If the painting of Alan Kurdi is shocking, it’s only because the Abode of Chaos deliberately aims to serve as a dark mirror of our violent world.
Last year I wrote about my first visit to the Abode of Chaos, the controversial French open-air contemporary art museum near Lyon. This Boxing Day, after a near-week of endless parties and one delicious Christmas meal after another, we – Paul, Paul’s family and I – took the car and drove back to the village of Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or for a nice fix of art and fresh air.
Personally, I was curious to see if the dramatic and sometimes horrific events of 2015 in Europe and elsewhere had found their way into the museum’s collection of over 3000 artworks depicting, among other topics, various world tragedies. Which they had.
Immediately at the museum’s large steel gates, Paul pointed at a painting of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who made the headlines and became a symbol of the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding on Europe’s southern coasts as his drowned body washed ashore in Turkey in September 2015.
Next to the painting, a guide sign proclaiming accès interdit (“no entry”) marked the border of the exhibition while no doubt also alluding to the European border policies that make human trafficking such a profitable (and deadly) business in the first place.
If the painting of Alan Kurdi is shocking, it’s only because the Abode of Chaos deliberately aims to serve as a dark mirror of our violent world. One of the museum’s core objectives, according to its founder Thierry Ehrmann, is to offer a wide international audience means to experience familiar powerful images detached from the popular media narratives that surround them.
At this “terrifying post-apocalyptic junkyard”, as Mother Nature Network describes the Abode of Chaos, the visitor is encouraged to experience these images on a deeply personal level.
Small brother is watching you
The art on display at the Abode of Chaos roughly falls into two categories: highly esoteric paintings, sculptures and metalwork featuring skulls, alchemical symbols and obscure scriptures on one hand (read more about the museum’s esoteric nature in my previous post) and hyper-realistic, instantly recognizable works representing the darker side of humanity on the other.
The painting of Alan Kurdi clearly falls in the latter category, as do the museum’s new works meditating on the arrival of international terrorism on French soil in 2015. A particularly eye-catching piece is the large cargo container painted over with the DAESH flag – an unsettling sight in a country still struggling to make sense of two separate series of deadly attacks carried out within its borders in the course of one year.
Next to the flag is written Martin Niemöller’s famous anti-Nazi statement, “First they came for the communists…”, implying that, under the tyranny of the a few, none of us can ever be safe.
It’s not only our fear of terrorism that the museum plays on, however. Other works on site address our readiness to allow totalitarian practices to infiltrate and take root in our Western societies under the guise of war against terror. On one installation, the words liberté, égalité and fraternité have been crossed over while a tag cries “state of emergency!”.
Close by, a graffiti of Nicolas Sarkozy with the text “Small brother is watching you” evokes Orwellian visions of a surveillance state while poking fun at the politician’s famously miniature stature.
Exercises in critical thinking
For founder Ehrmann, the Abode of Chaos is a “state within a state”; a place where “people of various ethnicities and nationalities can gather round to meditate on the meaning of the images they are subjected to by the press each day of their lives”. The hyper-realistic artworks aim to present a “de-legendized history of the world”, allowing the individual to craft their own experience.
In some ways, the Abode of Chaos bears resemblance to Slovenia’s iconic Neue Slowenische Kunst and other art collectives-cum-imaginary states engaged in opening up “neutral spaces” where different social and political ideologies may be assessed critically.
Whether such neutrality can actually ever be reached is of course up for debate – isn’t art always a reflection of the artist, and denouncing all ideologies an ideology in itself? – these projects have proven to be a source of lasting fascination to the art world as well as the general public.
With over 120.000 visitors a year, it seems unlikely that the Abode of Chaos will go out of business anytime soon. I am not sure that my two visits have led to any personal epiphanies, but both times I’ve greatly enjoyed getting lost and letting time slip away at the maze-like art garden full of strange and compelling sights. Hopefully one day I will get to visit the countryhouse’s rarely-seen interiors, too.
For more information about the museum’s history and on-going legal battles, check out my previous post.
La Demeure du Chaos: Musée d’art contemporain (info booklet available on site)