Guillaume Piens

“France is humming. We are almost optimistic and that’s a rare feeling,” says Guillaume Piens, director of Art Paris which opens on April 5 at the Grand Palais. “The French always have this very negative image and think that others are doing better but in fact there’s a lot happening here and all eyes are now turning to Paris.” Payal Uttam in an exclusive interview with Guillaume Piens for artBahrain.

While London and Berlin have long reigned as Europe’s major art centres, Piens is convinced Paris will soon rise again. Private foundations are opening in spaces with impressive architecture, collectors are launching various projects and fairs are flourishing in the city. It’s the perfect backdrop for the annual fair Art Paris, which fetes its twentieth anniversary this year.

What first started as a small satellite fair of FIAC in the late 90s, known as an ‘anti-FIAC’ of sorts with a very local flavor, has now grown into a fixture on the international contemporary art circuit. It is known for showcasing contemporary art from Europe as well as art from the post-war years while also focusing on emerging art from across the globe. Piens first came on board in 2012 and he recalls thinking, “the place was ideal—the Grand Palais is magnificent and the dates were very good but something was lacking that gave the fair identity.” Since then, he has been on a mission to change this.

While FIAC was looking to the west, Art Paris set course to highlight the east. “It was always an underlying idea to highlight the emerging scenes and widen the horizons of European collectors,” he says. Each year, the fair began spotlighting different regions including Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Korea. “Then when people were going east we decided to highlight Africa. We contributed to this African spring in Paris last year which people are still talking about,” says Piens who adds that several galleries who showed at the fair have returned to the city to participate in the Also Known As Africa fair (AKAA): “I’m happy we could open doors.”

It is this spirit of discovery that sets Art Paris apart. “Everyone wants to have more or less the same gallery list as Art Basel or Frieze. That’s the problem today…so I’m trying to cultivate my difference,” he says emphatically. “I’m trying to bring things to Paris that people are not seeing.” Piens, who spends much of the year on the road, has just returned from a whirlwind trip to Bogota for instance where he was excited to discover new names. “Artists there have this grit to do things that we’ve lost here. I think we are too well fed,” he jokes. “Art in these parts of the world is a risk it’s not a gimmick. That’s why these people are very intense.” Among the most impressive spaces he visited was La Balsa Arte gallery who will be exhibiting this year. Their booth will feature Maite Ibarreche, Juan Osorno and Miguel Cárdenas, a trio of artist who deal feminist politics and sexuality.

While the fair has an international perspective—there will be 140 galleries from some twenty countries—Piens insists that Art Paris is careful not to stray from its focus on Europe: “It’s an approach that I describe as cosmopolitan regionalism. It’s cosmopolitan because we are living in a very open world. I think there is no periphery or centre anymore especially with the internet you can have access to all information wherever you stand. At the same time, there’s regionalism. It’s important to go back to the roots and identity of Europe especially now.” This explains the selection of Switzerland is the 2018 fair’s guest of honour. Art historian and independent exhibition curator Karine Tissot will be overseeing the program. Alongside an array of Swiss galleries such as Espace L from Geneva and Galerie La Ligne from Zurich, there will be an exhibition of Swiss artists focusing on young talents from the Helvetia collection which has remained under the radar in the art world. “It’s not like the UBS collection or other well-known collections. This collection wasn’t being shown so it was an opportunity to show something different,” he says. There will also be a special exhibition featuring women video artists from the country.

To celebrate France’s own dynamic history, Piens invited curator and art critic François Piron to pull together an exhibition of French artists featuring forgotten names from 60s and 70s such as conceptual artist Tania Mouraud and Algerian-born artist Jean-Michel Alberola represented by Galerie Daniel Templon. “They are not so well known in the market but I think it’s important to reexamine their works in the French context,” says Piens. “I’m not doing a fair that just highlights new cutting-edge things. I think that’s quite ridiculous. There are so many connections between past and present. It’s important to show this legacy.”

As a collector himself, Piens is fascinated by art history and this is reflected in the careful curation of the fair. He realises however that for many this isn’t the case. “The art market today has two faces: One is for people who just want to invest they are not interested in discovery. It’s the signature of the artist that’s important. That’s the depressing side of the market. Then you have the other face, which is to buy with passion.” While Art Paris is a commercial fair, Piens also sees it as an important springboard of sorts for young galleries and new talents. Like many, he speaks of fair fatigue and finds himself gravitating towards small fairs across the globe rather than big names. “They are much more rewarding than going to Miami for instance. I don’t go there now. Many times when I went for five days, I would wonder what did I actually see? It’s more a circus than a fair with all the parties. It’s not what I like about art. For me, art is a tool to gain knowledge of the world and people. I think it’s the most direct way to know culture…For me, it’s all about new discoveries.”