Once you get past the vendors of contraband cigarettes surrounding the exit from the Métro station Saint Denis-Porte de Paris and the string of fast food shops on Rue Gabriel Péri, the scene changes dramatically when you suddenly spy a large gated garden surrounding an elegant 18th-century chapel, part of a former Carmelite convent. A haven of peace in this rough suburb of Paris, the 17th-century convent is now home to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Paul Éluard de Saint-Denis.
This old-fashioned municipal art and history museum, with its wood paneling and display cases, and religious quotes painted on the walls (left over from its days as a convent), is currently holding an inventive exhibition of very modern installations, performances, drawings, photos et videos called “Polyphone: Polyphonies Visuelles et Sonores” (“Polyphonic: Polyphony in Image and Sound”), developed in collaboration with the Kunstsammlung Gera in Germany. As the curators point out, the French museum is “eminently polyphonic, rustling with layers of messages from different times and contexts.”
The works, on show in the chapel and amid the museum’s permanent exhibition, explore harmony, discord and perception in a wide variety of ways.
In the German artist/composer Christina Kubisch’s immersive installation “La Serra” (2017/22), for example, visitors create their own unique sound composition by putting on headphones and wandering through 600 meters of electric cables suspended from the ceiling like so many vines. The sounds they hear, produced by electromagnetic induction, change depending on where they are and how fast they move, and are inaudible without the headphones. Recorded in the tropics, they include the sounds of burbling water, wind and the cries of frogs, crickets and birds.
The video “Mabogo Dinku” by the South African, Berlin-based artist Lerato Shadi, combines sound – a folk song sung in the Tswana language by the artist – with images of the words of the same song spelled out in sign language, some of them familiar movements that make sense to us while others are indecipherable to those who don’t speak the language, a comment on the difficulty of translation and a refusal to bend to the imposed language of the colonizer.
Another work with a political message, by the Iranian artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who also lives and works in Berlin, is “Pssst Leopard 2A7+” (2013). You wouldn’t know to look at it, but the simple wooden platform topped with a checkerboard of green, blue and white Lego plaques is identical in width and length to the Leopard 2A7+ military tank made by German arms manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and designed especially to put down protests in hot climates. Germany, the world’s third-largest weapons manufacturer, has sold a number of them to Saudi Arabia. Visitors to the exhibition can safely sit on the installation and plug a headphone into a jack to hear various sound works related to the production and use of the tank.
“Rain Songs” (2001), an installation by Will Menter, a British sound artist, composer and saxophonist who lives in Burgundy, has no political message to convey. As drops of water fall onto pieces of slate suspended over hanging ceramic tubes, it randomly produces a pleasing concert of constantly changing music.
Tune up your eyes and ears before going to see and hear these inventive works. While you’re there, take the time to explore this hidden museum and perhaps pay a visit to another treasure of Saint Denis: the 12th-century Gothic cathedral, where the kings and queens of France were once buried and now home to the largest collection of 12th- to 16th-century funerary sculpture.Favorite