Tadashi Kawamata

Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtriére

The twelve monumental apostles lining the transepts of the seventeenth-century chapel at La Salpêtriére Hospital have entered into an unlikely aesthetic communion with numerous works of contemporary art, from Christian Boltanski’s latter-day votive altars and Rebecca Horn’s self-playing musical instruments to Mario Merz’s igloos and a Bill Viola video triptych. Every year, the august sculptures—like the various altar paintings, religious statues, and other incitements to piety distributed throughout this imposing sanctuary—become setting and foil for a site-specific intervention commissioned as part of the omnibus cultural event known as the Autumn Festival. These close encounters are not limited to the works of art: alongside the thousands of visitors the event attracts, the chapel’s regular “public”—the faithful—continue to pray, light candles, and attend mass, just as hospital personnel continue to cut through the building on their way from one sector of the vast medical complex to another.

In hindsight, the idea of inviting Tadashi Kawamata to La Salpêtriére last autumn was less a stroke of genius than a display of common sense. For nearly twenty years, this Japanese-born, world-based architect of the imagination has been building elaborate social spaces and mental bridges out of scrap wood and local history. What better place, then, for a Kawamata construction project than a public hospital that was founded by Louis XIV on the former site of a gunpowder factory (salpétriêre in French) in order to rid the capital of beggars, and that subsequently specialized in the detention of female prostitutes and criminals and—Freud was to visit the renowned neurologist Charcot there in 1885—the treatment of mental disorders? What better scrap wood to recycle than the old chairs, prie-dieux, and other liturgical furniture from the chapel itself? And what better direction to build, under the magnificent lantern dome, than up? Predictably, though, Kawamata’s intervention was anything but predictable. What appeared, from any of the chapel’s three entrances, to be a Breughel-like Tower of Babel rising in the crossing was in fact a spiraling structure of some 4,000 recycled chairs meticulously layered into a latticework of legs and seats and backs.

But this uncanny edifice, buttressed with a motley assemblage of benches and bureaus that trailed off into a haphazard, chair-lined walkway in each transept, was not simply a feat of mental gymnastics and structural engineering. Like a number of Kawamata projects of the ’90s, from his Columbus, Ohio, Sidewalk, 1990, and Prato Passagio, 1993, to the 1996 Working Progress walkway in Alkmaar, the Netherlands, and Boat Traveling for the most recent Münster Sculpture show, La Salpêtriére’s tower functioned as a kind of temporary passageway that reconfigured space and time in the chapel, as well as relations among the people passing by and through it. Its very presence served to jolt the eye into really looking at the chapel’s architecture, the dome’s volume, the play of the light streaming down from the lantern. As for the structure itself, the impossibility of seeing it all from a single viewpoint (as any photograph of it makes clear) automatically drew visitors into a circuit of exploration—around the outside, through the inside, back and forth along the wings. And close up, of course, there were the chairs, their time-worn seats and dusty patinas marking the site’s long and ongoing history.

For Kawamata, who prefers to think of himself as an activist rather than an artist, this latest passageway was meant above all to create a space where patients and medical personnel might come together outside the hospital setting. But in practice it was to become a magnet for every imaginable public, from mothers wheeling their offspring through in strollers to senior citizens gathered inside to chat, not to mention art and architecture students on assignment, and the occasional amateur guitarist offering a Sunday serenade. Like any Tower of Babel worthy of the name.

Miriam Rosen