Daniel Buren’s ‘Les Deux Plateaux’ has been in the Palais Royal for over 25 years and still doesn't look outdated. The controversy that ensued when it was installed in 1986, though, might be foreign to audiences of today; the installation is now often listed amongst highlights of central Paris.
This is Buren’s best-known piece, but he’s been creating works and controversy for over fifty years. 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 alternate, 8.7 cm each.
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.
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.