THE TWENTY-ACRE PARC DES ATELIERS, a defunct SNCF railway yard on the outer edge of Arles, might only be a fifteen-minute walk from the train station. But as I stood in midday heat last Sunday, with no taxis in sight, Maja Hoffmann’s proposal to build a station closer to the Ateliers made perfect sense to me.
Not so to my French travel companions, who saw it as a sign of how out of touch with (local) reality the Swiss-born arts patron is. A new railway station is, after all, “an affair of national concern.” Though Hoffmann, who recently purchased the Ateliers to transform them into a Frank Gehry–designed research and exhibition center for her LUMA Foundation, might be more in touch than many, given that she spent her childhood in the French Provençal city.
Spurred on by the prospect of refreshments hosted by LUMA, editor Phoebe Greenwood and I briskly made our way to the Ateliers, past the amphitheater and other Roman vestiges, pausing to gape at the women who drifted past us as in a dream in full arlésienne garb, looking starched and crisp despite the heat. We arrived in time to sip Bloody Marys and juice in the shade of the Atelier des Forges, overlooking the fenced-off vacant plot where the foundation stone of Gehry’s shiny stainless steel-clad tower—the centerpiece of the arts complex due to be completed in 2018—was laid in April.
Lunch was served on a table that spanned the full length of the Atelier des Forges, the first of the former SNCF sheds to be renovated by New York–based architect Annabelle Selldorf. In a speech prefaced with a caveat about her German penchant for sentimentality, Selldorf explained how the Parc des Ateliers was “more or less a ruin” before the LUMA Foundation set about “sensitively” refurbishing it with her help.
John Baldessari‘s Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man, 1984.
Designed to house photographic exhibits, the building with its pristine white walls was ready for the opening of the forty-fifth edition of the acclaimed photography festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, and put at its disposal. But gifts are sometimes spurned, and the Rencontres d’Arles, somewhat perversely, would have none of it. Its director François Hebel resigned earlier this year in protest against what he views as Hoffmann’s ruthless takeover of the Parc des Ateliers, whose dilapidated halls have served the festival well over the years.
All the political wrangling may be little more than a bataille de quequettes (“battle of peckers”), as the fireworks maker Christophe Berthonneau next to whom I was seated curiously put it, but it’s hard not to think that LUMA Arles is, if not quite ousting, then upstaging the festival with Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Philippe Parreno’s spectacular, changing “Solaris Chronicles,” a collaborative endeavor conceived as a Gesamtkuntswerk, whose second stage was precisely timed to coincide with the start of the Rencontres. Placed on the outside of the Atelier de la Mécanique, by the entrance to “Solaris Chronicles,” John Baldessari’s 1984 billboard Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man seemed apt.
By the time I reached the Atelier de la Mécanique, where the “Solaris Chronicles” event was about to begin, the cavernous hall—lit up by a single moving spotlight standing for the titular light-bearing planet—was filled with people, many of them from Arles. The most beguiling element of the show—the sharply outlined shadows of the building’s columns and of Gehry’s architectural models gliding over a white screen at the back of the room—was achieved by the simplest of means, reminiscent of early cinema and its experiments. Parreno’s strident, flickering marquees suspended above the models felt brash in comparison.
Deliberately low-key, the delicate indoor fireworks, orchestrated by Cai Guo-Qiang with the aid of Berthonneau and his Camargue-based Groupe F, who have been creating fireworks displays for some of the most high-profile events in the past two decades, were never going to be crowd-pleasers. Yet, judging by some of the bemused reactions (“Wait, we’ll get crushed by a maquette”), Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza’s choreography for Gehry’s signature architectural models (including one of the sprawling Facebook West Campus building in Menlo Park), which were shifted around on trolleys and threatening in their sheer bulk, had an awe-inspiring effect, compounded by Pierre Boulez’s atonal musical score.
The sun was no longer au rendez-vous when we emerged into broad daylight. Soon after the start of the afterparty at the Villa des Alyscamps, a former convent adjoining the Roman necropolis of the same name, it began to rain, forcing everyone to huddle together beneath an old tree, large enough to shelter us all. “People should always hold conversations under trees,” Obrist said, invoking Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan. Behind the villa, beneath another tree, the LUMA “core group” and its extended family of artists, art-world luminaries, and Ping-Pong aficionados were discussing the foundation’s weighty matters as the party got going.
The rain and inevitable grumbling about the DJs didn’t stop us from dancing on the sodden platform in the shadow of the ruined Saint Honorat Church facing the villa, its lit-up tower rising above us like a premonition. Hoffmann herself joined in at some point. “Who could stop her?” someone comments. “Did you see her dance? She’s a force.” I have to concur.