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I want to believe: Astralis at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton

(Paris.) Louis Vuitton Foundation’s exhibition space on the Champs Elysees never gets the attention it deserves. We’ve said it in the past, and we won’t tire to say it again: The Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton offers some of the finest exhibitions of contemporary art in Paris, and this without much PR attached.

The foundation doesn’t want to be anything more than Bernard Arnault’s hobby horse (most of the artists here probably profit from his personal spending power, too). So let us mere mortals devotedly accept the gracious gesture of this true patron of the arts, who was the target of some ugly comments when moving his tax residency to a less demanding jurisdiction than France – even playing with the idea to change his nationality and become a compatriot of Jean-Claude van Damme (this only as a side effect, not the main goal). For a foreigner the discussion is kind of amusing, as some French say the obscenely wealthy are obliged to show financial patriotism in recognition of their success, whereas others comment to succeed in France never happens thanks to, but only in spite of the societal and legal framework.

The latest exhibition at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton has a topic that might again remind people of their annual tax declaration: Astralis - astral entities, other dimensions and reality’s hidden realms. In short: the “invisible”, which at least the press release presents as a synonym to “astral” (this is possibly not accepted by every dictionary). A profound expertise in astrology, shamanism, occultism, or generally spoken “the paranormal” could be useful to understand each metaphor and every allusion employed by the artists. But it’s not essential, and that’s what makes great art: You may understand and enjoy. Apart from all “invisible” meaning, these artworks are truly beautiful. There’s something for the mind, the body and every spiritual matter between.

An artwork in itself it the mise en scène, the scenery, in particular the illumination (if you’ve just misread “Illuminati” you’re in the right mood, continue). Each room is dominated by a (non-)colour, black, white, blue, red, yellow, etc. According to the show’s motto, we will now try to describe what is invisible - “astral” - for you at this time, and build new worlds inside your mind.

Leaving Oliafur Eliasson’s permanently installed elevator that transports people in total darkness and the company of a LV intern with an emergency flashlight (if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s a sulky security guard), the visit continues in the dark. The only light emerges from Børre Sæthre’s ten-metre row of light bulbs formed like croquet goals, and their reflection on a polished black support.

The best view is from one of the side ends, where the eyes meet a tunnel of light into nothingness. A space travel should look the same, if we are to trust SciFi movies. The Norwegian artist indeed took his inspiration from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and its diverse film adaptations. Only the Philips logos on the bulbs are slightly distracting.

Still in the dark follows a vanity by Chloe Piene: A silver object that at first resembling an Alien head, silver or crystal even, turns out to be a human skull balanced on the chin. As if met by death in contemplation.

It gets brighter, and more obscure, as we continue on our initiation path. Animals are a recurrent motive in “alternative worldviews” from shamanism to astrology. Jean Luc Favero’s Stag-Transformed is what it says, and yet hard to describe: Behind a metal fishnet stands a schizophrenic deer and reveals its multiple personae. The form is no longer held together by conventional rules of physics and biology, but seems to float and change continuously. We don’t know, if what is made visible here has always been there, or if it has just appeared from someplace else. A hint to simultaneous dimensions, the question of borders between inside and outside. Different states of being exist in constant movement, and aura made visible.

Further exploring those other worlds, we pass through a red tunnel or rather: red Plexiglas tent formed of pyramidal triangles that remind of a chitin exoskeleton (Charley Case: Cosmic Lodge). Inside we discover ghostly hand prints on foggy windows. This is a bad trip.

The passage leads to a room with sculptures and Surrealist Impressionist paintings of astral bodies and visionary entities by Vidya Gastaldon. Her totem pole features such details as drawers with eye handles, human feet, a basket of eggs of which one is broken, a large free-floating eye, and a palm branch for a crown. Abraxas visits America.

Another French artist, Basserode adds another sculpture: The skeleton of a mutant rat, or whale, with a tulip shaped “skull” in a steam bath implies the invisible might only be hidden behind outer layers. Maybe the whole is organic, and the cosmos a living being floating through time and other illusions.

We might play a bit with the terms here: “Invisible” in the strictest sense means not to be perceived by the eye. This can either mean “hidden” by another object blocking the sight (like skin and flesh cover a skeleton), or a quality that is per se unperceivable by the eye (sound, ...). The “Astral” adds two more options: not only invisible to the eye, but to all senses, yet existent in different realms of reality - or existing exclusively as a an idea, a concept, a potency (the stag could hint into this direction). For the believer, a spiritual entity has reality, but is it an inherent quality of the perceived, or a reality exclusive to selected minds?

Damien Deroubaix installed his art in a blue room, blue like magic. The walls and the ceiling are covered by paintings, in the centre stands an installation. His works appear like oversized Tarot cards, and even if France is known to be not exactly enthusiastic about painting, even less so when it’s figurative, this should find approval with the public. One picture recalls the great Anselm Kiefer, with flowers (or semen) reaching up to a pale moon. For Damien Deroubaix, Life is a skeleton holding a bone like a dowsing rod at two moons in the grass below, and Death a pregnant fertility goddess with cosmic apes and zodiac signs. On the ceiling a moth man(?) is joined by more constellations, birds, and flags.

Quite mysterious.

Art orienté objet show an atypic sculpture with a Jacob’s ladder to a loft bed, on top of which blue hands are reaching down at bony flowers (pas encore/“Not Yet”). Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel meets Avatar/the Smurfs? No, seriously, the blue colour is not that important (though interesting), the idea of higher entities giving life and death by planting and harvesting souls more relevant.

“As Rina Banerjee awoke one morning from uneasy dreams she found herself transformed in her bed into a monstrous vermin.” Or something like that. At least a giant bug with a hundred wooden shoes and all sorts of stuff growing out of its open back is one of the works she is showing here. Pakistani Rina Banerjee is arguably the most famous of all artists in the show, and as usual her works are influenced by Eastern mythology and carry titles that if quoted would double the length of this article. There’s certainly much wisdom hidden in her chimeras and chandeliers of infusion bottles.

And so forth.

Come and see for yourself. If you are not into “pre-enlightened rubbish”, accept the astral worlds as a domain of art. This show will capture you and place you in another world simply by the power of art.

Besides, a gallery on the top store of a flagship store is in itself an otherworldly experience. And maybe, only maybe, it's not such a bad thing to question rational, mechanical, inhumane(?), truth(?) from time to time.

Interestingly, the curators passed on any reference to astral worlds reached by substance use. Not one of the artists here claims to have conferred with cosmic beings when testing herbal means of communication (according to some, ayahuasca, shrooms and co. are believed to be for the gods what TV sets are for movie stars; or, some interactivity involved, could be described as archetypical video games, sort of nature’s Nintendo). But having been covered exhaustively by Maison Rouge last year, that topic is not really missing.

Astralis, Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, 7 February-11 May 2014



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