In 1989 the former Theatre de La Gaîté Lyrique reopened as Magic Planet, a theme park costing 61 million euros: an act akin to putting Eurodisney inside the Garrick Theatre in London. In 1991, it was closed and became known as ‘The Sad Mute’ to locals.
Last month, the building thundered back into life as a gallery, after an 85 Million euro redesign by architect Manuelle Gautrand. 18,000 visitors passed through the restored building over five days to experience the opening event, designed by London-based United Visual Artists. This month will see the opening of its inaugural exhibition Super-Human-Romantics by British digital artist Matt Pyke.
Super-Computer-Romantics will comprise 14 new works by the digital artist and his collective, Universal Everything. Pyke works out of a cabin in his garden in Sheffield, having moved to the city in the mid-1990s to work for Designers Republic. He began his career studying botanical and anatomical drawing at Portsmouth then Croydon College of Art. He first made his name designing record covers, then directing videos for Sheffield-based Warp Records.
In 2004 Pyke decided to go it alone and formed Universal Everything. Since then he has designed digital art and marketing for clients that include George Michael, Chanel and Deutsche Bank. His work has been seen on massive digital screens at Heathrow Terminal 5, on the side of Skyscrapers in China as well as on TV for Welsh Channel S4C.
For Super-Computer-Romantics, Pyke will be returning, to some extent, to his roots. The exhibition will transform La Gaîté Lyrique into a vision of the world as Matt Pyke sees it. It will combine rigorous programming and sumptuous animation to create artworks that are both emotionally evocative and visually complex. ‘It’s a romantic vision,’ says Pyke. ‘There is no strong political agenda, it is beauty for beauty’s sake – it’s quite hedonistic in that sense.’ And utterly appropriate for a former variety theatre and failed theme park.
The works will include a 3m-projection of a quasi-human creature represented in various materials, which follows the evolution of mankind’s understanding of materials. The footsteps of the beast will pound throughout the building, providing a rhythm to the whole exhibition. Pyke appreciates that his ideas could remain abstract as visual patterns or animations. ‘In some cases we have anthropomorphised ideas to get the viewer to feel empathy for the work.’
La Gaîté Lyrique is described as ‘a stage for the digital revolution’. The programme of events promises to be bombastic and its opening has reinvigorated the area just north of the Pompidou Centre. The gallery will dedicate itself to promoting digital art as well as providing workshops and studios for artists and musicians to develop their ideas. Jerome Delormas, the director of the gallery, underlines their approach: ‘in the digital era, some content has no status, is it information? Is it art?’ he asks. ‘We have a saying, “être sur la brèche”, we always need to be at the breach, at the cutting edge of what is happening.’
La Gaîté Lyrique puts faith in the artists who will occupy it, providing organisational and technical support for artists to show the world that digital art can transcend the misconception that it is purely commercial and that it can be just as emotionally stirring as what are considered by some as traditional art forms.
Gautrand had to organise the 13,000 sq m building across seven levels to combine the complex functions. What exists is essentially a box within a box, the building centres around the Grand Salle, a flexible performance space that can be configured as an auditorium, a simple empty black box and everything in-between. The room is clad with a metallic finish that demonstrates where the auditorium is pushing through the floorplates, which also acts as a useful orientation device.
The building is primed to be reinterpreted however an artist feels, with exhibition spaces looking like conventional galleries when unused. Almost every surface can be projected onto and there are over 3,000 speakers hidden around the public areas. The building is not heroic, the grand gestures are left to the artists, and the character of the existing building confined to the protected elements, the entrance lobby and bar. Gautrand has injected playful touches where the programme is tighter, for example the smaller, 130-seat auditorium is bright yellow with a sparkling green floor. Further to this, the building has a bank of ‘éclaireuses’; modular pods on rollers that can be plugged into any space in the building and can be configured as cloakrooms, bookshelves, dressing rooms or installations, providing further flexibility if needed.
La Gaîté Lyrique is an exciting prospect. Digital art finally has a home that provides everything it needs to develop its standing as a serious art form outside of the commercial world. The two opening attractions have both been by British artists, which is a reflection of the talent that exists in the UK. The Public by Will Alsop could have been as exciting prospect as La Gaîté Lyrique. Alsop’s eccentric interior competes with art rather than supporting and containing it, this is as much the problem as lack of curatorial direction. For now, Paris will be the place that best showcases the work of Britain’s leading talent in digital art.
Super-Computer-Romantics, La Gaîté Lyrique, Paris, 21 April-27 May 2011