Francophiles were heartbroken last week when French authorities removed the iconic padlocks that lovers have been attaching to the Pont des Arts bridge for decades. Now there’s a small consolation: in place of the locks, the city has installed a temporary art exhibition around the theme of love.
The installation was curated by Mehdi Ben Cheikh, who has spent the past 10 years nurturing street art through his organization Galerie Itinerrance. Cheikh has spearheaded a number of visionary projects, including the painting of a 10-story apartment building slated for demolition, a small Tunisian village, and a drab Paris highway. He once told the New York Times, “Street art is the biggest and most unique art movement in history because of its global impact and its lack of dependence on conventional institutions, and my role is to help it develop and reach across borders.”
Thanks to Cheikh, the bridge now features more than 200 decorated wooden panels by four urban artists. From Lyon, Brusk patterned his trademark multi-colored streaks over an iron grid pattern reminiscent of the old railing; the panel is punctuated with giant pink words that announce “Love is the Key.” Jace painted his “Gouzous” characters to act out typical and comic tourist scenarios, while the Portuguese artist Pantonio painted an abstraction of tense strings breaking at the center, evocative of a break-up. Perhaps most fascinating of all, the Tunisian-born artist eL Seed quoted Balzac’s line, “Paris is a veritable ocean, probe it but you will never know its depth,” in Arabic script — a nod to the city’s large but often marginalized Arab minority. “I thought it was brave … to put up an Arabic sentence in Paris,” Cheikh told Reuters.
Not all are impressed. Shortly after the artwork went up, someone spray painted the conspiratorial question, “Où sont les cadenas?” (“Where are the padlocks?”) in angry black letters over Brusk’s work. For many, artwork just won’t be able to replace the historic locks, though the decision to remove them was probably a good one. In the past eight years alone, over 700,000 of them had been attached to the bridge, so that by the end it was holding 45 tons of extra weight it was never designed for. Sections of the 19th-century railing had even begun to collapse.
Hopefully Paris considers staging more art exhibitions on the bridge in lieu of its current plan. It has announced that later this year it will install permanent lock-proof plexiglass panels, but these are likely to only get plastered with graffiti — and not the kind French officials would likely appreciate. At the very least, they should consider scrapping the plastic design for a metal one proposed by British architect Colin Kovacs. It features balusters that alternatively start and stop just short of the top and bottom railings, making it impossible to attach locks to them. “It maintains the motif that’s all over — that is balustrades with a cross on them — but with an original twist,” he told The Local. “It’s not modern, but it’s a little modern. I don’t think a 19th-century designer would have come up with it.”