The iconic – and terribly vintage – planet room of the Palais de la Découverte in Paris enjoys one last embrace before its renovation and reopening in 2025. Surrounded by the Earth and the Moon, with Saturn above and the Sun in the background, two teenagers share a tender hug. It’s both a performance and a photograph, created by the artistic duo Elsa & Johanna, and photographed, along with the others, in the museum’s empty rooms during the pandemic.
The two photographers typically invent characters and stories and put themselves in staged scenes in front of their own lens. This is a far cry from the photo reportage produced by Robert Doisneau in the same rooms of the Palais in the summer of 1948.
To immortalize the Palais before it undergoes its big change, Gaël Charbau, the museum’s advisor, gave the artists carte blanche and the keys to the backstage, which is usually closed to the public. “Thanks to this access pass, we were able to roam all through this place full of mystery, like investigators in a thousand different costumes. We wandered through this Palace with a thousand doors, from the Planetarium to the office under the roofs to the large carpentry workshop in the basement or to the storage area for supplies and materials,” recall the artists, who also spoke with scientists and museum staff in order to draw inspiration for the project.
Elsa & Johanna always immerse themselves extensively in a new environment, carrying out “weeks of investigation” in the universe that functions as a theater for their photographic productions. They dissect every little detail of the sets, and even the colors and the light influence the fictitious characters of all shapes, sizes and ages who will appear in their photos. “These characters are inspired by the collective imagination, by the Palais de la Découverte itself,” the two artists add.
To wit: this lady who looks a little lost, dressed all in orange, like the garish walls leading to the Living Organisms gallery. In another shot, she appears to be communicating telepathically, and becomes one with the carnivorous plants trapped in a vivarium. “We took over the space for more than two weeks in order to produce this new series. The biology room became our dressing room and we shared our lunches with the stick insects,” they say.
In these tableaux we find teenage friends studying for biology class, a Space Opera diva surrounded by electromagnetic forces or skywalkers in the planetarium, atmospheres that echo “vintage science fiction films, the world of manga, and [their] own vision of the world of science.” But the fantasy vibe and the strangeness of the interactions almost make us forget that these are real scientific experiments that are illustrated here, such as electrokinesis (which had particularly marked Elsa as a child), for instance, or chemical bonding, carried out with the help of a worker from the Palace. These photos highlight the spirit of the Palais de la Découverte, which, since its creation in 1937 has promoted curiosity, an immersive experience and the sharing of knowledge through demonstrations. “It is a place of learning, of discovery, of wonder that exists in a suspended space-time.”
Vibrant and full of color, “Palace Odyssey” is arguably the duo’s most dreamlike and comical series to date, often wrapped in “a social, intimate and psychological approach” – reminiscent of the ordinary interiors in Beyond the Shadows. Here, “different time periods intersect, the imagination of the child and of the adult come together,” freeing the artists from any constraints of realism. “We were sort of like two kids. That’s what was so refreshing about this project, that it took us straight back to our childhood.” Something to delight those nostalgic for this major venue for dialogue between science and the public, while waiting for its reopening in a few years.
By Charlotte Jean
Charlotte Jean is a journalist and author. A former contributor to Beaux Arts Magazine and the founder of Darwin Nutrition, she graduated from the École du Louvre, where she majored in in contemporary art.
ELSA & JOHANNA, Palace Odyssée, on display through December 23, 2021 at Galerie La Forest Divonne, Palais de la Découverte, Paris. A Series of 38 photographs, including 16 acquired by the Palais de la Découverte Exhibition produced with the support of the Palais de la Découverte – Universcience.