Since the end of the 19th century, when the Impressionists, notably Vincent van Gogh, flocked there, Arles has long fascinated artists and the art world by extension. More recently, cultural spaces have begun to open in this city in south-eastern France, starting with the Vincent van Gogh Arles Foundation in 2010 and more recently collector Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Arles, designed by Frank Gehry, which opened last summer.
And now there is Lee Ufan Arles, a new cultural venue by famous Korean artist Lee Ufan, which opened its doors on April 15 in the heart of the Roman city. (The new location is an extension of the New York-based Lee Ufan Foundation.) The path to complete this project was not easy for Lee, who had to create an endowment fund supported by his friends: Michel Enrici , the former director of the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, as well as his publishers at Actes Sud d’Arles, Jean-Paul Capitani and Françoise Nyssen.
A lion’s share of the fund was dedicated to investing in the new space home. Located in the Hotel Vernon, a 16th century mansion that was once the home of the Dervieux family, a long line of antique dealers, the building has of course been refurbished under the guidance of Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando, Lee’s go -to the architect. “Ando’s inspiration and mine resonate,” the artist said in a recent interview conducted in French. Architect of the Parisian private museum Bourse de Commerce of the mega-collector François Pinault, Ando is also responsible for the Lee Ufan Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima (2010) and the Espace Lee Ufan at the Busan Museum of Art (2015) in Korea from South.
One of the main proponents of the Japanese Mono-ha movement of the 1960s, which explored the properties of industrial and natural materials, Lee is best known for confronting steel plates, rubber sheets and window panes with stone. , wood or even water, in their physical form. forms to effortlessly create poetic sculptures, many of which are at the heart of the new space in Arles.
It’s not so surprising that after leaving his mark on Asia, Lee is relocating part of his New York foundation to France. The 86-year-old artist, represented among others by French gallery owner Kamel Mennour, has exhibited throughout France for years, and he has a studio in the Parisian district of Montmartre, where Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Picasso all lived at some point before him.
The real question is why Arles? This is where his show “Dissonance” took place in 2013, which led to the publication by Actes Sud of his first monograph in French, before exhibitions at the Château de Versailles (2014) and the Center Pompidou Metz. (2019) make him a hit throughout France. “I am particularly charmed by the scent of the city where time fades away amidst the treasures of Roman culture,” he says.
The artist was also recently invited to participate in the celebrations of Arles’ 40 years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Until September, the resulting outdoor exhibition features 13 works scattered throughout the 4th-century Alyscamps necropolis, a site steeped in spirituality. “Since we’ve been in Arles, I’ve tried to express a dimension that transcends space-time,” he says.
At Lee Ufan Arles, the four-story, 14,500-square-foot mansion consists of nearly 25 rooms, with the very first being a bright boutique and ticket office in one, followed by an elegant library, which can be transformed into a tea room in the future, both courtesy of award-winning French designer Constance Guisset.
In the first gallery, which once probably served as the entrance for guests of the Dervieux family, stands in the center a monumental concrete cylinder which is a narrow snail-shaped labyrinth intended to be penetrated. Inside is a ground projection of white clouds moving slowly through the air. “Like van Gogh before him, Lee Ufan drew a lot of inspiration from the Arles sky,” said Jean-Marie Gallais, curator of the Lee Ufan 2019 exhibition at the Center Pompidou Metz, who also wrote a mural text for the space. from Arles.
Lee confirmed: “The moments of my morning walks gazing at the sky along the banks of the Rhône make me happy.” He titled this brand new work, an architectural collaboration with Ando, sky underground (Heaven Under Ground).
As with previous projects, Lee paid particular attention to site-specific installations throughout the mansion estate. Way to Arles Beautifully features a curved mirror slab laid on the gravel. Just as the mirror begins its curve toward the ceiling, Lee steps between two large rocks. And older pieces have also been revived. The scene (originally designed in the late 1960s), in the second gallery, is a good example. Visitors are again invited to enter a circle of light protected by a large steel wall next to a massive rock.
A little further on, two examples from Lee’s “Relatum” series (Report 1969/2022 and Relationship – Gravity), which synthesize the artist’s first experiences with Mono-ha. Between these two works is a Roman bust discovered at the start of construction, about 2.5 feet underground, exactly where Lee had already planned to install sky underground. “It’s ironic, when you think about it, that the only place that needed to be dug shows a video representation of the sky,” said Gallais, the curator. Now on long-term loan from the Museum of Ancient Arles, the relic has its own display case in the middle of a small hallway leading to a rising staircase, which Lee had painted white, and a new elevator.
Descending to the lower level of the space, accessible only by appointment, are not one, but three site-specific creations. Two works from the “Dialogue” series, bands of color gradients – one in oranges, the other in blues – resulting from unusually wide brushstrokes, were painted on the ground. Lee compares them to “archaeological finds” that the public can venture on. The predominantly orange one is perpendicular; that of the blue sky is parallel to a white wall where the artist has handwritten a poem entitled “Le Bas”: “At the bottom of Arles there is a story, / at the bottom of this story there is a picture , / and at the bottom of this image there is the unknown.
Back above ground, the approach to the second floor (the first floor according to the French system) is mainly chronological, starting with his 1970s series “From Line”, with stripes painted in a single gesture until ‘to the exhaustion of painting, until the 2000s “Dialogues”, whose last pieces include wavy lines that transmit deeper vibrations. The exhibition includes drawings from the 1980s, some surprisingly less minimalist than from others.
One level above is a future “hybrid” multipurpose space, for meetings, conferences, receptions and concerts, as well as exhibitions by artists who are not Lee Ufan. (He would like to include works from his personal collection in the permanent exhibition, “but nothing has been considered in detail yet,” he said.)
This space is the only place in the building where the original moldings and authentic fireplaces have been kept, as if to make people feel more at home. In fact, the artist says he sees the Lee Ufan Arles as a “living space” rather than an exhibition hall, adding that “understanding the intelligence or the meaning of this space is not necessary to share the breath and the sensations that life offers us while strolling among paintings and sculptures.