‘When it comes to recent designs of art museums [...] some of these buildings are so performative or sculptural that artists might feel late to the party, collaborators after the fact. Others make such a strong claim on our visual interest that they might compete in a register that artists like to claim as their own,’ wrote Hal Foster in his book The Art-Architecture Complex (2011). Frank Gehry’s spectacular new Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris draws criticism on all these counts – and more. Its flamboyant glass sails and angular contours rising lopsidedly into the autumn sky don’t only vie with the works on show, but also symbolize, for some, the increasing involvement of private companies in contemporary art. According to a French news website article co-signed by philosophers and artists ranging from Giorgio Agamben and Jérôme Bel to Jean-Luc Nancy, French luxury brand Louis Vuitton and its corporate owner LVMH are not the generous patrons they make themselves out to be, but merely businesses that want their brand name to be associated with culture and art.
The opening programme, which was devised by the Fondation’s Artistic Director Suzanne Pagé, may have put some, if not all, of these criticisms to rest. An impressive display of works by Gerhard Richter from its permanent collection hung resplendent in one of several white cube-style galleries – a lesson learnt from Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, whose curved walls have proved eye-catching but impractical. As for the accompanying series of site-specific commissions and performances, they mostly stood their ground against the architecture, as opposed to being crushed by it. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster staged enticing fragments of her operatic project M.2062 (la partie de l’opéra) (M.2062 [The Part of the Opera], 2014) in various galleries, in the auditorium and by the side of a large pool, bringing the building’s monumental spaces to life. Meanwhile, Olafur Eliasson’s Inside the Horizon (2014) is as striking as the Fondation itself: erected along the length of another pool, it consists of a 91-metre-long row of tall, mirrored columns partially clad in yellow glass. The piece generated endless kaleidoscopic reflections – of the visitors, the water, the columns and the architecture itself, while bathing its surroundings in an eerie amber light. An even cleverer curatorial move was to programme sound installations and musical performances that countered the visual impact of the architecture and, in some cases, even undermined it. British artist Oliver Beer’s Composition for a New Museum (2014) was emblematic in this respect: attesting to the singular capacity of the human voice to activate the resonances of built structures, it highlighted the sonic dimension of architectural space.
Beer selected one of the more typically Gehry-esque galleries for his piece – a windowless three-cornered space boasting irregularly shaped walls and a light-well in its ceiling. Three singers stood in the corners with their backs to the audience, searching for the resonant notes of the space – which then became the starting-point for a series of soaring harmonic progressions. During the performances, much of the sound escaped through the light-well to the upper terraces, where it hovered, like a spectral, disembodied choir, beneath the building’s glass sails. Inside the room, the air seemed to vibrate, as sounds continually travelled through different parts of the space. Most fascinating of all was the way the resonant notes persisted even after the singers’ voices had died down. One of Marcel Duchamp’s notes from his Green Box (1934) came to mind: ‘Sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture that lasts.’
Beer’s score was emblematic of the curatorial team’s interest in exploring artistic languages stemming from a variety of traditions and styles. Composition for a New Museum, for example, is part of a lineage of iconic works concerned with the relationship between sound and space. These range from Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1969) – which similarly uses the human voice to explore the resonant frequencies of a room – to Bruce Nauman’s Acoustic Pressure Piece (1971), in which panels covered in sound-proofing material form a corridor that alters the sound heard within it. Like Lucier, Beer contravenes standard acoustic practice by emphasizing resonance rather than minimizing it – and, like Nauman, he transcends the limits of visual perception by revealing invisible properties of architectural space.
Other artists also countered the building’s visual impact by means of sound. Tarek Atoui’s From Architecture (2014) comprised recordings of his ‘sound scan’ of the building, while Florian Hecker’s Formulation (FLV Project) (2014) altered the visitor’s experience of the auditorium by diffusing sounds that were, at times, clearly locatable and, at other times, dispersed through the space. Finally, Cerith Wyn Evans’s A=F=L=O=A=T (2014) consisted of an assemblage of 20 glass flutes connected to a blowing mechanism, designed to transpose into music the experience of contemplating the Fondation’s undulating glass sails. These pieces, too, rose to the challenges posed by Gehry’s building, while emphasizing that his spectacular architecture is not just there to be seen but also to be heard.