You can tell a lot about an art gallery from its attached eatery. The Tate has the grand but gratuitously naff Rex Whistler restaurant. The Serpentine its globular Zaha Hadid nouvelle cuisine joint. Then there’s the Mess Restaurant at the Saatchi Gallery’s newish space in the old Chelsea Barracks. To be charitable, the name is a bad but unfortunately appropriate pun.
Anyway, I report from a children’s park in BCBG west Paris, where Louis Vuitton have just opened a new art gallery. Obviously, a luxury (and erstwhile collaborationist) megabrand were never going to settle for an ordinary white cube. Oh no. Instead they hired virtuoso architect Frank Gehry to build something that would piss off the local nimbys. And piss them off it did, but it still got built. Perhaps in commemoration of this victory, the museum’s restaurant has been named ‘le Frank’.
Yep. Like Madonna, Christo and, uh, Jordan, Frank Gehry has become not just Frank, but the Frank. In other words, Louis Vuitton have glorified themselves by association. Sod your Herzog & De Meurons and your Zaha Hadids, they’re saying. We’ve got Frank.
The photos don’t show it, but at a cost of $143 million, The Frank has just about pulled it off. The building is extraordinary in the way we’ve come to expect from Gehry, an unsurprisingly surprising cubist pile up of glass, metal and wood. You’re in a gallery one moment, then somehow end up on the roof looking out towards the towers of La Défense. Those most hubristic symbols of a doomed economy look knackered by comparison.
But it’s my turn to be frank. There is so much about this this place that is just plain wrong. For an in-depth analysis, I refer you to Jonathan Meades’s recent demolition in the Christmas edition of The Spectator. And as for the art collection… well.
Private arts philanthropy, we’re agreed, is something to be encouraged. But these vanity museums often do more to undermine talent than support it. Think back to Saatchi’s SW3 ego palace, or to the groansome rubbishness of the Thyssen foundation in Madrid. Or, perhaps worst of all, to Dasha Zhukova’s Garage museum in Moscow.
These places suffer from a punitively expensive kind of box-ticking. Those responsible for the collection know nothing about art, not to mention what constitutes good art. So they get a list of who’s hot on the market and snag as much of their work as they can afford. This then makes up a permanent collection heavy on famous names, but distinctly light on anything interesting to look at.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton fits this description like a couture glove. There’s a Tacita Dean drawing here, an Ellsworth Kelly painting there. And – duh! – a Giacometti sculpture. The only surprise is that there’s nothing by Warhol, Bacon or Freud on show. But I bet you anything it’s only a matter of time before sufficiently unremarkable works by all three turn up on the walls.
So far, so dull. But the current exhibition, by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is a stunner.
Eliasson is probably best known over here for The Weather Project, which showed at Tate Modern back in 2003. It was a giant orange light, giving off an overpowering glow that turned the turbine hall into a set from a 70s sci-fi movie. Standing in the space could feel apocalyptic one moment, gloriously warm the next. It’s by far the best of the Turbine Hall commissions, and the highlights of this show are arguably even better.
People refer to Eliasson as a conceptual artist. He’s not. His work is pure spectacle, but this is not to say that it lacks intellectual depth. He makes art that is immediately populist but infinitely exciting, taking a familiar gallery space and turning it in to something alien and wondrous. Drop your bullshit detector. I have a press pack in front of me with page numbers that run into the hundreds. It’s utterly useless. This is not a show that needs liner notes.
As soon as you walk into the exhibition, you’re plunged into darkness. ‘Total immersion’ is something so many artists try to pull off, but few achieve. With all but one work here – a sort of trumpet sculpture that looks like an outsized IKEA Christmas decoration – Eliasson nails it.
There’s a room of such total blackness you worry your eyes have packed in. But then – bam! – a flash fills the room with white light. Before you can shield your eyes, you’re back in darkness. The flash leaves a shape like a Goya drawing dancing on your retinas. Then – phwooar! – another explosion of light. How many artists can you say have caused you physical harm? (Three in my case, but I’m not going into it.)
Two rooms here use mirrors to astonishing effect. In the first you walk into a perfectly circular room. It’s dark as Hades, save for a tiny but punishingly bright light in the centre. A black blob that your eyes struggle to register throbs away on the ceiling. Gradually, you start to make sense of what’s going on, before clocking that the space is not what it seems: the room is in fact only semi-circular, but a huge mirror covers the wall of the flat side. What you see is only half real.
The second is better, using a band of that disturbing/comforting orange light Eliasson showed off at the Tate. Here, the mirrors take up two walls, and there’s a sloped floor. The light runs around the wall in a thin band, giving off a glow like an Arctic sunset. That is all the room contains, and yet there’s something, forgive me, sublime about it – it’s a spatial sleight of hand not a million miles away from the dizzying architecture of Wren and Hawksmoor’s best churches.
Such comparisons might seem as ludicrous as the Fondation Louis Vuitton itself, but Olafur really knows how to manipulate a space. A lot better, dare I say it, than The Frank.