Friday, February 20, 2009

Living History at the Grand Palais

Two weeks ago today, my husband, the Uber-Mensch, took a much deserved (but unexpected) ‘comp’ day. I had been planning to spend the afternoon at the Grand Palais to view an art installation that all of Paris was raving about. I tried to go one Saturday, but the line was hours long. So I cleared my agenda for that particular Friday and since the exhibit was already in its last days, I would not be deterred. Fortunately, the U-M decided to come along.

Down the hill from our apartment building, we crossed our neighborhood Parc St. Perrine and caught the 72 bus, whose route follows the Seine from the southern 16th arrondissement to the center of Paris. It offers perhaps the cheapest way to see the most stunning views of Paris as it passes the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero, Place de la Concorde and Tuileries Gardens, the Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Louvre, Ile de La Cité and the Conciergerie, before stopping directly in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall, its final destination.

Needless to say, the 72 is our favorite route to town from our quiet corner of the city. But on this day we stopped about half-way, at the site of three other famous Paris monuments: the Alexandre III Bridge, Grand and Petit Palais, all three built for the 1900 World’s Fair.

The Grand Palais is one of Paris’ most exquisite buildings. Part Beaux-Arts, part Art Nouveau in style, it was built as an exhibition hall and remains one today. Its imposing neo-classical stone exterior gives way to an impressive webbed dome of glass and metal. On the inside, the Art Nouveau structure of sculpted iron sweeps delicately and dramatically toward the sky, making you the feel as if you could lift off and fly. It is the perfect place to view an art exhibition.

The exhibit we had come to see that day:
6 milliards d’Autres (in English: 6 billion Others). It is a must-see.

Conceived by famed French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand in collaboration with GoodPlanet Association, 6 milliards d’Autres is a monumental attempt to foster common understandings amongst fellow human beings. Using 21st century technological tools, the project forges human connections across language, culture, frontier, and creed. It punctuates the universality of humankind through numerous beautifully edited video montages of interviews with 6,000 people from 65 cultures from the four corners of the world.

All the interviewees were asked the same questions concerning human issues, emotions, and values. What is happiness? What is the meaning of life? What is your greatest fear? The intimacy and honesty of their responses reveal not simply the commonality of human existence, but also the power of listening, of allowing someone to be heard. From the participants, we discover that, at base, people the world over feel and desire and believe in very similar things. The wisdom of the bushman, the fears of the refugee, and the joys of young mother of three, compel us to look inside ourselves and search for answers to the same questions. Through listening, spectators become participants as well, and like those interviewed, we are changed by the experience. We leave the exhibit seeing both self and other in a new light.

The experience reminds us, too, that we are not alone on the earth, and that to solve the great ills of our time - climate change, poverty, war, AIDS - we must all work as one. In the words of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, “There are over six billion of us on this earth and there is no chance of any kind of sustainable development if we can’t manage to live together.”

The exhibition has now left Paris to travel the world. You may not get to see it in the Grand Palais as I did, but I urge you to buy a multiple-entry ticket the minute you hear that 6 billion Others is coming to your town. You won’t regret taking part in this example of living history.

Exterior of the Grand Palais and the Pont Alexandre III courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of the Grand Palais courtesy of Sarah B. Towle, 2009.


  1. Love the photos and the description of the 72 bus route! Having taken that line, I enjoy recollecting the ride.

    The exhibit sounds extraordinary...your post vivivly conveys how moving you found it. So glad you got to see it before it closed.

    Will look for it in NY! In the meantime, thanks for this wonderful vicarious experience.

  2. I do hope you get to see it, Kathy, when it comes to NYC. No doubt the big apple will be one of its many world stops. Meantime, check out the website. There's a DVD, too, which I just received as a birthday gift and am all too happy to share with you...

    ...Do I hear the stirrings of a summer visit?