The great Korean artist, Lee Ufan, who already has his museum in Japan and a space in Busan, his hometown, has just inaugurated an exhibition center in Arles. In a refined space dating from the 18th century, in which it reveals itself in silence.
Discreetly engraved on the side of the porch of the Hôtel Vernon, an 18th century private mansion a stone’s throw from the Arles arenas, a sober inscription reads: “Lee Ufan Arles”. It is neither a museum nor a foundation. The Korean artist, born in 1936, has already created the Lee Ufan Museum in Naoshima, Japan, in 2010 and the Espace Lee Ufan in Busan, Korea, in 2015. For Arles, he prefers to speak of a “place exhibition” allowing to show since April 15, 2022 his works, a dozen sculptures, twenty large paintings and several drawings.
When asked about the ties that unite him to the city of Arles, Lee Ufan replied that he had known the city for twenty years. Jean-Marie Gallais, curator of the Lee Ufan exhibition at the Center Pompidou-Metz in 2019, specifies: ” Since the 1970s, Lee Ufan has forged very close ties with France. Today, his work is really built around three cultures, three histories and geographies: that of Korea where he was born, that of Japan where he was trained, and that of France where he lives and works a part of the year since the mid-1990s. It is by linking these three cultures that he questions the idea of civilization with his art. An art that questions space, emptiness, time and the meaning of life. Later, other artists related to his work or his philosophy will be his guests.
In addition to the permanent exhibition rooms winding on three levels around an interior courtyard, there are reception areas, a bookstore, a space reserved for temporary exhibitions, a mediation and reception area and a restaurant. For now, the building has been carefully restored as if it were a heritage renovation, then redesigned with the help of Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The old walls have been cleaned, the frames and all the electrical systems taken over, the wooden ceilings have found a unified color of a reddish brown, except for those which still had their original decorations. To allow better visual coherence, many windows have been obstructed, white partitions have masked a few marble fireplaces and, on the floor, the red ocher floor tiles have been recreated by returning to their original hexagon.
On the ground floor, gorges placed at the foot of the white walls and filled with pebbles recall the proposals of the architect Roland Simounet for the Picasso-Paris museum at the Hôtel Salé. They serve as insulation to prevent the rise of saltpeter in these dimly lit rooms and transform the floor into a neutral platform for his sculptures without plinths. In the Grand Siècle staircase, the beautiful ironwork has been repainted in white so as not to divert the gaze of visitors from the beauty of the volumes and to attract them to the top where an elegant chandelier by Constance Guisset, who also signed the layout, turns. of reception.
A spiral path
On the first floor, the picture rails of immaculate whiteness seem to conform to a mysterious golden number as they play on balance, symmetry and correspondences. Without imposing anything, Lee Ufan proposes here a spiral course in this beautiful residence whose volumes grow little by little up to the second floor. A journey from bottom to top. From the cellar, which houses a work completed this spring, to the last level, receptacle of the private collection of the Korean artist. So much for the closed and the covered of this historic place now oscillating between a restored monument and a white box, the white cube of contemporary museums.
From the entrance, the modest Lee Ufan wanted to highlight a work by Tadao Ando: a snail-shaped construction, in flexible and shiny concrete, which ends in a skylight bringing the sky back to the center of the building. . It is in these places that a head of the Nîmes emperor Antonin the Pious was found during the restoration of the building. It is now sheltered nearby, in an elegant niche, which recalls the august past of Arles. The entire ground floor is home to sculptures in stone, glass, wood and metal by Lee Ufan, named relationship by the artist to seriously underline their link, their relationship with the site.
Like these monumental sculptures which each occupy a room (rarely there are several works per room), the paintings invade with their strong presence each wall of the rooms on the first floor. Even if he speaks little, Lee Ufan explains that he wants to be ” in relation to the greater part of the world through a minimal but intense intervention… The created object expands and opens up the surrounding space “.