In which your host quotes A VERY FAMOUS FASHION PERSON. Can you guess who it is? And… oh yeah, talks about the art. [ audio + transcript ]
Expo Paris visits Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Bologne.
The Frank Gehry designed Fondation Louis Vuitton was being guarded like Fort Knox before it opened last month on October 27th. Preview visits were being parsed out like golden tickets, the building itself as anticipated as the collection it was designed to house. In fact, it took about 5 years to construct and a worker’s camp was installed on the site in Bois de Bologne… sort of like building the pyramids in Egypt.
I lived in Los Angeles when Disney Hall — the new home for the LA Philharmonic — opened, with as much excitement and fanfare as the Fondation Louis Vuitton. But then, every Gehry building is eagerly awaited — they are indeed beautiful creatures, all masterful proportions, delicate balance, surprising angles and swooping lines… not unlike haute couture models on a catwalk, as a matter of fact.
But just like haute couture, if you shell out 10,000 euros for a one-of-a-kind fantasy of tulle and detailing, unless you’re Lady Gaga are you really going to wear it to do the daily shop? Haute couture is beautiful but impractical, designed to try and force into existence, as it were, a dream-life, where everyone is beautiful and everything is perfect. Of course those in the know say that some people don’t understand fashion, so they just mock it, but fashion IS about the psychology of desire, and form vs function and realizing fantasies vs practical realities.
The Disney Hall is a stunning building… but behind the auditorium, it’s nearly impossible to navigate the warrens of rooms, the musician areas too small for their needs, everybody gets lost behind the scenes… while the exterior, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, is covered in stainless steel… a curious choice in a place where the mean temperature is 28 degrees celsius and the natives think fog is actually brown. Those reflective surfaces rise to temperatures close to Mars, and need regular washing… in a city with an historical shortage of water. Of course, we don’t really have either of those problems in Paris, but still…
…It’s kind of like the Villa Savoie in Poissy, Le Courbusier’s modernist and stunning home built for the Savoie family in 1931. But Le Courbusier was not a formally trained architect. So, you know, never mind that the roof leaks and the parlor becomes an oven. You have the illusion, the fantasy of living a sophisticated, chic lifestyle while fighting off heat stroke and your socks are always wet.
However, unlike Le Courbusier, Gehry is a trained architect who understands things like elevations, and pitch, so there’s no chance of any holes in the roof of Fondation Louis Vuitton leaking rain on all that art.
Frank Gehry said, as is scrawled along an interior wall of the building, “I dream of designing a magnificent vessel for Paris that symbolizes France’s profound cultural vocation.” And so, Mr Gehry created a ship, a large stylized ship plunked down in the middle of Bois de Bologne. Whether its upside down or rightside up is hard to tell.
I visited the Fondation with a friend who works in fashion, and is very familiar with both the glamour of the end product and the grit of the behind the scenes production. We stand in line for what we are told will be two hours, but only turns out to be about 45 minutes. The line snakes around the side of the building and as you’re out there, smelling the fall smells and cigarette smoke, watching the children play, wishing you had brought a sandwich, the building sails alongside of you, in your peripheral vision but somehow manages to feel heavier and heavier the more you wait. It transforms from feeling like it’s about to take off on a strong headwind into feeling more like an oil tanker, squat and heavy in the sea and killing any potential to surf in the wake.
We enter through revolving doors big enough only to admit one person at a time, and I’m immediately annoyed by this. My companion, reminds me that, fashion people don’t like to share.
The building is all glass and exposed wooden beams and natural stone, the sails soaring into the Parisian sky — its so airy and light and natural, it feels Scandinavian. On a crisp autumn day, looking out over the fall colors of the trees to the futuristic La Defense in the distance, I kind of feel like I’m in some Swedish billionaire’s home overlooking Stockholm rather than in Paris. If you’re sick of Paris, it’s an affordable getaway. If you’re visiting from Stockholm, you’ll be disappointed.
And I wonder again about Gehry’s choices. Paris is so often overcast and gray, it does make sense to create a building with lots of light. But the panels of the sails reflect the sky and on a grey day, look grey, fading into the day itself. Why camouflage in an overcast city? Why reflective surfaces in sunnier climes, like Bilbao and Los Angeles? If it’s only to strike a contrast with its environment, his buildings acheive that categorically and often quite beautifully, but on a practical level — at a time when cities and entire countries are strapped for cash and resources — designing a building where the upkeep of the exterior alone diverts local resources seems, well, a bit selfish. But then, luxury brands are all about what regular people can’t have — champagne, jewels, leather, fur… water.
But anyway, once inside, it’s on to the collection itself…
In the lower level near the grotto — the “hold”, I guess — is “Strange Music,” a film by Sarah Morris projected on a huge wall. It’s supposed to illustrate the creative process of Frank Gehry, but really it’s an industrial promotional film of LVMH packaging.
It is impossible to separate the Fondation from the LVMH luxury group, and this film doesn’t really encourage you to. The film visits the LVMH cellars where bottles of Moet are stacked like honeycombs, the bottling plant where footage of Perrier caps bounce around like scurrying ants. Industry industry luxury industry. In fact, you’re encouraged to dream, the film serves to tantalize you into thinking yes, I can have this lifestyle as well.
It’s as if Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH and of course captain of our ship — is saying look at all these people who work for me. Don’t you want to be a part of it?
And there were a lot of very fashionable people who want to be a part of it the day I visit — I wonder how many are wearing an LVMH brand – Dior, Fendi, Kenzo… Louis Vuitton? It’s a little dorky, if you ask me, but then, a baseball fan is gonna wear his Cubs shirt to Wrigley Field, so I guess it makes a certain kind of sense.
We move on to the Tamryn Sims installation, A Polite Fiction. Sims has collected moments and artifacts from the workers who actually built the building, and presents them as a kind of time capsule treasure map of the stories behind the building of the building.
Every building has a story — this is a clever way to go about telling it, to humanize it : workers screwing around, taking drugs, praying, being serious, forging friendships, unrequited love, suicides and football wins, longing for home — all scrawled in graffiti you’ll never see, carved into concrete and crossbeams, preserved in mementos hidden behind the walls… leaving something of themselves behind, saying Hey, we were here too.
I don’t know if the Tamryn Sims would work as well with any other building but because the Fondation has a certain amount of pretention and self inflation, it both celebrates and makes fun of it, sometimes in a puerile way that, after that Sarah Morris film, is a welcome take-down. Of all the work in the collection this is certainly the fanniest… and the most human: touching, humo rous and poignant, and it is interesting that it is in the basement… at the foundation of the Fondation itself.
Among the other work, Thomas Schutte’s glass flute sculpture AFLOAT is wonderful, although considering we’re in a boat and all, the choice seems a bit disingenuous…. but still, it’s ethereal and impermanent and completely captivating. Pierre Huyghe’s “A journey that wasn’t is” a stunning bit of video work, and it’s always nice to see video work as part of a collection. The screening rooms are immense and modern — almost punk in their plain aesthetic. They remind me of Williamsburg, Brooklyn back in the storied warehouse days.
There is a classic John Giorno, Dial a Poem — I dialed a poem, but I hung up on it. It’s an old piece and the poems are delivered in a style that particularly grates on me. And I had to hurry and catch up to my companion who had already moved on — only interested in the future, he said, because fashion is about never looking back.
There is Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly and Isa Genzken– a who’s who of contemporary art, but nothing really new or innovative. It’s a safe collection, done quite obviously with investment in mind. If you’re going to invest in art as a member of a certain class, you must own these pieces. The artists are tried and true and have held their value. But anyway, it’s really about the space — the crowining glory to Arnault’s collection is, after all, the building itself. Because how many people can say they own a Frank Gehry, a whole building?
A wonderful surprise about the building: kids have a great time. They play among the lighted mirrored panels of the Olafur Eliasson installation in the grotto, race around the grounds, giddily explore all the different levels and rooms of the building itself. And why not? It’s got a Hogwarts feel to it — such a mishmash on the inside you half expect the staircases to start moving.
I wish Gehry had spent more time in Paris — actually walking around the streets, taking the metro. Because the building seems to be designed as though no one was expecting crowds. The French move through public spaces like Italians queue, and the building does not take into consideration the French habit of clustering, for example, or the French drift. Likewise, the staircases are too narrow, they’re bad for traffic flow especially in Paris where there is no left / right rule
Traffic flow was taken into consideration, because we are guided, at the end, back to where we began — we are somehow deposited back in the lobby where we’re greeted by the gift shop and the restaurant, which keeps the maritime theme with 8 glowing goldfish swimming through the air. “Look!” says my fashion friend, “8 magical fish to grant your every fashion wish.” “I wish… I reply… this building was more considered”.
Fondation Louis Vuitton is located at 8, avenue du Mahatma Gandhi in the 16th arrondissement. It’s about a 10 minute walk from Metro Le Sablons, and is open every day except Tuesdays.
That’s all for Expo Paris this week. I’m Susie Kahlich. From the American University of Paris, this is WRP.
From Susie Kahlich originally posted on Artipoeus