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Sous le Plus Grand Chapiteau du Monde, Paris, France

Issue 80 August / September 2014

Pics 1,2,4: Fabrice Seixas

An old rebel at heart, light artist Claude Lévêque has consistently used neon light to express simple, but revolutionary thoughts. He turned to neon once again when commissioned to create an installation for one of the most recognisable sites in Paris, the Louvre Pyramid.

Of all of art history’s many mystery men, Giorgione, the Venetian High Renaissance painter is perhaps the most elusive. His painting ‘The Tempest’, one of the few authenticated pieces of his work that survives, has no known textual explanation and features a woman holding a baby and a soldier in a grassy landscape overlooking a river that flows towards an oddly futuristic city.

It is the light that is the highlight of the painting, it captures exactly the feeling of standing in the sunshine, as a storm approaches, that strangely eerie feeling you get as you watch a storm approach, as your surroundings darken and the temperature falls. Giorgione’s stormy sky is completed by a small streak of lightning, a detail that inspired the renowned French light artist Claude Lévêque when commissioned to create an instillation for that most daunting of spaces, the Louvre Pyramid.

“The Pyramid is very restrictive in terms of space,” says Lévêque, a onetime attempted Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, an award, which, like any self-respecting self-styled punk, he turned down. The I.M. Pei designed, Francois Mitterrand commissioned Pyramid, with its suposed 666 glass panels, spawn of many a junk theory and many a junk dime store novel (it actually has 673) is, says Lévêque, challenging in an architectural sense, but it is also a tricky space to operate in due to its “transparency and its role as a busy public space.”

Lévêque created a red neon lightning bolt, titled ‘Sous le plus grand chapiteau du monde’, stretching from the apex of the pyramid to a mezzanine floor in its lower echelons. “I caught onto the idea of the red neon commencing from a viewing point over the ticketing hall to the summit of the pyramid very quickly. I think if I thought any longer, I may not have been able to come to grips with the constraints of the space.”

This incandescent broken line which zigzags through the pyramid, maintains an intricate dialogue with the architecture, the glass allowing the lighting bolt to splinter into reflections as incandescent light and neon suffuse. The piece also provides a physical touchstone to some of the artworks in the Louvre collection, not only Giorgione’s ‘Tempest’, but also ‘The Death of the Virgin’ by Caravaggio, which features theatrically draped blood red cloth, the colour of Lévêque’s lightning, a colour chosen by both artists for the sake of dramatic effect.

Born in 1953, Lévêque is a light artist with attitude. He has in the past given names such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, the trailblazing Italian director and poet, as well as David Lynch as his influences.

“Music is a driving force for me too,” says Lévêque, “it feeds my response.” He listens to everything from punk to classical and name checks Eminem as a current influence, as well as Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys and a man who recently produced a great rendering of the Phil Ochs penned folk anthem ‘Love Me, I’m a Liberal’ a song about people who talk the talk when it comes to their left leaning politics, but have long since ceased to walk the walk.

Lévêque is, like many artists who work with light, fascinated by the interplay between the medium and music. “In my work light and sound are wandering visitors on a journey,” he says, “they are both involved in the alteration of meaning. Light creates a metamorphosis that redefines reality and with it perceptions of order and disorder. With light I am able to create another account, just the way the lighting in the theatre or in the cinema is able to create sensations.”

Neon light is Lévêque’s signature material used often to render words or phrases in a replicated, shakily nervous, hand that acts to instill doubt rather than confidence. ‘The world is yours’ reads one such sign, ‘La vie c’est si joli’ (life is so pretty) reads another in a multicoloured light.

Lévêque has also installed neon words on a number of disparate items, such as ‘fear’ on a disembodied car door or the words ‘Buvard’ and ‘Caillou’ graffiti style on paintings, mocking the often clumsy labeling of culture. He even created a white neon Mickey Mouse who casually introduces a replica of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Levique also likes to install unexpected light in unexpected places. His ‘Mon Repos aux…’ series is particularly magical and features a glistening chandelier installed in a gritty Peugeot DB 30 van from 1953. The van has been abandoned amid the undergrowth of the Forest of Arques, the path to it lit by retro lightbulbs. It has also been abandoned, half submerged, in a fountain in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, surrounded by scattered Parisian street lamps, the chandelier squeaking in the Parisian breeze looking as if someone has tried to make off with one of the priceless Napoleon III light fixtures found in the Louvre and then botched the escape plan.

Although a political man, Lévêque tends to avoid placing emphasis too much on overbearing political themes in his work and instead prefers finesse. “Politics is something that is related to the life of every citizen,” he says, “I am very suspicious of artists who appropriate their language.

The political situation in France is very serious and must be countered through civic positions clear and determined. We must be very vigilant.”
Lévêque’s anti-establishment credentials were further burnished by his decision to name the collection he developed for the French Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, ‘Le Grand Soir’ a phase often referred to by French leftists as the ‘great night’ that will ensue when true socialism comes to France.

Although Lévêque hints at a political edge to the name, he notes that it is also a tribute to ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ a film by Cecile B. DeMille set around the hullabaloo of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The artist will now create the second part of his Louvre project, in the underground moat that can be found in the medieval underbelly of the former royal palace. He also plans to show work at 180, an arts venue in Rouen and at Le Corbusier’s Radiant City in Marseille. Lévêque will also create a project to be shown at the new Pierre Soulages museum in Rodez. Soulages, renowned for his use of black in his work, has been a major influence on Lévêque’s career from its outset, particularly Soulages’s willingness to follow his own path and thumb his nose at convention and the requirements of the majority.

“Sure, once I was young and impulsive,” sings Phil Ochs in ‘Love Me, I’m a Liberal’, “I wore every conceivable pin, even went to socialist meetings, learned all the old union hymns, but I’ve grown older and wiser and that’s why I’m turning you in!” Lévêque may have grown older and wiser, but this is one aging rebel that would never dream of betraying you for kicking the system in the knees.


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