Here’s How a Former Department Store Became a “Curatorial Machine”

“Ce que vous allez voir n’existe pas encore.” The cagey invitation—announcing something to the effect of “What you’re about to see does not yet exist”—has been beckoning Paris Métro riders for a few weeks already. But you can already see it. 9 Rue du Plâtre, a seven-story building styled in the Haussmannian architectural tradition, has existed since 1891, and in keeping with conservation regulations, its façade remains unaltered. The only noticeable addition to its exterior is the name of its new occupant: Lafayette Anticipations—Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette. The letters are scattered across the entrance in a playful nod to the site’s new function.

9 Rue du Plâtre lived many elegant lives before becoming a private museum. Architect Samuel Mejot de Dammartin once reconfigured it as an offsite storage facility for the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville (BHV) department store, which still occupies a grand corner of nearby rue Rivoli. While horse-drawn carriages brought in overstock through the alleyway, craftsmen repaired delicate straw hats for customers inside. And at some point it was a prep school. Then, in 2012, Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA converted it into a space for art production, exhibition, and performance.

The building now contains a multilevel, glass-enclosed “curatorial machine”—a moveable elevator floor running on vertical tracks that allows for endless variations of surface, floor, seating, and stage, all held up by a set of millennial-lilac steel pillars that outline the original courtyard. But while ostensibly designed to support the shifting parameters of contemporary art, a place so striking, so present, risks overshadowing the work it houses. So the decision to invite Lutz Bacher, an artist who’s been exhibiting work for decades while managing to remain tantalizingly elusive, is an intriguing one.

Bacher’s Silence of the Sea is a subtle interference, at once massive and ephemeral. A video projected onto one wall on each of the building’s four floors uses footage of waves crashing onto the WWII-era concrete bunkers on the shores of Cap Ferret in southwestern France. The images play on the ocean’s violence as it erodes with relentless, brutal force that which was built to be indestructible. Bacher is best known for her formally diverse re-appropriations and reproductions; previous installations have consisted of multiple simultaneous projections of the Empire State Building, or piles of broken plaster casts of everyday objects. The current show’s title upholds this conceptual standard, maybe the only recognizable pattern in her work, and is named for a book published secretly in German-occupied Paris in 1942 by Vercors, a pseudonym. “Lutz Bacher” is a pseudonym, as well.

A second element of The Silence of the Sea is the bags of glitter that are emptied daily around the top floor of the building. The sparkly powder falls through the steel grates and elevator gears, and visitors trek it down the stairs and through local streets. Cheap and seemingly lighthearted, the intervention may also sound insignificant. In fact, it’s an effective way for Bacher to outmaneuver OMA’s 22 million-euro budget and grand architectural ambitions. She turns the building’s own strategy on itself, achieving control from within. Have you ever tried to clean up glitter? It never really goes away.

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