The Museum of Spirits (English)


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"The power of these spectral images still haunts us, and we must learn to recognize them so as to control them and not be controlled by them."

In the 1990s, the curator of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rheims began to ask, with good reason, how best to turn a place closed in on itself into one open to the exterior. There was no shortage of negative comments on the building, ill-suited to the urban fabric and maltreated by history-it was compared to an urban obstacle, a blind fortress, a prison. Despite the destruction wrought by the First World War, the survival of the Palace of the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis would have been, paradoxically, an excellent starting point for the process of renovation. And yet, even in the shadow of the prestigious Cathedral, the outside walls still bear the traces of a past that has distorted the original harmony of the rocaille building. Passers-by cannot decipher this architecture, that stands like a photographic negative in the heart of the city-the long gray wall along Rue Jadart, the agglomeration of façades on Rue Libergier, some of them still pockmarked where they were hit by shells, the façade on Rue Chanzy, dating from the eighteenth century, the ornamentation struggling to rise above the exhaust fumes that stain the walls around the entrance black. The omnipresence of the past is apparent to anyone who takes the time to study the façades of a building that seems petrified, beyond the reach of life. Its mineral nature emphasizes this impression, especially in the sober, silent courtyard, open to the rapidly changing skies of Champagne. The chaotic face of the museum provokes a range of ambivalent feelings, from fascination to fatalism, or, occasionally, indifference….
Thus it became a priority to integrate the museum into the fabric of the city. The principal objectives of the project, which have become something of an obsession for the team currently responsible for the museum, are re-establishing its identity as an integral part of city life, and questioning the binary opposition of "inside" and "outside." To mark the beginning of the phase of active intervention, some sort of symbolic act was required, to come to terms with the past and to turn naturally to the future. It seemed logical to call on Christian Lapie to include the museum in the artistic process he began some ten years ago. We were familiar with his sensitivity to the construction of a site, leading him to create installations designed to be "inconvenient" or to alter the reality of the place, to create a different vision of the strata of the past. His monumental figures, roughly hewn from trunks, are grouped together in a given space, and serve above all as markers in time or visual tools, to question the space and time of the site and to give a physical form to the invisibility of history.
After Das Sulzburger Feld in Germany, a work referring to the extermination of the Jewish inhabitants of a small village under Nazism, after Japan, and more recently Canada and the town of Ngaoundéré in Cameroon, the archaic black columns that form his installations have now taken possession of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rheims. The artist works with specially selected tree trunks from the Ardennes, roughing out the plain, sober shapes with a chainsaw; the pieces stand in a group in the courtyard and along the car park next to the building. The trunks are treated with creosote to protect them from the elements, giving them a black, charred look; thus they carry on a dialogue with the gray, fissured walls of the museum, which in turn becomes part of the installation. Removed from the context of their current use, the buildings are no longer simply a backdrop designed to house and present works of art. The way the totemic figures are placed in the middle of the courtyard suggests it could open out to the surrounding streets, allowing the long-delayed dialogue between the museum and the life of the city finally to begin. The work's title, Axe (Axis), indicates the existence of a bond in which the museum plays an active role, linking Passage Jadart and Rue Libergier, Rue de Vesle and the Cathedral square, and past, present, and future.
"The primitive, roughed-out form, though familiar, represents a projection of our obsessions and our collective fears. Mute and black, they belong to the world of dreams and nightmares: in them, we can see the victims of history...." What do these archaic figures, designed to conquer the malediction that blights the museum, represent? Are they, for example, meant to remind us that in the early days of the First World War, bombs tore out the heart of the building-that had only just been inaugurated in 1913? It is impossible not to recall that the people of Rheims had been demanding a real museum since the nineteenth century, to house the collections on display on the first floor of the town hall. Unfortunately, their gratification was short-lived, and since the end of the war, the museum has not succeeded in attaining the level of national importance that it deserves.
In this work of art, Christian Lapie stages a rite that takes the form of a procession cutting dramatically through the heart of the museum to end up on the edge of the car park, where it becomes part of the ordinary everyday life of the people of Rheims. Philippe Piguet notes a possible contemporary echo of Courbet's Funeral at Ornans and maybe Rodin's Burghers of Calais in the work. The black figures of Axe find their place naturally in the course of history-three processions that contradict reality, three creative processes that bear the mark of monumentality, timelessness, and the use of the human form as a spatial module.
It is important to remember that these specters took their place in the artist's world as a result of the first work that the city of Rheims commissioned from Christian Lapie, back in 1992-a work for the room in the Musée de la Reddition (Museum of the Surrender) where the German army signed the act of unconditional surrender that ended the First World War. After concentrating on painting-he exhibited at the Palais du Tau in Rheims in 1989 as a painter -Christian Lapie became interested in the notion of volume. He created a life-sized table in pink concrete, covered with imprints of toy weapons and with iron reinforcements poking through the surface. War Game opened up a new artistic process, and his ever more ambitious projects have established a place for the artist on an international level. Since then, his works have haunted several sites in and around Rheims, in private gardens, or recently, in June 2000, at the Manège de Reims National Theater, in collaboration with the choreographer Hervé Diasnas. This creation was designed deliberately to subvert the traditional space of the theatregoer, himself set in motion within the space of the stage.
Thus, in the aftermath of War Game, the city of Rheims witnessed the birth of a universal language of the memory of place. The pink table, symbolizing the blood and fire of war, was a material representation of the violence inherent in the artist's current creative process, relying as it does on axes, chainsaws, and fire. His figures are born of fire, echoing the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote, "For chemists and philosophers, scholars and dreamers alike, fire so easily takes substance that it can be equally easily linked to the empty and the full". Their physical presence underlines all the more clearly the invisible link between them and the place in which they are situated. This installation gives the museum new spatial markers, new limits, leading it to examine its place within the city. Lapie explains that he sees his role as that of a photographic developer. On occasion, his creativity comes into contact with political decisions, to shake up over-rigid territories. The recent destruction of the installation in Ngaoundéré, in Cameroon, only a few months after its conception, was an act of vandalism that proved the validity of the artist's engagement, dealing as it does primarily with the collective unconscious.
The silent shadows of the statues, mingling with those of the buildings, are the echo of the obsessive phantoms of black Romanticism. They underline the shift from one world to another, and act as a reminder that a museum is inherently a place of passage, since its role is to confront the material witnesses of the strata of our artistic history, to make them clash head-on, and thus to open the way to a new dialogue between them. These anonymous, faceless visitors from throughout history are an enactment of the waves that well up from the architecture, provoking "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" .

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