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PARIS — The essence of branding is the insistent repetition of a recognizable commodity image, so we should not be surprised when Bernard Arnault’s global luxury brand Louis Vuitton applies the same formula to art. And we cannot be startled when the same architect, Frank Gehry, is encountered again and again in the growing world of private art museums financed by business magnates.
That said, I must admit that Gehry’s façade-heavy building for La Fondation Louis Vuitton is uniquely astonishing, suggesting a cloud-boat set about on a tranquil sea. The place is definitely worth visiting, and there will be eight concerts by the magnificent Kraftwerk in the auditorium November 6–14.
But I was particularly impressed by how the space functioned inside, spaciously casing art from the Foundation’s (or Arnault’s) European-heavy permanent collection, such as Pierre Huyghe’s film “A journey that wasn’t” (2005) — in which the artist sails on an expedition into the vast polar circle, then slides into a media event at the Central Park ice-skating rink in New York.
Gehry’s own maquettes and drawings receive a capacious exhibition here in simultaneous dialogue with his ongoing retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Also luxuriously presented is Olafur Eliasson’s light installation and Thomas Schütte’s whimsical sculpture “Mann im Matsch” (Man in Mud) (2009). An entire immense gallery is exclusively dedicated to Gerhard Richter’s work, including “Hirsch” (1963) and “Seestück (Leicht bewölkt)” (1969) in which Richter reassessed the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. There are many of his squeegee scraped abstractions here as well, such as “Wald” (1990), but the highlight for me were two huge digital prints, the “Strip” works that were produced via computer modeling of color combinations, created from a scan of his “Abstract Painting (724-4)” (1990). With the help of a software program, the scan is divided vertically into two strips, then four, eight, 16, 32, etc. — resulting in 8,190 strips that become progressively narrower.
Gehry’s huge, light-filled space equally luxuriously framed commissioned work, such as Ellsworth Kelly’s “Color Panels (Red Yellow Blue Green Purple)” (2014). This Kelly commission gives the auditorium a distinctively De Stijl, a predecessor of Bauhaus, look. It specifically recalls Theo van Doesburg’s Neo-Plasticism movement in architecture where he, together with Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp, created the Café de l’Aubette (1928) in Strasbourg, an immersive space that surrounded the visitor in colored geometric forms. In terms of global branding, this choice is revealing, as in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign Jean Baudrillard stated that “it is the Bauhaus that institutes a universal semantization of the environment in which everything becomes the object of a calculus of function and of signification. Total functionality, total semiurgy.”
Myself not being terribly impressed with huge, clean, empty, white space (or scale), the works that most pleased me were rather intimate: such as poet John Giorno’s “Dial-A-Poem” (1968–2012). For over four years anyone could dial (212) 628-0400 and hear a poem read and recorded by various artists and poets ranging from John Ashbery to Black Panther Bobby Seale. It became an installation in which four phones were connected to two hundred randomly activated prerecorded poems.
Two audio drone pieces worked especially well in the white spaces. There is Cerith Wyn Evans’s fascinating “A=F=L=O=A=T” (2014) audio sculpture made up of 20 transparent glass flutes, extended by long transparent tubes, all ending in a visible blowing mechanism. Hung in the shape of an ellipse, each of them continuously plays one note from a composition by the artist. The superimposed sounds enveloped me in a vibratory continuum.
The other strong audio work is Oliver Beer’s “Composition for a new museum” (2014), a sung drone that transformed an empty room made to vibrate by three singers placed in the corners. Combining the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible, it offered me an immersive experience of transport and beauty.
But perhaps the star of the show, from my perspective, is Christian Boltanski’s “September 6” (2005), a melancholic rush of media sound and image created from the National Institute of Audiovisual media archives. It is a blur of television and cinema news that took place on September 6 (Boltanski’s birthday) between 1944 and 2004.
The spectator can stop this speeding stream of fast-forward images and sounds with a simple gesture, freezing shots of anonymous individuals or political and entertainment personalities. It makes media momentum apparent by extending the retinal limit in a way that would be previously regarded as outside of phenomenological thought. It took me on a trans-subjective rush down an abstract media river that I found not at all unpleasant. “September 6” takes the obvious and accessible, and turns it towards cancellation — where the very foundation of branding, speech, and thought are undercut.
La Fondation Louis Vuitton (8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Bois de Boulogne, Paris) opens to the public on October 27.