had packed their few belongings. They filed calmly to the buses waiting to take them to dispersed shelters ‘where their dossiers would be studied.’ Many expressed the hope that their situation in France would be regularized.
Little chance of that, given the ‘Dublin’ political accord that requires refugees to be returned to the country where they first entered. For most this would mean countries already proportionally overburdened with refugees, where the population is turning increasingly hostile and resources have run out.
Europe is wondrously rich. Even strapped Paris, it seems, can pony up a lousy few mil for a genuine Koons. One would like to think that a little judicious redistribution (say, less for unsolicited public art projects, more for migrant housing and integration) would go a long way. But without a wiser, far-reaching multi-national policy, money’s almost irrelevant. The migrants are stuck: either in grossly overcrowded official internment camps on Lampedusa and Lesbos, or in illegal tent metropoles like la Villette and Calais.
La Villette wasn’t the first such cleansing operation in Paris; it won’t be the last. A few hundred of the tent-dwellers simply refused to board the busses. Others, disappointed and frightened, will soon be circling back. Up north, the jungle of Calais, where migrants dream of the white cliffs of Dover, is beginning to sprout again. And down in Greece and Italy, fresh boatloads land every day.