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Contemporary art invites itself into the underground spaces of La Défense

Beneath the slab of La Défense, the largest business district in Europe, extends a gigantic underground network.

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Contemporary art invites itself into the underground spaces of La Défense

Beneath the slab of La Défense, the largest business district in Europe, extends a gigantic underground network. This “sunken cathedral” will host works of contemporary art from Friday February 2.

Under the immense esplanade dominated by office towers and where nearly 70 works of art are already displayed in the open air, the Interstices collective has brought together photographs, paintings, sculptures, installations and videos from around twenty artists in the part of the exhibition Les Extatiques. The immense dark gallery of 5000 m2 is only part of the so-called “residual” spaces which emerged during the design of La Défense and its imposing skyscrapers in the 1960s.

It is a volume which “has no initial function” and “is embedded between technical volumes, the roads, the RATP stations”, describes Noellie Faustino, director of the events center of Paris La Défense, the manager of the district business. On one of the access doors, a sign indicates an emergency exit to the A14 tunnel. In the distance, behind the muffled noise of the cars and the RER A, we can sense the incessant bustle of the economic heart of the capital.

Closed to the general public, this network of basements has been reinvested for several years by Paris La Défense, which wishes to exploit their unique character. “It’s a bit like Heritage Days, where we have access to places that are not usually open,” summarizes Noellie Faustino.

The exhibition highlights abandoned places where nature has reclaimed its rights. Industrial sites “created for one or two generations, then abandoned,” explains Nicolas Obadia, co-founder of the Interstices collective. The objective, he continues, is to question “the current conditions of occupation of the planet and the finiteness of resources” without taking a moralistic look at the impact of human activity.

Nearly 15 meters underground, the visitor walks through the concrete temple that looks like a ghost hangar, in an icy breeze, guided only by a trickle of light coming from the surface. Les Extatiques opens with a series of large format photos by artists specializing in “urbex” – the exploration of urban wastelands – which show quarries, mines and even disused coal factories, drawing a striking parallel with the place of the exhibition itself.

The rest of the visit presents works of a wide variety: plant images made with rust and printed on textile, fresco representing a postapocalyptic urban landscape, sculptures based on recycled materials, light installations. In Latent Image, Alexandre Urbrain offers a visual and sound experience thanks to three-dimensional projections on a water screen, inspired by intensive agriculture techniques. As the “cathedral” of La Défense does not meet safety standards for welcoming the public, it can only accommodate 19 people at a time for guided tours lasting one and a half hours, organized by members of the Interstices collective, in the presence of several artists.

The immersive tour in the basement includes a stop in the former workshop of Raymond Moretti: the Nice sculptor stored there in the early 1970s a monumental creation weighing almost 20 tons, 30 meters long and 12 meters high, composed wood, plexiglass, glass and metal. Named “The Monster” by writer Joseph Kessel, a close friend of the artist, the unfinished structure continued to be developed until Moretti's death in 2005.

The exhibition Les Extatiques will be held until February 25.

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