Society

Deconstructing Gehry's Awful New Paris Art Museum

The Louis Vuitton Foundation is a new high-profile cultural offering for the city of lights, but art's higher calling becomes just a tool of luxury promotion for the ultra-privileged.

Queuing in front of the Louis Vuitton foundation on opening day (Oct. 28)
Queuing in front of the Louis Vuitton foundation on opening day (Oct. 28)
Christophe Catsaros

-Commentary-

PARIS — Though Frank Gehry"s new Paris jewel hasn't finished surprising us with superlatives, it's worth noting that the just unveiled contemporary art museum designed by the California architect also has its detractors. They point to the incoherence of its location in a ghetto of the rich, its gratuitous monumentality, its old-fashioned and reactionary cultural program, its astronomical budget overrun, and the excessive remuneration of the architect.

Certainly, benefactor Bernard Arnault has the right to do what he wants with the money he legally avoids paying French tax authorities. But that won't prevent us from questioning the relevance of his latest investment in the Louis Vuitton Foundation, as the new museum is called.

According to Hal Foster, one of the most pertinent critics of Gehry's work, the American pioneer of deconstruction owes his architectural fame to the place he's forged for himself in a system ruled by self-congratulation, nepotism and collusion. From the undeniable innovator that he was in the 1980s, he has become in Foster's view an architect in the service of a certain kind of speculation at the crossroads of art and finance.

The foundation building, with its clever terracing, is ostensibly a deconstruction of the Parisian panorama — a fragmentation of the big picture, the parts ingeniously recomposed. Gehry's having drawn on a cubist-futurist aesthetic model is both a surprise and a disappointment. It's surprising because we'd like to see the connecting thread that goes from the constructivists to the critical deconstruction of the 1980s extended to include the deconstructions of late capitalism. Constructivism, which was political and subversive, was never mannered — but what Gehry does is.

The museum will be an additional port of call among the already abundant cultural offerings available to the millions of tourists strolling Parisian boulevards. It is located in the heart of the arrondissement that has the greatest number of wealth tax contributors.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation consciously cultivates an amalgam of art and luxury, artifact and merchandise. Its location is symptomatic of that. We are in a part of the city where those most likely to be clients — of both the museum and the company — live.

Missing a crucial element: public good

Using a cultural project to sell handbags and shoes would not be reprehensible per se if apologists didn't turn it into an ideological act. But that's what's starting to happen. A social mix, education, making knowledge available to the many — all of which are essential components of public cultural policy — are swept aside here in favor of the promotion of splendor and luxury for the ultra-privileged.

It's difficult not to succumb to the charms of the new building, meant to be emblematic. Flights of poetry fixed in matter, glass walls swollen like wind-filled sails and rising up to heights of over 60 meters. They interlace and surround without closing off the new museum's atypical volumes. And if the Gehry mark is recognizable, the use of wood and glass breaks with the metallic surfaces we've come to expect of him.

A furtive gesture fixed in time, a freeze frame of an ongoing act of morphogenesis, a kaleidoscope on an urban scale — metaphors abound to describe this unusual object.

But compare the new museum to its programmatic and morphological alter ego, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. What's changed is that Gehry has chosen to use glass to do what he was used to creating with metal.

As in the Charles Perrault fairytale Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin), with each project Frank Gehry wants to give his buildings ever more elaborate robes. And he can, thanks to the outsized appetite of his patrons. The Guggenheim did it in titanium? Make me one in crystal! The wish of the prince that rings out in the immoderate rooms of the new museum meshes with the voice of the architect who acquiesces: Let's make glass waves, a crystalline storm for eternity!

Gehry's latest desire is to bend glass as one would metal. The result meets all expectations: It shines, it glitters, but does it bring anything to the project other than consecrating the architect as a master in his field? Virtuosity pushed to the extreme touches on indecency and easily tips into bad taste. Any musician knows that. Frank Gehry doesn't appear to.

The architectural folly also made itself felt in the project's budget. Gehry is no longer remunerated like a contractor but becomes a financial partner in an act that earns money. In a project whose value has been artificially inflated and is well in excess of 500 million euros ($626 million), 20% of the money spent was spent on studies. That's a very simple way to get a huge fee and still stay on the right side of the law. It remains to be seen if the public contribution to the budget, whether they be subsidies or tax exemptions, warrant judicial inquiry. Having practiced the same methods in a country that went bankrupt, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava now lives in Zurich to escape the Spanish justice system.

Between Bilbao and Paris, what's different is the project's finality. With the Guggenheim, the ultimate objective was giving new life to a city that was losing its edge. The Bilbao effect has entered history as the method that uses a cultural apparatus to give new luster to a neighborhood, a city, a region. In Paris, the generosity of a patron contributing to something other than glorifying his own name is missing. Without a vision, without a function, this beautiful object parachuted into the city's Bois de Boulogne park radiates all the vulgarity of the intentions of its backers. Will the architect escape unscathed?

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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