‘Before I die’ artwork jars terror-weary Parisians

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 4:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 9:26pm

An artwork in a Paris train station asking travellers to complete the sentence “Before I die ...” may have been misunderstood in the context of recent terror attacks, a railway spokesman admitted on Tuesday.

The installation was put up in the main hall of the Gare de Lyon last week, at the foot of a famous restaurant, Le Train Bleu.

It comprises three large blackboards next to a poster on which Before I die is written in several languages, with pieces of chalk to let passers-by complete the sentence however they want.

The installation has received a broadly positive reception from the public – the blackboards have to be wiped clean every night to make space for new messages.

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But some French media have branded it “anxiety-inducing” or even “macabre” in the context of recent attacks, suggesting it asks viewers to share their “last wishes”.

Train stations are among the sensitive sites where security has been boosted following a string of jihadist attacks in France over the last 18 months.

These include November’s massacre in Paris which left 130 people dead and the lorry attack in Nice on the July 14 national holiday, when 85 were killed.

You can always find people who are shocked by it, but that’s the role of art, in a small way
Sylvain Bailly, SNCF

“The name of the piece is misunderstood. It generates emotion, anxiety for some,” admitted Sylvain Bailly, in charge of station cultural projects for national rail authority SNCF, which was behind the Gare de Lyon installation.

Originally created in 2011 by US artist Candy Chang while mourning a loved one, the artwork has been reproduced over 2,000 times in dozens of countries including France.

Its blackboards appeared in at least two French provincial towns in March, without any controversy. In May 2014 the concept was used by road safety authorities to raise awareness among young drivers in Paris.

“That is the aim of this piece, to make people think about the meaning of life, and of what they want,” Bailly said, adding that Before I die was chosen precisely to “allow people to exchange [ideas] and to express themselves”.

“You can always find people who are shocked by it, but that’s the role of art, in a small way,” he added, while stressing: “Overall people are happy, curious – they look at it, they express themselves.”

He said that SNCF “doesn’t organise cultural installations in stations to be controversial”, while acknowledging having “asked the question, after the Nice attack, and even before” of whether to cancel the project.

The Gare de Lyon piece is being used as a test, before deciding whether to do something similar in other stations.