Ephemeral Art in Paris

The Place de l’Étoile was closed to pedestrians so people could stroll around the Arc de Triomphe.

I was delighted to be on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the Place de l’Étoile the other day. I wasn’t alone in that feeling, either. Parisians and visitors usually do what they can to avoid the chaotic traffic on the Place de l’Étoile that encircles the Arc de Triomphe. But on this day, we were actually thrilled to be there.

This Christo and Jeanne-Claude project, which involved wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in silvery-blue sheets and red ropes, not only stopped traffic (the Champs-Élysées and the Place de l’Étoile were pedestrian-only for the last couple of weekends), but it has made almost everyone who has come within sight of the shimmering wrapping on the Arc pause and look at the monument anew. That is the point: to see with fresh eyes.

The Arc de Triomphe project was supposed to launch last year, but with the ongoing pandemic, and the death of Christo in 2020 (Jeanne-Claude died in 2009), it was put on hold. But the French government was eager for it to go forward, judging — rightly — that people would appreciate the opportunity to look at something other than angry protestors and their disheartened fellow citizens weary of the ongoing pandemic, of economic uncertainty and of political maneuverings leading up to the presidential elections next March.

I visited the wrapped Arc de Triomphe several times on a recent sunny weekend. On the Saturday, the Champs-Élysées was closed to traffic in one direction (on the Sunday it was entirely shut to cars), and a series of temporary fences encircled the Place de l’Étoile, where firefighters (pompiers) were on call to check people’s health passes at several entry points. You needed to show you were Covid-free or fully vaccinated in order to join the pedestrians ambling about the Arc de Triomphe. It all went smoothly and the air was, remarkably, festive — a word you don’t use often in everyday Parisian life.

Blue-vested guides strolled about, offering a bit of information about the installation and, for those who asked, a little square sample of the material used to wrap the Arc de Triomphe. People took selfies and families photographed each other under the brilliant sunshine. It was the same the next day when I arrived with friends to see it. We had lunched near Palais Royal and took the métro to Georges V so that they could see the Arc de Triomphe in the near distance when we climbed the stairs to street level. “Wow,” said my friend Eric, noticing the groups of friends and families enjoying the avenue, which people usually avoid, since for the most part it’s busy with slow-moving tourists and lined with luxury stores that cater to wealthy travelers. “You never see it like this.”

Again, that was the point. I could feel the sense of release among people who were staring at the monument — as well as their suddenly smiling fellow Parisians — with an infectious joy. After so many dreary months of shutdowns and disappointment, we were given an opportunity to bask in the sun together, to discover a Parisian cliché from a new angle, to be happy in the thought that the world wasn’t entirely bleak, at least for now. The Arc de Triomphe project is up just until the first weekend in October — and its ephemerality made it even more special. No one would want it to last longer, in a way — for then we would become accustomed to it, as we are to the unwrapped Arc de Triomphe.

The wrapped Arc de Triomphe just before sunset, and before traffic was closed on the Place de l’Étoile.

Not far from the other end of the Champs-Élysées is the newly opened Pinault Collection, at the renovated Bourse de Commerce, just off the Rue du Louvre, near Les Halles. The building, restored and rethought by the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, pays homage to the original Bourse de Commerce building, and to its inspiration, Rome’s Pantheon, and instills in me some of the same wonder as that Roman masterpiece. Here, a bold example of ephemeral art enlivens the main rotunda.

Urs Fischer’s “Untitled,” is a wax copy of Giambologn’s “The Abduction of the Sabine Women,” that has been lighted like a giant candle, and that is slowly melting.

The Swiss artist Urs Fischer has reworked a piece of his, Untitled (2011), for this site. In addition to a series of wax sculptures that are lighted and melted — they are basically enormous candles — the showpiece is a is a life-size replica of a notable Mannerist sculpture by Giambologna, “The Abduction of the Sabine Women,” from 1579-1582.

Shifting light from the cupola of the Bourse de Commerce falls upon the mural that encircles the rotunda.

I have been to the Bourse de Commerce about a dozen times since it opened, and each time I notice the further inevitable disintegration of the monumental statue. And each time I stand before the statue in awe of its progressive deterioration. I kind of wished I could have seen the face of one of the Sabine women fall off — it’s now on the floor, looking up at the ceiling in wax indifference.

This installation will be up until the end of December, so the curators aren’t waiting for the “candle” to melt entirely before removing it.

But just as watching the wrapped Arc de Triomphe thrilled me as a temporary reimagining of a well-worn monument, seeing the dripping wax of the sculpture in the Pinault Collection as the heads and limbs melt induces in me an eerie sense of inevitability about the fleeting nature of art. Perhaps it’s not the art itself, but how I look at it that changes. Knowing it is ephemeral makes me appreciate that much more those brief moments when I am lucky enough to witness it.

One thought on “Ephemeral Art in Paris

  1. wonderful piece Bob! Thank you. Hope you are well. Clearly, you’re enjoying France. I miss it. Haven’t been there since 2018…New dean, budget cuts etc etc etc Then…i aged out. Once i turned 65, i was done on the French side.




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