LUMA Arles: A New Museum for Arles

LUMA Arles, Photo Credit Gary Brewer

LUMA Arles: A New Museum for Arles

LUma arles, arles

…Now if I set up a studio and refuge right at the gates of the south, it’s not such a draft scheme. And it means that we can work serenely on…from Arles onwards, you are bound to find beautiful contrasts of red and green, of blue and orange, of sulphur and lilac.

Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, Arles 1888

Written by Gary Brewer
I had the good fortune to have my artist residency in Provence coincide with the recent opening of LUMA Arles, a bright new museum designed by Frank Gehry, guided by the vision of contemporary art collector and philanthropist Maja Hoffmann.

Named after her two children, Lucas and Marina, Hoffmann said of her vision, “It is not about hanging a collection, but social impact and activating the region…It is the artist and the artistic discourse, that I’ve always wanted to nurture and protect, and now, as the world is beginning to break down, I say the voice of the cultural producer, the creative person, is more crucial than ever—to deliver interdisciplinary cultural solutions.” The scale of Hoffmann’s dreams is expressed in the beautifully realized buildings, gardens and the multi-tiered projects that LUMA Arles will present in the future.

When I first saw images of the building, the tower of LUMA Arles seemed to be inspired by cubist design: a movement born in part from Cezanne’s paintings of the limestone buildings and villages set in the landscapes of Provence near Arles.  The stainless steel box-like elements are stacked in forms that suggest both organic crystal-like structures and the movement of geological forces, all the while shimmering in the brilliant light of Provence.

Frank Gehry had a different inspiration than my reflection- he said that the design was in part inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. “Starry Night” (1889) was painted in Arles and is an incredible painting we all love. I was curious what the light was like when he was painting, and think that it must still be there today. The building in the evening does come close to capturing the colours of that painting. I think I have always been interested in how light hits buildings and in capturing a very painterly “brushstroke” in my buildings. The light is free, and it is part of the world that is always around us. Capturing it is taking advantage of an asset and taking advantage of something that is always changing.“

Though I do not feel that it is one of his masterpieces as is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain or the Disney Center in Los Angeles, it is still a marvelous spectacle of formal complexity and a monument to Gehry’s ambitious vision to create buildings that defy the rectilinear box of modernist architecture. He does so with an engaging and playful wink on a monumental scale.

The building’s interior was not fully open, so it was a little hard to experience how the space unfolded throughout the tower. Many of the floors will remain closed to the public and used as offices for the museum administration. But here are a few details: a fluid corkscrew staircase winds its way up from the ground floor with a beautiful sculptural force that animates the lobby area. At the top of the staircase is an enormous mirrored disc turning slowly overhead: a permanent installation by Olafur Eliasson. There is a metal and clear plastic slide that snakes its way from high above, to the lobby below- a playground element for children and adults. The walls that surround the elevators are made of a surface of salt crystals- I tasted the wall just to be sure. It looks absolutely fantastic but it will be interesting to see how it fares over time.

The lobby leaves one a little unsure of how to proceed, and unlike most museums that one enters, where the flow from gallery to gallery is self evident, there was not an obvious visual path from the lobby to galleries. I did come upon a virtual reality piece in a small room upstairs: Endodrome by the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. He seeks to engage an audience with a heightened sense of space, altered states of consciousness, and interiority.  One wears a VR headset as a virtual world fills your field of vision for eight minutes. With a soundscape created by musician and author Corine Sombrun, it was a visually and aurally engaging experience. However, I felt that it needed something more, to fully express a metaphoric or poetic idea. That being said, I did enjoy the ride.

On a critical note, the museum maps were unclear and there was an absence of signage to direct you. We were quite frustrated and after many attempts to figure out where the larger galleries of art were, we finally sat down a bit flummoxed and fatigued, and quite frankly, ready to leave.

We were not alone in this. An artist at the residency mentioned his frustration with the museum, and another couple we had dinner with, one who was an architect, also found the building less than helpful in clear sight lines to move through from one gallery to the next. If you did not know beforehand that the vast parkland behind it also contained gallery spaces, you could leave without seeing them, as did my fellow artist in residence. All of this is said knowing that they have only just opened and it will take time and feedback to get things worked out in order to make this new building easier to navigate.

When we had momentarily run out of steam and were contemplating leaving for a journey into Arles, we saw that Christian Marclay’s The Clock was being shown in a lower floor. We made our way there and after one half hour of being deeply engaged and entertained by this masterpiece, enjoying it from the comfort of a big soft couch, we regrouped and ventured on, attempting to figure out how to navigate this new museum.  

After we were refreshed, we began our search again and found a large gallery within the Gehry building filled with many familiar artists: one of Mike Kelley’s late works, a grotto/cave with strangely compelling elements illuminated within; a large powerful wooden sculpture of Snow White from Paul McCarthy. A grouping of some wonderful Franz West sculptures, as well as one of his large dopey sculptures in pale pink that was installed outside. There were two huge cast wax candle/sculptures slowly melting away by Urs Fischer, and a series of small abstract paintings by poet/painter Etel Adnan, who I was not aware of previously. Upon further research I read some of her poetry and have discovered a new love!

We then ventured out into the beautiful park-like area designed by the landscape architect, Bas Smets. The huge repurposed 19th century buildings were once the site of the national railway company SNCF, producing and repairing locomotives. These buildings have been renovated by the architect Annabelle Selldorf, and are a perfect space for installation art, as well as large-scale painting and sculpture exhibitions. The overall feeling of this vast outdoor area is wonderful. One building has been partially deconstructed: the ceiling, windows and doors removed, leaving just the walls. A café at one end and outdoor seating make this a nice architectural touch. Paths take you from one building to the next, where several other exhibitions were installed.

I will only describe two works from these buildings and the grounds, as they were the ones that were most engaging to me. In the last and largest building there is an enormous raw space with irregular dirt floors, at a scale of at least the size of two football fields. It has high open ceilings showing the aged industrial steel truss work of the roof supports that added a gritty pallor to the environment. Within this large space was an installation/video work titled After UUmwelt, by Pierre Huyghe, who had a major exhibition at LACMA several years ago. In this piece, four roughly 8×6 foot flat video monitors were placed freestanding upright on the dirt floor. Within the video image was a flickering brilliance- with hundreds of images superimposed in rapid succession, each flickering for a brief moment, to create a protean image of something obscure, but suggesting an object, an animal or something partially recognizable. Around the room, randomly placed, were strange objects looking a bit like an asteroid, a volcanic rock, or something from the sea. What looked like wax beehives hung here and there from the ceiling. Sounds filled the space and the work created a metamorphic aura of things coming into being and dissipating back into the emptiness and fullness of non-being. This was a wonderful piece that utilized the potential of large and raw architectural space. It will be exciting to see what kinds of exhibitions will take advantage of the raw power of this building.

Another piece that I loved was by the artist Carsten Höller: Seven Sliding Doors (Outdoor version)– a glass-enclosed bridge of sorts, that traversed a small pond whose surface reflected the shimmering tower of the Gehry building off in the distance. The glass was mirrored and as one walked towards the automatic sliding doors, one’s reflection greeted them. The door silently slid open and another set of mirrored glass doors greeted you. As you entered and the first set of doors closed behind you, you were in a glass box roughly 12x 8 feet- the mirroring was partially translucent so one could still see outside. As you moved forward, the next doors opened and there was another room with doors and so on. It was a delightful and beautiful piece where time and space became amplified in a playful and wonderful way. Several times, as one set of doors opened, another person or group of people would be coming in the other direction with smiles of delight to see you and to share in the experience of the interactive architectural space.

LUMA Arles will also have artists in residence as part of their cultural mission. They reach out to invite international artists, thinkers, researchers, writers, and curators to spend a yearlong residency in studios at the museum where they can create their projects.

This is a brilliant new museum guided by a vast philosophical and philanthropic vision. It has a scale of ambition that will make it an enormous draw to the region. One hopes that this will be an economic benefit to this city of 54,000, whose income is largely based on seasonal tourism. With the Van Gogh Foundation, already a major cultural institution, and the summer photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles- a wonderful citywide exhibition of contemporary photography, Arles is growing an artistic community.

This was the vision of Van Gogh himself when he moved here in the 1888, hoping to create an artists commune in Arles. It is a seed that was planted by a sower of dreams over one hundred and fifty years ago, a dream that has finally come to fruition.

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