After making, for the 3e Scène, Le Lac perdu, his dreamlike film that plunges us into the phantasmagorical world of the institution, the artist Claude Lévêque gazes in wonder at the architecture of the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. On the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Opera and the 30th anniversary of its new auditorium, he has created Saturnales, an installation evoking the Poèmes saturniens by Verlaine as well as the luminous brilliance of the planet Saturn, to be experienced throughout this celebratory year.
Saturnales is one of the events featured during the dual anniversary that the Paris Opera is celebrating this year. How did this project come into being?
Stéphane Lissner asked me to intervene on both theatres, the Palais Garnier and Bastille. When I considered the two buildings, I considered possible devices, as I do whenever I am invited to intervene on a site. In that sense, Saturnales is in line with my usual work. It is not a matter of creating an event but of establishing a discourse linking two aesthetically opposed sites. I asked myself a lot of questions concerning their architectural styles. For the Palais Garnier, I chose to intervene on the spectator’s progression through the theatre as envisaged by Charles Garnier. It is an utterly magical place which, as long as I can remember, has always fascinated me.
The progression you mentioned was that reserved for patrons, different from the one taken by other spectators. Can you tell us more about the route intended by the architect?
In the 19th century, patrons entered the Opera through the east wing, where the restaurant is now situated. They had direct access to the rotonde leading to the area where the Bassin de la Pythie stands beneath the grand staircase. Daytime visitors to the building take a symmetrical route, reaching the rotonde via the west wing.In this sense, visitors to the Opera experience my conception differently from spectators who enter through the main façade and climb the grand staircase to reach the auditorium. I deliberately didn’t envisage signs to guide people towards the Rotonde. Each individual will apprehend the story I have told in his/ her own way, a story intimately linked to the site and its subject.
You refer here to the fabric of illusions that constitute theatre and opera. Illusion is of course a recurrent theme in your work...
Yes, I have done considerable work on light and its metamorphoses. Here, I’ve done it starting from existing elements. It’s not a case of displaying works of art, but of highlighting an architectural allegory by seeing the Palais Garnier as a theatre set and reflecting on its scale, its artifices, all that is factitious about it ...
What devices have you used on this project?
In the Rotonde, I have added sixteen rings – in reference to those of Saturn – to the sixteen luminous globes which are now metamorphosed by a cosmic blue light. In the same perspective as this carousel of light, the Bassin de la Pythie, beneath the staircase, is surrounded by a fuchsia light diffused by the candelabras which are reflected in the mirrors. A ring of light is also reflected in the pool at the foot of the statue of Pythia. On reaching the grand staircase, the public is confronted by two immense golden tractor tyres placed high up which give the impression of being on the point of rolling. For me, these tractor wheels evoke the mechanical quality that I perceive in the architecture of the building. Their shape, colour and position in that precise area are all elements that echo the building itself, its rhythms, its functions and its grandeur. It is a place pervaded throughout by an ornateness propitious to the irruption of magic in every nook and cranny.
The Opera’s workshops were also involved. What was their role?
The output of the workshops (*) is remarkable. I had already collaborated with them during Angelin Preljocaj’s ballet Siddhârta, for which I conceived the scenography. We understand each other easily and I’ve learnt a lot from them. At the time, our exchanges allowed me to envisage the space differently and find solutions to the questions I was asking myself. Their expertise and technical skills make almost anything possible. Their work in creating the tyres was very elaborate. They produced replicas enlarged to almost two metres in diameter. Starting from a real tyre, they made a model, then a mould in order to cast two objects in resin sufficient in size to evoke the message of this architecture. The tyres were then covered in copper leaf and placed on stands specially designed to support them.
When an artist intervenes in situ as you have done, s/he has to fit into what one might imagine to be a restrictive architectural framework. What were the constraints that confronted you and how did you tackle them?
Each time I intervene on a heritage building, I consider how to avoid crushing the structure, doing too much. How to maintain a light touch and play with the site as it is. It’s a delicate exercise when one tackles sites like the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille which are known to everyone and have such a presence. But I wouldn’t say that it is restrictive. There are no constraints. The only obstacle I encountered during this project was the veto imposed by the safety team and the fire brigade on illuminating the Bassin de la Pythie in red, as I initially wanted to do. A red luminosity might have been mistaken for a fire. I had, therefore, to abandon that colour in favour of fuchsia which, I must admit, goes very well with the surroundings. We therefore gained by it.
Let’s talk about the installation at the Opéra Bastille...
It was much simpler for me to intervene at Garnier where everything is magical and evokes the art of theatre. The architecture at Bastille is more austere. At first, I considered ways of intervening on the interior, notably in the areas giving access to the auditorium, situated behind the glass façade. But I could find no satisfactory solution. I therefore opted for the exterior and chose to crown the building with a diadem, an object emblematic of the world of dance and ballet, one that I had seen in the costume and props workshops during the filming of Lac perdu. It’s a spectacular arrangement, echoing of the monumental character of the structure that bears it, extremely luminous, calculated so as to be visible everywhere. It is constructed using steel bars, in order to reflect maximum light from every side, with cabochons that look like diamonds.
By placing this structure on the exterior of the Opéra Bastille, unlike at the Palais Garnier, you intervene therefore on the building and also on the urban landscape ...
The approaches to the two buildings are different but do not oppose each other. They constitute a single project and should be considered as a whole. The architecture of the Palais Garnier was conceived to be experienced from the inside, it is a building that must be penetrated. In that sense, my intervention is coherent, it invites contemplation, creates an air of intimacy. The Opéra Bastille experience is more direct. It stands in that symbolic place, opposite the column and, from the outside, it is less of an architectural allegory than the Palais Garnier. I could therefore permit myself to adorn it with some additional magic.
(*) composite materials, sculpture and painting whorkshops