The Seine Exhibition: A River Reverie


August 29, 2011 | BY Hong Kong Tatler

Just returned from my annual vacation in France. Unlike past summers, this year France was cold and rainy.

Every time I return to Paris, one of my favourite pastimes is museum hopping. The Parisian press has raved about the blockbuster exhibition, Paris At The Time Of The Impressionists for the past couple of months. Paris At The Time Of The Impressionists is co-presented by the Musée d’Orsay and the city of Paris. It was certainly an interesting exhibition, but if you’re already familiar with the works exhibited at the Musée d'Orsay, you’d be slightly disappointed considering the wait. One could easily spend up to two hours queuing at the entrance.

What topped my exhibition list this summer however was the other exhibition located also at the Paris City Hall, titled Paris on the Seine: The Former Quays of the Paris Beaches.

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Temporary Sand Volleyball courts in front of the Paris City Hall



Paris Plages ( Paris Beaches)

For those who are unfamiliar with Paris Plages, the project started in 2002, when the Parisian government decided to transform its riverfront into a beach. To do so, 6000 tons of sand was transported to cover a one-kilometre stretch of the quay. Mini swimming pools were set up for lounging, relaxing and reading. It was such a success that the project continued every summer since and now there are also books and kayaks available for rent in certain districts, as well as beach volleyballs and surfing simulation

The City of Paris decided to stage the latter exhibition for three reasons:

1) To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paris Plages.
2) To familiarise Parisians with the history of the 'golden days' of the Seine when it was considered the ‘playground" of Europe.
3) To rouse the public’s excitement and to pick their brains for the redevelopment of the Seine riverfront.

Meticulous research has gone into the preparation for the Paris On The Seine: The Former Quays of the Paris Beaches exhibition. Much of this research was based on the book The Trace of the River: Paris & the Seine (1750-1850) written by Isabelle Backouche, who is also the curator of the exhibition. A plethora of multimedia presentations accompanied text descriptions of the exhibits, providing an entertaining and educational experience for all visitors.

The exhibition also worked for the casual visitors: it successfully ignited the attendee’s curiosity and excitement for the ongoing Seine redevelopment project and accurately recreated the light-hearted attitude and fun along the riverfront when it was still a playground for the Parisians. What’s more? It made a striking impression even to a frequent museum-goer like myself because it made me realise what an exhibition can achieve, when its curator spends enough time and effort on research.

In reference to my comment on the curator’s efforts and times,you may ask, “Isn’t that what most curators do? What sets this exhibition apart?” Let me try to explain with an example.

Last year, the Centre Pompidou opened a satellite museum in Metz, a city in the northeast of France. The opening exhibition at the Metz Pompidou was entitled Masterpiece?. Its curator, Laurent Lebon assembled a series of paintings that aimed to challenge our conventional notions of what a masterpiece is. According to Lebon, since beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, there will always be subjective and temporal differences in taste that alters the definition of a masterpiece.

The curator skillfully used each exhibit as an opportunity to raise questions and doubts on our assumptions on art and after presenting evidence to support his message, he managed to overturn conventional notions and shed new light on existing “masterpieces”. The exhibition took about two to three years of research and preparation and was essentially a visual display of a doctoral dissertation. Such thorough and meticulous research for an exhibition is rare and so when it does happen (as it did in the Paris Sur Seine), people take notice.

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Opening Exhibition of the Centre Pompidou in Metz entitled “Masterpiece?”

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Centre Pompidou in Metz built by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines.
Architecture inspired by a Chinese hat Source:

The Seine redevelopment project is particularly interesting and relevant for Hong Kong because we are currently working on the redevelopment of our own harbour. It is true that ideas cannot be simply copied and pasted from one country to another. For example, the Paris Plages would not work well in Hong Kong. Unlike Paris, Hong Kong has many natural and beautiful beaches in its proximity. Hong Kong is also too hot and humid and, unlike Europeans who prefer to be tanned, Asians like to stay fair. Some might argue otherwise. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see how the French are planning for the revitalisation of their beloved riverfront.