Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Le Laboratoire

On October 19th a new contemporary cultural space opened in Paris, seemingly without much notice. The brainchild of an American scientist and novelist, David Edwards, Le Laboratoire, www.lelaboratoire.org, is a meeting point for artists and scientists to share thoughts, ideas, visions, and see what happens as a result. Two leading figures in these respective fields, who in all likelihood have never met and may not know each other’s work, come together to explore concepts and “push the limits of understanding,” as the mission statement declares. The production is (more or less) spontaneous, unknown and attempts to lay new groundwork. It’s a tricky concept to pull off, which why the name of the space, le laboratoire, is a good one, because in actuality the work developed is truly experimental.

The space itself is still partly under construction, which may explain the lack of crowds and publicity thus far. It is located in the 1st arrondisement, near the Louvre, http://www.louvre.fr/, and the Ministry of Culture, on the ground floor of a larger, more traditional looking building. The façade is all glass with shades of gray and black paint and white neon signage. Set into part of the façade is a ‘theatre optique,’ or optical theater in which a niche has been carved between the glass façade and the interior to display video work. On view now is a video by the artist Patrick Sorin as well as a video that presents David Edwards describing his vision for the space and how the project developed.

The interior of the museum is still somewhat raw but it will be slick and industrial-like, with metal, cement and glass as the dominant materials. You enter into the main exhibition area down a short staircase. The space has essentially been gutted out leaving a wide-open, column-filled area for the artist to manipulate. For the current exhibition the floors have been painted in different colors and sheetrocked, movable walls have been propped up, onto which the paintings are hung and which also form a corridor that leads to other work. At the back of the exhibition space, through large glass walls you can get a glimpse into what will eventually be office space, a gift shop and perhaps a café.

The inaugural exhibitions have been in the making for over a year. The main space presents the work created from a collaboration by the French artist Fabrice Hyber and Robert Langer, a leading scientist at MIT for stem cell research. The two met for only one week, at MIT last January, although they remained in contact throughout the whole experiment. From their meetings it was decided that they would focus their project on the experience of a stem cell transforming into a neuron. Hyber took all of the scientific data and information gleaned from their encounter, continued his own research and from this developed a series of paintings, sculptures and installation work. Hyber subtitled the project “food for thought,” and several of the works, such as a figure constructed out of fruits and vegetables or the two vats of champagne with fruits in the process of fermentation, deal explicitly with this theme of transformation, decomposition and bodily function. There are several large paintings that look like studies form a notebook with words, formulas, numbers and charts, and an inflatable sculpture that resembles an esophagus. The whole experience is part funhouse for science and part artist’s studio. Disordered/ordered chaos runs through the whole of it, and it works under the pretext of being a laboratory, a reflection of thought and spontaneity.

In a smaller space set right next to the entrance, (which I think is temporary), is an exhibition titled Bel-Air, and it is the result of a collaboration between David Edwards, and the French designer Matthew Lehanneur. Using research and observations of NASA scientists, the two artists created a type of air filter that is part design object, part environmental gadget. The artists learned that early on many astronauts had returned from space flights with high levels of toxic chemicals in their systems due to the synthetic materials of the spacecraft. NASA scientists soon began studying certain types of plants that were said to act as natural filters, absorbing and metabolizing the gases to help combat this effect. Edwards and Lehanneur take this concept into the contemporary home of today, a space that is also filled with synthetic objects and materials and they have created a small, pod-like structure that houses a small plant. The pod is white with a clear top and it rests on the floor. The filter supposedly passes dirty air past the surfaces of the plants, thereby strengthening the capacity of the plants to absorb the toxins and rendering the plant “more intelligent,” i.e. able to ward off a higher amount of the gases. If all this is true, which it seems to be, Bel-Air is a truly innovative concept housed in a chic design object. The exhibition seems to succeed a bit more than the other in part because the two were coming from a shared interest and a more collaborative working process.

It will be interesting to see how Le Laboratoire develops in the coming months. Being privately funded allows for flexibility and real experimentation. The program has an ambitious agenda that should make for an exciting addition to the Paris art scene.

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