Teething troubles for Louis Vuitton's Paris art museum

Fashion house Louis Vuitton's new Gehry-designed museum in Paris is a hit with the public but a miss with critics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm

Imagine receiving an expensive gift, wrapped with obvious care, and then informing the giver that you think it could have been better: that the wrapping wasn't quite to your liking or that the contents could have been far more adventurous.

That was precisely how some critics responded on October 27 when Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault unveiled the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a private contemporary art museum and performing arts centre in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

The Frank Gehry-designed building, which reportedly cost US$143 million, houses the foundation's inaugural art programme with a selection of works by artists including Pierre Huyghe, Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly and Taryn Simon, drawn from works belonging to the organisation and Arnault's extensive private collection.

Despite the critics, the public appears to be enjoying the exhibition, particularly Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson's Inside the Horizon (2014), a mesmerising installation of 43 prism-shaped columns arranged along a stone path that meanders through a series of water pools and cascading waterfall staircase in the "grotto".

The columns, encased on two sides with mirrors, have a third side covered in large, egg-yolk yellow glass mosaics that infuse the space with a serene golden glow. It may not be as dramatic as some of the artist's other works (earlier this year Eliasson filled an entire wing of Denmark's Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with a wild landscape of stones emulating a riverbed) but it is still an intriguing multi-sensory blend of art and architecture.

Another highlight is French artist Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't (2005), a beautifully orchestrated 25-minute film recording of an Antarctic polar expedition.

The Fondation is a beautiful place to look around and there are more square galleries with practical straight lines compared with some of [Frank] Gehry’s other buildings

A retrospective of Richter's works - arranged in a dedicated gallery by the German artist - is also notable for its unique perspective on his work over five decades.

Some of the building's rooftop terraces double as outdoor galleries/spaces with intriguing works such as a newly commissioned "living structure" created by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. The cistern-shaped mound comprises compacted layers of organic and inorganic materials that decompose at different rates.

One of the standout exhibits - at least for those interested in architecture - is American artist Simon's quirky anthropological project presenting eclectic souvenirs such as texts, photographs and objects reflecting the various people who were involved in the building of the foundation.

The current inauguration comprises three phases from October 2014 to September 2015, each marked by an exhibition, a partial presentation of the collection and a multidisciplinary events programme including music, dance and poetry.

While the first phase is devoted to the building's architecture with a special show examining the technical and creative features of Gehry's design process, the second and third inaugural stages this month and in March 2015 will range from the "latest developments in contemporary art to a retrospective look at some of the founding elements of modernism", says the foundation's artistic director, Suzanne Pagé.

"A deliberate decision was made to commission works specifically for the inauguration. These works are extremely diverse, spanning a variety of forms: video walk, anthropological survey, site-specific paintings, film, sound piece."

The inaugural art exhibition has been caught up in the backlash surrounding the controversial building design. It was clear that the 85-year-old Pritzker prize-winning architect was never going to deliver a quietly classic ode to the arts and would inevitably challenge notions of what an art centre should or could be. In response, Gehry happily admits to having spent much of his career ignoring his vocal critics, saying that if he listens to them, "I would probably never design anything".

The foundation's 11 galleries and numerous staircases are sometimes confusing to navigate, but for the most part the interior spaces and outdoor terraces do exactly what they should: providing simple white walls and sophisticated lighting for what will be an evolving collection of art.

Pagé stresses that the opening exhibition is not an attempt to create a comprehensive public collection.

"The collection is represented, in this first stage of the inaugural show, by a deliberately limited, targeted selection," she says. "The search for new works remains open on both the geographical and conceptual levels, reacting spontaneously to current vibrations, while retaining a critical perspective."

Critics will be critics, but in a city where there are few private museums - especially one that will be donated to the French republic after 55 years - it is surprising that more have not applauded Arnault's objective of "opening a dialogue with wider audiences".

Those experienced in working with challenging buildings are more positive. "The Fondation is a beautiful place to look around and there are more square galleries with practical straight lines compared with some of Gehry's other buildings," Paris-based art critic and curator Frédéric Bonnet notes. "We will have to wait and see what happens over time."

He says he found the architect's innovative approach a challenge when in 2011 he curated an exhibition of 336 works by artist group General Idea in Gehry's extension of the Art Gallery of Ontario. "I have the feeling Gehry would like to be an artist too and so in a way competes with them through his powerful sculptural architecture."

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