Scary show in Paris

A Contemporary View of Confinement


There are a number of ghosts lurking around “À Triple Tour,” the new exhibition of art from the personal trove of François Pinault, the French luxury goods billionaire.
First there are the ghosts of the French Revolution, like Marie-Antoinette, the murderess Charlotte Corday, the poet André Chénier and others who spent their final days — before being led to the guillotine — at the Conciergerie, a former prison that now houses the Palais de Justice and serves as the setting for the show in Paris. Then there is the ghost of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and social theorist whose seminal work, “Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison” (1975), or “Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison,” explored how criminal justice in the modern era changed with social and cultural mores.

All of these figures have contributed to the theme of “confinement” behind “À Triple Tour,” an exhibition of 50 artworks owned by Mr. Pinault. The works, by 23 contemporary artists including Bill Viola, Damien Hirst and Chen Zhen, were selected and organized by Mr. Pinault’s longtime collaborator, Caroline Bourgeois.

Ms. Bourgeois curated the show around two main concepts. “The first was the idea of being locked up in your society or your country,” she said in a telephone interview. “The second part is focused on the individual jail in your head or in a psychiatric hospital. In both sections, there is the question: What is truth?”

“À Triple Tour,” or “Triple Locked,” opened this week to coincide with the start of the International Contemporary Art Fair, or FIAC, in Paris. The exhibition covers 1,500 square meters, or about 16,000 square feet, of the Gothic hall at the Conciergerie, on the Île de la Cité.

Mr. Pinault, 77, is the former head of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, the luxury group now known as Kering, which includes Gucci, Bottega Veneta, and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as the Christie’s auction house. He is considered by many to be one of the most powerful art collectors in the world. Although he has three exhibition spaces in Venice, has held shows in Moscow, Seoul and the French cities of Lille and Dunkirk, and frequently lends items from his collection to museums around the world, this is the first time he has held a major exhibition in Paris.

Most of the works in “À Triple Tour” have never been exhibited before at all, Ms. Bourgeois said. They were all created after 1970, and one piece, by the Belgian video artists Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter, was commissioned for this show.

Mr. Pinault does not collect art with any particular theme in mind, Ms. Bourgeois said, but there were enough pieces in his collection that had something to do with confinement or imprisonment to make the connection.

“There’s a lot of work, in general in art, about that question,” Ms. Bourgeois said. “Or work that can be viewed that way. I didn’t approach it from an art-historical point of view. The way to put it together was a way of thinking about the size and the rhythms of the space.”

As visitors enter the Hall of the Guards, the largest medieval section of the Conciergerie, the first work they will experience is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “La Gabbia,” a giant silkscreen of prison bars on stainless steel that will reflect back images of the visitors.

“As soon as you go in, you see yourself in a mirror and you will feel locked up, and then you also feel that there’s a way out,” Ms. Bourgeois said. “That sets the tone for the exhibition.”

Bill Viola’s 1995 10-channel video installation, “Hall of Whispers,” projects images on two facing walls of people who have their eyes closed and are gagged. Their protests and moans can be heard through the cloth. Raphaëlle Ricol’s 2009 acrylic on canvas depicts two hooded figures, side by side against a red background: a woman in a black niqab covering everything except her brown eyes, and a man in a white Ku Klux Klan robe, covering everything but his blue eyes.

Some works offer a humorous take on the idea of captivity, like Friedrich Kunath’s “The Past is a Foreign Country” (2011), a sculpture of a man wearing a giant snow globe over his head.

Ms. Bourgeois expects one of the most controversial works to be “Old Persons Home,” an installation by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Pen Yu from 2007 that features 13 life-size sculptures of world leaders, aged to look absurdly decrepit, trapped in wheelchairs that move aimlessly and bang into walls.

Running until Jan. 6, 2014, the exhibition does not take place in the Conciergerie’s cells — “they’re too tiny,” said Isabelle de Gourcuff, the administrator, “but afterward, if they want, visitors can go to the real jails with the same ticket.”

That’s where they might look for all those ghosts. Marie-Antoinette’s cell has been reconstructed down below, as have those of other figures locked behind bars during the French Revolution.