In the Belly of the Whale, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris

Approaching the building, possibly the Magnum Opus of Frank Gehry’s career, is an unexpectedly emotional experience.

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Beginning with the childhood trope of, “Is it a bird, is it a plane…?” and continuing on to the discomfort of confronting extreme departures from form, the structure is composed of contradictions and surprises.

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Frank Gehry is an interventionist, forcing us to reckon with deadening dependencies on tradition, familiarity, and the expected.

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Either you will find yourself at home in this ethereal mess of surfaces and shapes, or you will feel like a fish out of water.

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I imagined myself entering the belly of a great whale, a man-made structure but somehow full of life and a consciousness independent of the man and men who created it.

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Traveling through this composition of glass sheets, bent wood, and steel bones, I thought of Jonah and wondered if the architect considered the tale in his conceptualization of such a beautiful abomination, a complete rejection of architectural will as we understand the discipline.

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The interior of the building is not only multidimensional but multi-sensory. Intentional as well as unintentional sound echoes throughout the building, punctuating your steps with plaintive moans and eerie whispers, a symphony of discordant and fugitive notes. At first, you are not conscious of this background music, absorbed into the murmur of conversation in multiple languages, the occasional slamming of a door, squeaking hinges.

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Perhaps the dimension of sound is best illustrated by the Cerith Wyn Evans installation, A-F-L-O-A-T. Composed of glass flutes, extended with curving arms of hollow glass, the suspended sculpture emits sounds described as sonorous and haunting. Circumambulating it, the arms seem to be tracking you, following you and mirroring your movements with sound.

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Much of the structure is exposed to the exterior. You are never quite sure if you are inside or outside, except of course when it is raining.

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Raindrops falling on your head is a sure sign you are outside. (Mr. Gehry, you’re building is very beautiful but the roof is leaking…).

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The Fondation Louis Vuitton is located adjacent to the Jardin d’Acclimatation within Bois du Bologne, a beautiful park on the west side of Paris, much loved by Parisians since first opened in 1860. This oasis of greenery is integral to the design of Frank Gehry’s building.

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Some effort is required but, if you can manage to shut out the siren song of Mr. Gehry’s masterpiece, you will be rewarded by the exhibitions in the galleries and public spaces, establishing that this is more than just a beautiful building. In fact, it is a foundation of culture, embracing a small but international group of very important artists.

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Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum VIII, 2014 (Auditorium)

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Annette Messager, Nes Transports (No. 7), 2012-2013

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Maurizio Cattelan, Charlie Don’t Surf, 1997

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Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright, 2010

There are many more artists on display, including Sigmar Polke, Nam June Paik, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Alberto Giacometti, but perhaps the most significant contribution is from Olafur Eliasson, not least of which is because his structures are integrated into the design of the building, especially on the ground floor.

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Forty-three columns, shaped like prisms line the walkway in the “grotto” near the pool and waterfall. Illuminated from within, two sides of the columns are covered in mirrors. The third side is yellow glass. Walking along and amidst them, you see yourself reflected into infinity, a greater whole more beautiful than you ever imagined yourself part of.

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I was reminded of the magnificent Torii, over 5,000 vermillion gates, leading to the inner shrine at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto.

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Olafur Eliasson’s contribution continues with, CONTACT, spread out over several spaces, specifically conceived and created for the foundation.

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Dust Particle, 2014

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Bridge from the Future, 2014

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Parallax Planet, 2014

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Contact, 2014

A journey through space, light, and darkness, visitors become part of the choreography along with optical devices, 3-D models, and even a meteorite. The exhibit challenges our perceptions of space and relationships to each other and our surroundings. The apogee of the installation might best be identified in Map for Unmapped Thoughts.

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Entering the room, in near total darkness but for the projection of light capturing and suspending viewers in a carousel of shadows, there is an illusion of vast space. This illusion is nearly shattered, literally, as a museum guard stops you from colliding into a mirrored wall. At that moment, it becomes apparent how small the universe is as we know and embody it.

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And, how alone we are in that universe, heartbreakingly fragile.

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Finally, because we don’t live on air and light alone, I highly recommend a visit to the café, playfully monikered, Le Frank. The space is lovely and the cuisine is presented beautifully, but the atmosphere is very relaxed with kind service. It’s perfectly alright to order a drink and a soup or salad instead of a more costly plate though the compositions are well-priced for the quality and scale.

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Also, purchase tickets online to avoid the longer queue of visitors waiting to purchase tickets that might not be available by the time you reach the counter.

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Tickets for Fondation Louis Vuitton, clicki ici…

3 thoughts on “In the Belly of the Whale, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris

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