La Tour Paris 13: The must-see art happening in Paris
“You can’t miss it,” I was assured. Right there, I figured, was my guarantee that I would not only miss it but also lose a couple of precious hours trying to find the
La Tour Paris 13 street-art happening. And on my last day in Paris, with
Fashion Week having just ended, I didn’t have time to waste. “It” is an apartment block in one of the biggest cities in the world, a city filled with apartment blocks. But my counsel was, indeed, correct. As I crossed the bridge over the Seine, on Boulevard de Bercy, on a cool grey morning, there it loomed: nine stories high (unremarkable), with a glaring tangerine-orange facade (truly remarkable) that stood out and was probably visible from Lyons. While a map would drily say I was going to 5 Rue Fulton 75013, I was, in fact, going to an ephemeral art exhibit that is hosting works from more than 100 of the world’s most celebrated street artists: everyone from
Liliwenn (France) and
Bom.K (France). The artists had seven months to tag all the rooms in the 30 apartments. In early November, the demolition of the building will begin.
Curious to see some of the artwork inside?
“This is the first street-art project that is truly international,” explained Mehdi Ben Cheikh, who conceived of and mounted the exhibit. “You have the cultural sensibilities of many different areas of the world being expressed at the same time. Everybody is creating their own style or doing their own thing. We are so fortunate in Paris that street artists are being brought together and giving us an opportunity for discovery.” Ben Cheikh, who runs the
Galerie Itinerrance Paris, got the idea about a year ago and began negotiating with civic leaders in the neighbourhood (the 13
th arrondissement). It took almost six months to secure the necessary permits and clearances, and, after the details were ironed out, work began last spring. The “gallery” opened in early October and is free, although access is carefully controlled. The artists come from Latin America, North Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In some respects, the most prominent artist is Tunisian-born artist
eL Seed. It is his life-sized calligraphy that you see as you approach the building. eL Seed’s other bona fides include commissions for
scarves for Louis Vuitton and 52 walls of urban art for the Prince of Qatar. "He is known throughout all the Middle East," said Ben Cheikh. "His work brings us into the 20th century. It’s not the calligraphy of the 12th century, which is what we know so well." Ben Sheikh became intrigued with
eL Seed after viewing his work in the United Arab Emirates and tracked him down in Montreal, where he is sometimes based. He commissioned a mural on a wall in another Paris neighbourhood and watched as the artist created more buzz with calligraphy on minarets in his native Tunisia. “It’s a new Arab style,” explained Ben Sheikh. “There is not really language in his calligraphy, because all of the letters are entwined. But El Seed always starts from a poem. Even the calligraphy on the outside of the building was inspired by one of Baudelaire’s poems, in which he talks about how ‘cities evolve faster than man’s heart.’" Patrons, artists and Ben Sheikh are passionate about this exhibit, in part because they know that it is fleeting. Come November, the slow process of demolition will begin. It won’t be an implosion but a gradual dissembling, all filmed by Thomas Lallier. Work will be done from the outside in, with Lallier’s cameras eventually placed inside to record the demolition.
Will it be difficult to see the art destroyed?" I asked. “I have no material attachment to any of this art,” replied Ben Sheikh. “It is something that exists. I appreciate all the energy that is involved in creating it. And this has been a fabulous experience. Here were artists I knew, but many I did not know. Now that I have met them and discovered their work, believe me, I will follow up with some of them for my gallery."
I looked out one of the windows and noticed that a lineup had begun to snake around the corner and down the street. There were at least 200 people, and it was only noon. It has become one of the "in-the-know" art exhibits to see, but for Ben Sheikh it’s more than that. "I felt I had this responsibility to go outside the four walls of my gallery," he told me. "I had to work in the community, and this is my community. It is a very direct way of speaking with people."
Here are a few more photos I took of my favourite rooms: