Purple Magazine
— The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

the pinault collection/martin bethenod

martin bethenod

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by JONAS UNGER

the pinault art collection, based
in venice, will soon open a new
space right in the heart of paris:
the bourse de commerce, redesigned
by japan’s superstar architect tadao ando

OLIVIER ZAHM — As someone who’s never stopped running away from Paris, I’m amazed by the new energy here. You know, lots of people of our generation abandoned Paris because of a certain heaviness, a kind of staidness.
MARTIN BETHENOD — We all experienced that. The exciting things were in London, in New York, in Berlin. That’s still true today, but Paris has really found its place. It’s not that Paris is waking up, but Paris is finding its true level.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I knew you at the Centre Pompidou, then at Vogue, at the Ministry of Culture as delegate for visual arts, and at the FIAC [International Contemporary Art Fair], working with Jennifer Flay for six years.
MARTIN BETHENOD — In 2010, I already had five editions of the FIAC behind me, when along came that fantastic offer from François Pinault. He was looking for someone to direct the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, which had just opened. This, I thought to myself, was an incredible adventure: Venice, the places, the collection. But what really made up my mind was when I met the man himself. That was nearly nine years ago now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You live between Paris and Venice. You are one of the people contributing to the resurgence of Paris, a scene that has often been seen as too institutional. What is your take on that?
MARTIN BETHENOD — The world of contemporary art is an ecosystem that works well only when there is a balance between dimensions: the institutional and the private; the commercial and the noncommercial; the intellectual and what one could call the entertainment dimension. For a very long time — since the Ancien Régime, in fact, which just shows how deep this runs in our cultural history — the French art world has relied mainly on the public authorities. What has been happening over the past 10 years or so is not a boom of the private sector, but it’s more a re-adjustment. A large number of players, following very different logics, have positioned themselves or consolidated. They include institutional initiatives, the Fondation Cartier, Lafayette Anticipations, the Pinault Collection, the emergence of influential galleries, and the FIAC, which has become a major player… Today, Paris has repositioned itself as a desirable city. It doesn’t play on the register of total glamour, total trendiness, or novelty for novelty’s sake. It has managed to combine the undeniable global dynamic of the contemporary art market with a deeper kind of relation to art that is more democratic, more historic, more intellectual.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Paris saw itself as the center of thinking about art, when in fact the United States overtook French universities back in the 1990s.
MARTIN BETHENOD — That’s no longer the case. There’s a real international dimension to the intellectual presence in Paris. This has always existed, but it has grown, and nowadays the way movements of thinkers and critics come to Paris is more natural, more fluid than 10 or 15 years back. That’s because French intellectuals and professionals are themselves more mobile than before. They’re no longer so tied to the comfort of the institution or hung up about using English.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Paris has lost its superiority complex — is that it?
MARTIN BETHENOD — Exactly. Paris has also understood that relations with other cultural scenes are not necessarily a matter of centralization, verticality, and domination. We have understood that we can work as well with Los Angeles as we do with Zurich and Dijon, or Venice, that Paris is not the capital of everything but can work in a more horizontal way with other cities. This changed mindset has boosted the attractiveness of France’s institutional fabric — the FRACs [regional collections of contemporary art], art centers, schools, etc. — which allows young professionals to continue writing or organizing exhibitions without being completely dependent on the market.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Pinault Collection is in Paris — does that mean the end of Venice?
MARTIN BETHENOD — Absolutely not! We are creating a synergy between the two spaces in Venice and the one in Paris. Paris is opening, but that doesn’t mean things are slowing down in Venice. Paris is not replacing Venice. One is taking its place in a network where the other has already existed for a long time and that, who knows, other cities may join one day.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it you who found the place, or did Paris city hall present it to you?
MARTIN BETHENOD — François Pinault had been approached many times in Paris, in France, in the United States, and in Asia. Not a month went by without someone inviting him to visit a place that he could transform into a contemporary art space. When he opened the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2006, one of the first things he said was, “The story doesn’t stop in Venice!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s not Death in Venice.
MARTIN BETHENOD — Quite the contrary! The propositions were carefully tailored, but they never worked out. Until the one from the Bourse de Commerce [commodities market], which was the right one — because it is an outstanding place, but also because the proposal came at the right moment. The conception phase, piloted by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, began in 2016, a few months after the terrorist attacks of 2015. François Pinault wanted to send a positive signal to Paris, and this chimed with the determination of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. The building belongs to the city, and the Pinault Collection is renting it for 50 years and is taking charge of all the work, the preservation, restoration, and transformation, which are so planned as to be reversible. And, of course, it is financing the running of the site.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s fascinating that the collection is coming to Paris. For a long time, it was a polemical subject because the Île Seguin [an island near Paris, once the planned site of the Pinault Collection] project fell through. Then the collection left for Venice, which was seen as a sign of Parisian failure. We all regretted this back then. At the same time, the two places in Venice are great and now very much part of the city’s identity. And today, the collection is returning to Paris, with this Paris–Venice link. In fact, the link between Paris and Venice is a literary and artistic axis that has existed since the 17th and 18th centuries.
MARTIN BETHENOD — There is in France and in Paris a tremendous fascination with Venice. Venice is also a global hub. That is the paradox of a city that is quite small (in historic Venice, there are barely 50,000 inhabitants) but that, at the same time, is a place of crossover, exchange, visibility, and encounter for contemporary art unlike any other place in the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the importance of the actual places that you choose?
MARTIN BETHENOD — The relation to the place was essential in the project for each of the Pinault Collection museums, both in Venice and in Paris. The collection — and contemporary art in general — is conceived in dialogue with a context, with a pre-existing identity: the historical reality of the buildings and the history of the city, which we want both to respect and to reinvigorate. This is not the logic of branding — what we are really doing is fitting into the existing identity of a place that is being given back to the public. The Punta della Dogana is still called the Punta della Dogana. The Bourse de Commerce will still be called the Bourse de Commerce. From an architectural viewpoint, too, that is exactly how things are working. For the Punta della Dogana, for example, the project by Tadao Ando began with restoring each brick and each beam in order to get back to the original state. In the middle of all that, he placed a concrete cube. It’s important to understand that Tadao Ando’s architecture is more than just that gesture. Yes, it is the cube, but it’s also the dialogue between the cube and the building restored to its original historical state. At the Bourse de Commerce, it’s the same thing. The project is rooted in the perfect restoration of the building from 1889, with the original decor, the materials of the day. Inside this rediscovered building, and in dialogue with it, Tadao Ando has inscribed a contemporary abstract object in concrete — this time, a cylinder.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The cylinder serves as an exhibition space, and on it there is a staircase where you can walk up to the top and look down on the exhibition, with the glass roof and the painted panorama.
MARTIN BETHENOD — And this walkway also provides access to the exhibition spaces that are in the galleries all around. So, on the ground floor you have a big rotunda, about 600 square meters and nine meters high. It’s a bit like a public square, but covered. And there’s that big concrete curve with large doorways opened in it, which shapes the space dedicated to contemplation and protects the works and gives them a scale, insulating them from the technical functions and the hubbub.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t the curve a bit difficult for artists?
MARTIN BETHENOD — Think of other curved spaces, like at the Guggenheim, the Hirshhorn Museum, the ARC — which you knew well at Paris’s Modern Art Museum — or the Palais de Tokyo. It’s true, such spaces are more demanding, but they also make it possible to escape the fatality of standardization, the ideology of the white cube. Yes, it’s more difficult to hang works, especially here because of the very large number of windows — there are more than 200 of them in the Bourse de Commerce! — but when it works, it’s unforgettable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the history of this building, which Parisians don’t actually know very well?
MARTIN BETHENOD — The building is a rather extraordinary palimpsest. It has pretty much changed its role with each century. In the Renaissance, this was the palace that Catherine de’ Medici built for herself, with a column here for observing the stars. The palace was destroyed in the 18th century, but the tower, the Colonne Médicis, survived because a group of intellectuals campaigned for it to be preserved — and this was the first time that happened in French history. So, in a way, it is the place where the notion of protecting heritage came into being in the public space. After that, it became the Halle aux Blés de Paris, the corn exchange where grain was stored to guard against the famines that threatened the monarchy. It was a big, circular building. Its form had a function: it meant that carts could go in and out on every side. This was also the 18th century, a time of round, utopian structures, by [Claude-Nicolas] Ledoux and [Étienne-Louis] Boullée. It has a cosmic, mystic side to it that you get in all round buildings, starting with the Pantheon in Rome. Then, in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution came along. With the railways, it became easier to transport large quantities of wheat. This is also when Les Halles became the gigantic market that fed the whole of Paris. The role of the Halle aux Blés began to decline. Then, in 1889 —  the centenary of the French revolution, the year of the Exposition Universelle and the construction of the Eiffel Tower — it was decided to transform the building into a commodities exchange — a place where prices were set and derivatives traded. It’s where people speculated on the prices of wheat, sugar, oil, coffee…

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the end, this building, like the Punta della Dogana in Venice, is a historic landmark, attesting to the progress of capitalism and international trade across the planet. That is also what its gigantic painting celebrates. Doesn’t that bother you — this commercial and colonial background?
MARTIN BETHENOD — That big mounted canvas talks about the 19th century, about France, about the globalization of exchanges and colonial empires. It’s composed of five scenes painted by five different painters, with one scene per continent. It is a given, part of the building, of its historical and cultural context — we’re not going to deny it. The architecture institutes a critical dialogue between this context and contemporary art, and with today’s problems.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can’t get more central than the Bourse de Commerce. It really is the circular center of Paris.
MARTIN BETHENOD — It was said that Les Halles was the belly of Paris. The Bourse de Commerce is the navel, the umbilicus. But this centrality is not an end in itself. What matters is how the collection fits into the heart of the city and all the different exchanges that take place there. Beyond the art-going public, how do we build relations with our environment — cultural, social, Parisian, and suburban? This is a very important question.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a long way from the gigantism of the original project on the Île Seguin.
MARTIN BETHENOD — The Palazzo Grassi has 2,000 square meters of exhibition space, and the Punta della Dogana, 2,500 square meters. Here, in Paris, we have 3,000 square meters. That’s the equivalent of about a floor at the Pompidou Center. The current period, it seems to me, prefers places on a human scale that resist the injunction of the spectacular and the monumental, that don’t turn the relation between architecture and artworks into a matter of domination or competition, and that offer the visitor a more amicable form of hospitality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — One last word, about Tadao Ando. This is also a homage to concrete, which is treated as a sensuous material — in contrast with Parisian stone and the metal of the Industrial Revolution, maybe? That is an extra factor, isn’t it?
MARTIN BETHENOD — Yes, exactly. Ando is the architect of concrete, the poet of concrete. He didn’t go to architecture school — he’s self-taught. He has even been a boxer. He explains that, for a Japanese person, it’s not at all easy to understand the Western notion of Paris. This really hit him on his first trip to Europe, when he saw the Pantheon in Rome and [Giovanni Battista] Piranesi’s Prisons prints, which he talks about in his texts of the 1980s. So, when we invited him to the Bourse de Commerce, and he saw the circular building topped by a dome with an oculus, with stairs, that immediately took him back to the elements of vocabulary that had been such a revelation when he first discovered European architectural space.



[Table of contents]

The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

Table of contents

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