(Paris.) Last autumn, Bernard Arnault, billionaire owner of LVMH (Luis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy – and that’s only the brands they started with, the updated company name would need more than fifty initials to include all subsidiaries from sniff – Guerlain – to bling – Bvlgari - to booze – Glenmorangie) has opened his contemporary art museum in the west of Paris, right next to fun park Jardin d’acclimatisation. Despite the green fields of Bois de Boulogne, this still is Paris, and more precisely the 16th Arrondissement.
A quick look at Parisian postcodes can tell a lot about French society: Whilst all other “arrondissements” (boroughs) are numbered from 75-0-01 through 75-0-15, 75-0-17 and 75-0-18, when sending a letter to “the 16th”, it needs to be addressed to 75-1-16. The “1” stands for 1st class. If Monsieur Arnault were still residing in France, he’d be found here, in the 16th, where a noble “de”-name is almost indispensable (the 7th is for diplomats, the 3rd/4th for hipsters, and the 6th - St Germain - for Americans).
Or actually he wouldn’t, because if you’ve not just made it big, but huge in Paris, you don’t live here anymore. You hardly ever enter the city - to visit a gallery opening or go shopping at Place Vendôme -, you work at La Defense and you live in Neuilly-sur-Seine. If Paris were a night club, the 16th would be the VIP area, and Neuilly that secret backroom where drugged out movie stars celebrate weeklong orgies with Russian ballerinas, drinking Cristal from the skulls of crucified baby pandas.
Although technically situated in the 16th, the metro station closest to Fondation Louis Vuitton is “Les sablons” on the other side of the border with Neuilly-sur-Seine. On arrival, the average Parisian closes his eyes, blended by the whiteness of pavement and palaces. It’s not that people would be whipped for spitting chewing gum (it’s not Singapore), but those who would even think of spitting don’t dare to come here, and if they did the gum would instantly dry out in an open mouth stunned with awe. Graffiti? Wasn’t that the name of this dead desert dictator, or is it an Italian caterer? When getting out of the metro, I very nearly pulled off my shoes, then remembered the state of socks, and humbly tiptoed down the street, head bowed and actively suppressing the urge to throw a “Sorry Sir, I’m sorry Sir, your most unworthy servant” at every passer-by. To avoid too many of us invading Neuilly, Louis Vuitton Foundation has been offered an own bus stop, served only on weekends when the residents are actually at home (if only we had known that beforehand).
The Frank Gehry designed museum looks massive, yet elegant.
Futuristic, yes, in a sense, but it’s not a spaceship, more of a robot fish relaxing in a kids’ swimming pool. Rather “A whale has stranded” than “The eagle has landed”. Playful forms reign, polished metal reflects the crowd’s face, while large windows offer insights into deserted offices (it’s a Sunday). We imagine it be slightly annoying to have all those people staring over your shoulder, slaving away for the minimum salary, and as impressive as it is, the architecture seems not exactly practical. It looks trouble to find room for desks and drawers. On the first floor, security concerns demanded an ugly barrier behind the window to prevent workers from falling down(?).
We’ve promised recently not to mention the queues again, yet kindly allow us some observations: 1) It’s no use to buy tickets over the internet. The two lines - with and without tickets - are of equal length. 2) Using the ticket vending machines is a much better idea. Both queues end at a guarded cordon with a (wo)manned cash desk serving the one. The vending machines – no cash, credit card only - are behind that cordon. People using them are allowed to dodge the line(s), then, instead of retreating to the starting point five hundred metres away, enter the building in the back of the wardens (/interns guarding the entrance).
If your face looks important enough, you don’t even need to do that, just whisper the secret code word and be left in without further ado.
3) Plan Vigipirate sucks. This is not a gang of vigilante pirates running amok in Paris (now this would make a great movie!), but the astonishing name given to security measures over terrorism concerns. To make it easier on all of us: Don’t bring a bag. (Ok, better: terrorists suck).
Inside, it’s nice, no doubt. Up till the end of February, there’s still a show running on Frank Gehry. A collection of drawings and models reveal how the architect arrived at what we’re now standing in, some of these even include miniaturised versions of famous artworks (is this Theo Mercier’s Noodle Man?). Videos show how the building looks from the outside (we think, we’ve enjoyed that perspective long enough, but thank you). One wall though left us speechless: Sketches that could be used for a Rorschach Test, maybe it’s just phone pad scribble (we imagine a night at the Gehrys’: Mrs. Gehry picking up the phone, then calls: “Frank, it’s Bernie, again.” Mr. Gehry nearly spills his Chateau d’Yquem by LVMH over Mrs. Gehry’s Dior by LVMH handbag brimming with De Beers by LVMH diamonds, hurries to take the receiver - “Mkay hon’” - ... “Oh hi Monsieur, awesome, and how are you!”. Then listens to the latest ideas, and casually scribbles away.) These drawings are reminiscent of Cy Twombly.
The second inaugural exhibition is about Danish-Icelandic illusionist Olafur Eliasson. To enjoy it, visitors need to descend into the spa area. Behind the glass walls, in a patio, a river flows and it’s not rain, illuminated by Eliasson's yellow neon-mirrors. However, this is only foreplay, and a most astonishing sign warns at the main space: “Caution. This exhibition contains wall-length mirrors. Please take care to not walk into them”. Oh, these insurance obligations...
In the antechamber Olafur Eliasson has placed a small but veritable meteorite for people to touch as a compensation for the fragility of what is to follow. In this same antechamber, a LV intern repeats the written warning to further prepare us for the experience.
They’re really attentive, but sometimes a warning risks taking away some of the art’s impact. At a later point we read the interdiction to touch “the fountain” (together with advise for epileptics). Without this we wouldn’t have known it’s a water fountain producing these effects under stroboscope, and it would have been fun to guess.
What else to say about this show? There’s darkness, there’s mirrors, there’s shadows and visitors posing for selfies. There’s a passage outside, along said neon-mirrors, and there’s a lot of special FX.
It’s clearly a good choice for the opening show of a museum not to be visited by connoisseurs alone. Not that Olafur Eliasson wouldn’t create astonishing artworks; let’s just say he does the opposite of conceptual art.
There are more Eliassons in the resident collection which is presented on three floors, parted in different “galleries” (i.e. rooms). The artist list reads as impressive as the LVMH portfolio, with brands like Nam June Paik, Bas Jan Adder, Rachel Harrison, Ed Atkins, Isa Genzken, Wolfgang Tillmans, Annette Messager, Thomas Schütte or Maurizio Cattalan. Alberto Giacometti sticks out as the grey eminence here.
Natural light and sparse hanging create an airy feeling. It’s instructive to see how Bernard Arnault likes to buy big, not just a work, but an ensemble. In 2009, he made that one gallery very happy, taking (at least, as there might be more, unshown,) five Elsworth Kellys, and I think I’ve even visited the Parisian show where these eleven(!) Tacita Deans were on offer.
The building’s a maze, all of a sudden we find ourselves on the roof terrace, searching for a helipad. We look down at Paris, Neuilly, La Defense. And it’s time for one of our favourite games: art or no art?
A bed of flowers in green wrapping (no label, but that may be deceiving). A signpost reading “Central Terrace” to the one, and “Eastern Elevator” to the other side; the problem: there’s no elevator that way, only the abyss. It’s really, really, high up here.
Having taken the stairs down again, we decide against a coffee at Frank’s - that’s how they named the cafeteria -, despite the flying fish under its roof, an artwork conceived by the architect, Mr Gehry, himself. (Maybe these are the reason why the Pompidou has dedicated him an exhibition?)
Things we have learned today: light bulbs integrated into a railway look magnificent, but can get quite hot. And sometimes an intern at Louis Vuitton is obliged to take a broom and clean a stairs in midst masses of visitors (if you should read this: we felt with you. We really did, though not enough to offer a helping hand).
Later reading our notes, we were surprised how many artworks there are actually. It feels much less. It feels like “Premium” marketing strategies: A good product wrapped in a lavish packing for an insane price. But it’s definitely worth the visit. It's a new landmark for Paris, business, and maybe even art.
We're happy, that Monsieur Arnault could spare some of his hard earned cash to build this place. It has definitely more glamour, and marketing value, than infrastructure, schools, police, hospitals or other useless stuff that is paid for by taxes (our deepest reverence to M. Arnault: If you manage to pay less than 5 millions on a revenue of almost 350 millions, you truly are a genius). And at the same time, we’re happy that our beloved Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton on Champs Elysees will continue, too. It’s smaller, lest costly and more cosy - a thing of the past?