Monday, July 4, 2016

Paris 2016 - 16th Arr. - Bois de Boulogne, Fondation Louis Vuitton

When we first made our plan to walk through the entire length of the Bois de Boulogne (the second largest park in Paris), to get from our home to the Fondation Louis Vuitton museum at the northern end of the park, it sounded like a fine idea.  According to Google Maps, it would be a leisurely 4.1 km stroll through scenic green space, gardens and ponds and should take just under 1 hour.  We did not count on getting lost for a bit in the beginning while trying to enter the park and find the right northward path, which added over 1.5km and 30 minutes to our excursion.  Having had moderate and even cool weather all week, we also did not account for how hot it would be on this day in the blazing sun, which added to our fatigue.

To start with, we walked through what we thought was the southern entrance to the Bois de Boulogne, but it turned out to be the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil.  Although we did not plan to visit this park, it was so pretty that this was considered to be a happy accident.  Had we continued north from here, we would have been back on track after only a minor detour, but instead we doubled back once we realized we were in the wrong park and ended up near Roland Garros Stadium before finding another entrance.

What we discovered was that the southern end of the Bois de Boulogne aptly reflects the name of the park, since it consisted more of forest and trees (i.e "bois") than scenic parkland and this resulted in a long, slow slog.  For a while, it felt like we were lost in the woods before we encountered the main trail and at one point, we walked through a large parking lot that seemed to be home for trailer park campers.  But by the time we reached Lac Supérieur and Lac Inférieur, the beautiful views that we had hoped for finally met our expectations and we were re-energized as we continued our trek towards the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

We passed by waterfalls, a small temple, paddle and row boats on the lake, and a sculpture of a pair of lovers in an embrace, which we spotted across the water.  We also caught yet another glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, which never seems to get old and always provides a bit of a thrill.  Again unable to resist, we had to take more photos of this iconic structure.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a new art museum and cultural space sponsored by the French fashion conglomerate and designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is renowned for his elaborate, avant-garde creations.  Selections from the museum's permanent collection of Contemporary art are put on display in the 11 galleries on a rotating basis, in conjunction with temporary exhibits.  Prior to the gallery's official opening, it was used as the venue for Louis Vuitton’s women’s spring/summer 2015 fashion show.  When we finally reached this brightly colourful masterpiece of overlapping glass "sails" inspired by sail boats and the glass roof of the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, we thought that Gehry had produced yet another mesmerizing structure to add to his extensive resume.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that Gehry's original design consisted of slightly frosted clear glass sails with faint white strips and that the colours were actually a temporary in-situ art installation by French artist Daniel Buren.  Named "Observation of Light", Buren used semi-transparent, multi-coloured filters of bright pink, orange, blue, green and yellow to cover Gehry's glass sails in a checkerboard pattern that glimmered in the sun.  These vibrant additions complement Gehry's design so perfectly that it is impossible to imagine going back to the Fondation's original state, which will feel so plain by contrast.

The designs and features in the interior of the building are as beautiful as the exterior.  On top of the two floors of main galleries are several levels of rooftop terraces which provide more glimpses of the glass sails from underneath, as well as stunning views in the horizon of the skyscrapers in the La Défense business district.  The galleries on the bottom level open out to a long walkway decorated by series of triangular columns, covered with mirrors on two sides and a mosaic of yellow glass on the third surface.  Running along side the passageway is a long reflecting pool.  Standing in front of the mirrors, you can see your own reflection replicated in both directions in each of the panes, resulting in a carnival fun-house feeling.  Looking out at this pathway from a glass wall inside the gallery, the people walking by provide back-lit silhouettes that are reflected in the water.  At the far end of the pathway, an inclined and rapidly flowing waterfall had been created.

It had been such a long, hot journey to get to the Fondation Louis Vuitton that we arrived tired and hungry.  We decided to have lunch and rest in the museum restaurant "Frank" before tackling the exhibits.  We wondered whether all restaurants in art galleries designed by Frank Gehry are called Frank, since that is also the name of the one in the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).  The restaurant was decorated with an installation of large wooden fish hanging from the ceiling, with the coloured sails visible in the background.  Again I thought how much the temporary colours enhanced this view.  For appetizers, both Rich and I ordered the chilled mint and pea soup with a touch of cayenne pepper and the most amazing pieces of tart lemon jelly with flavours that just burst in your mouth.  The sweetness of the mint and pea soup, the spiciness of the cayenne and the tartness of the jelly all mixed together for a delightfully unique myriad of tastes, making this the best pea and mint soup that I have ever had.  For my main course, I was intrigued by the interesting plating of a dish that people all around me seemed to be eating, so I ordered it for myself.  It was a stacked Caesar salad consisting of wedges of iceberg lettuce, drizzled with creamy, garlicky dressing, covered with a large piece of crispbread, then topped with caramelized chicken oysters (livers).  Rich had the salmon in a tomato broth with broad beans, candied lemon and tomatoes.  Sated and rested, we were ready to walk through the museum.

The focus of the current exhibition featured works of Chinese artists from the permanent collection.  The first few rooms were showing short films and videos by artists Yang Fudong (Tonight Moon, New Women II), Cao Fei (Second Life), Zhou Tao, Tao Hui and others, which didn't interest us that much.  We were too tired and didn't have the patience to stand around and try to interpret these slow, moody, and mostly silent films.  So we moved on, hoping that there would be more to see and wondering whether the splendor of the building itself would be the highlight of this museum visit. 

Then we came across the galleries with the impressive, large-scaled sculptures that were much more to our tastes.  I was fascinated by the slightly subversive work called My Ideal by Zhang Xiaogang, which  involves a painting and bronze sculptures depicting five youths dressed from the waist up in clothing or uniforms of traditional professions in Chinese society–the student, the farmer/peasant, the soldier, the worker and the merchant.  But if you look closely, from the waist down the figures are nude with their penises exposed.  The work refers to the tensions between individual aspirations and the pressures and expectations of the family or the motherland.

Xu Zhen has rendered a computer-generated replica of the sculpture of Chinese Buddhist goddess Guan Yin that sits in the Forbidden City.  Instead of the typical white porcelain hue, the statue is turned into a work of pop art, covered in bright primary colours that resemble a Gay Pride flag.  Xu Zhen also created the sculpture called "Eternity" which stacks an inverted replica of the Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture on top of a Buddhist sculpture like the ones found in the Tianlongshan Grottoes in China, mixing Eastern and Western iconography.  While we didn't even notice it when we first entered the museum, from the windows of the upper levels, you get an excellent view of German artist Isa Ghezen's giant stainless steel rose, which is on display in the main lobby.  Since this sculpture does not fit into the Chinese theme of the current exhibit, my guess is that it is a permanent installation.

Huang Yong Ping and Ai Wei Wei both created sculptures of trees.  Huang's "Fifty Arm Buddha" tree is made from a metal bottle drying rack, where each "tree branch" is an arm with gnarly fingers that is holding a different object.  According to Huang, some of them are "symbolic objects from Buddhism, such as a steel bowl, a Goddess of Mercy bottle, a small pagoda, a spiral sea shell, a lotus flower, a snake" while others are "daily objects incongruent with religious context, including a broom, a feather duster, and a cane".  The many arms extending in all directions reminded me of the Hindi goddess Kali.  Ai Wei Wei's sculpture, simply named "Tree", is intentionally much more stark, comprised of pieces of dead wood visibly fused together with nuts and bolts.  The barren, leafless tree highlights a society losing its identity as it is "caught between individualism versus collectivism, tradition and modernity".

Huang Yong Ping also created the sculpture called "L'Arc de Saint Gilles", depicting the front and back of a doe with a hollow body in the middle.  Made of wood, fiberglass and iron, covered by dog hair and gold leaf, the image is based on the legend of 7th Century hermit Saint Gilles who saved a doe from King Flavius' arrow.

Multiple works throughout the exhibition are contributions of internationally renowned painter, sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan, whose works we first saw in an exhibition at the AGO, and who also created the magnificent piece of public art called "Rise" in front of the new Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.  There are two separate giant head sculptures, one of the goddess Guan Yin and the other of a male "Buddha", modeled after the artist's own face. Made of copper, "Long Island Buddha" is a reminder of all Buddha sculptures destroyed in Tibet during the Mao Cultural Revolution. The work "Sudden Awakening" depicts a peaceful Buddha with closed eyes, and is made from steel covered with ash collected from the incense burned in temples.

Zhang uses this same technique to create massively-scaled, intricately nuanced "paintings", using the different colours of ash as his "paint".  His piece called "Great Leap Forward" depicts labourers constructing the Grand Canal between 1958-1960 during times of great famine. It is amazing to look closely at the detail that has been captured using ash.  We saw previous examples of these ash paintings in the exhibit at the AGO but it was just as stunning to see them again here.

The highlight of the exhibit must be Zhang Huang's enormous sculpture Giant No. 3, made of steel, wood and foam covered with cow hide.  The seated giant seems to be hoisting another human form on his back, while hoofs can be seen attached to the hides covering the sides of his legs.  The theme of the sculpture is transformation as you wonder whether this is a mother carrying a child, or a shaman covered with animal fur or some other interpretation.  Zhang says the sculpture has to do with the body and the superficial layers of skins on the surface that hides a "sense of sadness, sense of incongruence, of frustration and despair."

In light of the numerous terrorist attacks that have plagued France and especially Paris, extra security precautions have been ramped up on the streets in general and at all of the museums in particular.  While we would expect armed guards to patrol and protect the major tourist attractions, we have even seen them on seemly quiet residential streets in the 16th arrondissement where we lived.  At the entrance of all museums, guards are checking the contents of bags and occasionally using a metal detector wand.  The Fondation Louis Vuitton took it one step further and created a security check environment similar to what you would expect at the airport.  It is sad to know that we live in a world where such extreme measures are required.

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