When I first heard that an all-digital art museum and cultural space called the Atelier des Lumières would be opening its doors in Paris sometime in 2018, I was more than a little skeptical. As a scholar of contemporary literature, I’ve been interested in digital books and artistic forms for quite some time, tracking how these experiments can potentially reshape our reading practices (and our perception of the world, more generally).
But I’ve too often found existing attempts at digital experimentation in art and literature to be– for lack of a polite way of putting it– more gimmicky than compelling. There are, of course, some notable exceptions: Shirley Jackson’s hypertext novel Patchwork Girl is one ; William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh’s collaborative digital and print hybrid, Agrippa: A Book of the Dead, is another. But these were both published in the late ’80s and early 1990s– hardly evidence of a new burst of artistic vibrancy in the digital realm.
And on the whole, the prediction that digital books (or art) would lead to the end of their traditional print counterparts has simply not come to pass. Why? I believe it’s partly because people crave tactile experiences. The textures, colors and even smells of print forms continue to mesmerize us– perhaps even more so in a world where the digital is so pervasive.
This may help explain, for example, why there’s been a resurgence of popular interest in illuminated medieval manuscripts. In a world where so many of us are addicted to our smartphones, unplugging doesn’t generally mean engaging with more digital stuff. Or does it?
Enter the Atelier des Lumières: From Iron Foundry to Exhibition Hall
My skepticism ended as soon as I set foot inside the Atelier, a new cultural center situated in a reconverted iron foundry dating to the early 19th century. After closing in the 1920s and falling into disuse for decades, the foundry attracted the interest of Culturespaces, an arts foundation that had already launched a successful digital arts center in the southern French city of Baux-de-Provence.
After four years of intensive renovations, the foundry re-opened in a new incarnation, launching three simultaneous opening shows in the spring of 2018.
A Hypnotic (& Remarkably Sensual) Immersive Experience
Video: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved.
Their inaugural, immersive exhibit on Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and the history of the Vienna Secession movement in the arts has attracted continuous hordes of visitors. I reserved in advance online, which turned out to be a smart move, given the long lines snaking around the center and down the block.
Created by artists Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto and Massimiliano Siccardi, with original music from Luca Longobardi, the “multisensory” digital exhibit plunges you into a world that feels surprisingly rich and almost touchable, even though it’s purely ephemeral.
Read related: The 7 Best Small Museums & Collections in Paris
Less an “exhibit” in the traditional sense than a projection-based multimedia performance that you take in as you would a play or a short film, the show marks the 100th anniversary of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele’s death in 1918. Rather than wandering around the gallery during the hypnotic, immersive show, I and a friend took a seat on the ground, and simply watched the story of the Austrian avant-garde unfold in mesmerizing real time.
The vast hall was transformed into a surreal world of rich color, light and music that’s remarkably sensual. It marked a stunning transition from the classical period in Austrian and European art to the Secession movement, which reverently incorporated many aspects of classical art and mythology into a bold modern aesthetic and perspective.
From the hypnotic golds and blues of Klimt’s nudes and enigmatic friezes, to the slightly disturbing yet fascinating contorted figures of Schiele and the intensely bright, dream-like landscapes of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a singular artistic moment unfolds before your eyes.
The show almost seems– improbably and magically– to summon the movement’s conception into our present moment. There’s an immediacy and richness to it that’s both striking and surprising, accustomed as we are to moving images.
Unlike some of the first film audiences, who according to dubious legend jumped away in fear and delight at the projected image of a moving train on the screen, we live in a world where 3D movies and IMAX theatres have rendered digital images perfectly banal. Yet this exhibit is different from those mediums. It seems to belong to a new artistic genre.
In short, it’s an astonishing success. One that’s changing perceptions of the possibilities that lie in digital art. While some might complain that it’s derivative, in that it’s a work of art that borrows so heavily from past artists, I’d point to the way the show itself heavily underlines the presence of classical artistic tropes and literary myths in Klimt, Schiele and others. There is no art without predecessors.
How Long is the Show?
It takes about 30 minutes to see the whole “cycle” for the main, long version of the show– but you can theoretically stay as long as you like. Keep in mind, however, that people waiting outside are only allowed in once space is sufficient inside, so it’s probably considerate not to linger for more than two cycles.
When: Through January 9th, 2019 (the date has been extended from November following popular demand)
Other current exhibits at the Atelier:
In addition to the main inaugural show, there’s currently a shorter show dedicated to Hundertwasser (who died in the year 2000), one of Austria’s most beloved 20th-century artists and a major “Secession-successor”. I bet you can’t say that 10 times without getting your tongue in knots.
Another gallery at the center is showing “Colour X Colours”, a contemporary digital creation from the artists Thomas Blanchard et Oilhack.
For an updated list of shows at the Atelier beyond January 2019, see this page.
The Atelier des Lumières: Practical Information and Getting There
The museum is located in northeast Paris, with easy access via metro or bus.
Address: 38 Rue Saint Maur, 75011 (11th arrondissement)
Metro: St. Maur (Line 3) or Père Lachaise (Line 2, 3, 11)
Open: Monday to Thursday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm; Friday and Saturday until 10 pm and Sunday until 7:00 pm. Please note that the ticket office closes at 4:00 pm Monday to Friday; on weekends, tickets can only be purchased online (visit the link below)
Inaugural exhibits: Through 6 January 2019
Accessibility: This museum is accessible to visitors with wheelchairs
Shopping onsite: There is an onsite giftshop and bookstore