November 4, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

The Art of Capitalism

An intruder in the bank vault. Photo: Claude Lévêque. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris. © ADGAP
An intruder in the bank vault. Photo: Claude Lévêque. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris. © ADGAP

The northern French city of Béthune has come up with a great idea for making use of empty bank buildings, which may come in handy during the current financial crisis. It has turned a former Banque de France building (dating from the early 20th century) into a contemporary art space called Lab-Labanque.

The directors of Lab-Labanque have had the bright idea of leaving the building as it was when the bank moved out and inviting artists to create site-specific works for its rooms, including an elegant, spacious appartement de fonction (a common perk for French public officials) upstairs, where the bank’s director and family would have lived.

The current show features guest artist Claude Lévêque and his own invitees, Jonathan Loppin and Sophie Dubosc. For part of his show, entitled “La Rumeur des Batailles,” Lévêque, the eldest and best-known of the three, has chosen a medium he has so often used to good effect: light. He has taken advantage of the ghostly atmosphere of the deserted rooms on the former bank’s ground floor and basement to create some eerie effects of his own. In the former bank’s vault, for example, lightning bolts flash and thunder crashes in a dizzying display. After a few moments, you realize you aren’t alone in the room: the golden head and antlers of a stag are suspended in its center – or so it seems. Only intermittently visible, it sometimes seems to pop up in other parts of the room (presumably due to afterimages imprinted in the eye). Fascinating and extremely disorienting.

Lévêque’s various installations in other rooms – involving loud military music, flags, colored fluorescent lighting, a mini-boxing ring and huge truck tires (the latter in the safe-deposit-box room, with little booths where bank customers used to inspect their valuables) – seem to be saying that capitalism is losing the battle referred to in the title.

On the second floor, in what was the bank director’s enormous apartment, the talented young artist Loppin has created a subtle installation for each room for his show, entitled “Je Vous Déteste Tous” (“I Hate You All”). In the elegant salon, for example, the glass panes in the French doors bulge bizarrely, while a conversational circle of charred chairs awaits visitors. The pantry is filled with an avalanche of potatoes, and the bathroom sink and tub with black goo. One room is filled with deconstructed chairs, while another contains a huge, mysterious felt-covered mound.

The next floor up, the former domain of the bank director’s children and servants, is the site of Dubosc’s show, “Adieu Berthe.” Like Loppin, but not always with such evocative results, she has created a different piece for each of the rooms, which are smaller and more modest than those below. Among the most effective are a huge cloth-draped stove-like structure with “pipes” coming out of it that vaguely resemble parts of human legs, and a large, odd-shaped room with racks of hair hanging from the walls like wainscoting.

Béthune seems to be best known in France as the hometown of a famed 1950s wrestler called the “Bourreau de Béthune” and pretty much unknown to anyone else. Lab-Labanque provides a great reason for an excursion to this small city, which has one of the prettiest main squares in northern France, complete with a handsome 14th-century belfry whose resonant bells still ring out to mark the time of day.

Heidi Ellison

Lab-Labanque: 44, place Clémenceau, 62400 Béthune. Tel.: 03 21 63 04 70. Current exhibition through January 31. Open daily, 2 p.m.-7 p.m. Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Free admission.

© 2008 Paris Update

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