A Noble Beast in Paris

by Saam Gabbay

PARIS – I'm on a TGV from Paris to Cannes for the Cannes Lions advertising awards, flipping through the SCNF travel magazine and reflecting on the fact that I don't think I've ever been inspired to book a trip after looking at a photograph. That was until Verenne Ferrari, an executive producer friend in Paris, sent me photographs of her visit to Anish Kapoor's Leviathan at the Grand Palais. I cashed in an arm-and-a-leg's worth of Amex miles to get my ass to Paris before the show closed on June 23.

Paris was having a glorious spring, which regrettably had reverted to fall when I arrived, the skies consistently cloudy with rain (or the threat of it). It left me wondering how June Gloom makes it to the center of Paris all the way from Venice Beach, which I had just escaped. I hate June Gloom.

None of that mattered when I got to the Grand Palais. It's a magnificent space, and Kapoor had conceived of Leviathan as a commission for Monumenta, the museum's annual, site-specific art project. I can't imagine it anywhere else.

The piece, like most of Kapoor's work, seems simple enough. But in execution it transcends words. It consisted of four huge, conjoined spherical chambers of PVC inflated to pressure. The exterior was a perfect shade of aubergine that actually reminded me of the plant, especially considering the green, vine-like Art Nouveau scaffolds of the Grand Palais. Inside, it was blood red — like I'd imagine the interior of an organ or blood vessel of a large animal.

There was a pressure change once I stepped inside. Looking up into the openings to the other connected chambers, there was a promise of being able to travel through them, along with my terrible urge to really attempt to climb them. Going to Burning Man changes your relationship with art. There, all art is to be summited, fondled, and interacted with. Here, you could see that, despite the obvious invitation, only kids run up to touch the piece. Adults were fighting a lifetime of being scolded by museum guards for standing too close to art.

But I did touch the thing, and to my total delight it gave. It was soft.

This massive installation in this grand old hall was a very large exercise ball. The kind you do sit-ups on at the gym.

The interior of Leviathan had unique acoustics. Depending on the crowd, I heard a kind of Marco-Polo of birdcalls or outright applause as visitors tested the boundaries of self-expression vs. social decorum. When walking the exterior, I could hear the strangest sounds from inside. I imagined it was the soundtrack of a monster's belly, the muffled noises coming from the visitors who were trapped and gurgling inside.

The exterior is more difficult to describe. Scale does such a number on the human brain, and, in this case, the scale is huge (especially for art). From certain angles, the work looks like it had invaded and oozed into the space. At other times, it looks like an alien that the government had built a monument around. There was a tremendous amount of anachronism at play.

And even more so when DJ Ritchie Hawtin was pumping 50,000 watts of sub-bass into the space. The Tuesday before the show closed was Fêtes de la Musique in France, a festival where performers of all levels play in venues and non-venues across the country. In Paris, the streets erupt and go all night, and as I traveled the metro I felt like a big citywide iPod was on shuffle, jumping from tech-house to jazz to absolutely terrible French rock, depending on who had set up above ground.

Inside the Grand Palais, mostly younger French music lovers had gathered to hear Hawtin. The space looked and felt very different, lit with lasers and, as mentioned, an unreal amount of bass. Hawtin's warm-up set was a beatless two and a half hours of music, probably the longest musical foreplay I have ever endured. He finally dropped his first beat three hours in. The power of speakers vs. sculpture was evident. Even before the music started, most revelers had their backs to the Monster and were facing the tiny DJ booth high on the second level.

The mean age of the attendees was under 25, and I wonder how many of them know that Jean Michel Jarre had pioneered this sort of performance in France, mixing large-scale light shows with electronic music. That really is part of French culture: Jean Michel Jarre, his laser harp, the Eiffel Tower, and 1979.

Seeing Leviathan was better than I had hoped. For a moment when I walked in, the sun cast shadows onto the Monster from the lattice work of the Gand Palais's glass top. Outside was a meditative space, and I could see how easy and appealing it would be to spend the day there, just hanging out with the Monster.


Anish Kapoor (Official Site)
About Monumenta

Richie Hawtin Takes On Anish Kapoor's Leviathan At Monumenta 2011 (The Creators Project)