Since the late 19th-century when Impressionists, most notably Vincent van Gogh, flocked there, Arles has long fascinated artists and the art world by extension. More recently, cultural spaces have begun to open in this southeastern French city, starting with the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles in 2010 and more recently collector Maja Hoffmann’s Frank Gehry–designed LUMA Arles, which opened last summer.
And now there is the Lee Ufan Arles, a new cultural venue by the acclaimed Korean artist, Lee Ufan, that opened its doors on April 15 at the heart of the Roman city. (The new venue is an extension of the New York–based Lee Ufan Foundation.) The path to complete this project has not been an easy one for Lee, who had to create an endowment fund that was supported by his friends: Michel Enrici, the former director of the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, as well as his publishers at the Arles-based Actes Sud, Jean-Paul Capitani and Françoise Nyssen.
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A lion share of the fund went toward investing in the space’s new home. Situated in the Hôtel Vernon, a 16th-century private mansion that was once the home of the Dervieux family, a long line of antique dealers, the building has, of course, been retrofitted under the aegis of Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando, Lee’s go-to architect. “Ando’s inspiration and mine resonate,” the artist said in a recent interview conducted in French. The architect behind mega-collector François Pinault’s recently opened Parisian private museum Bourse de Commerce, Ando is also responsible for the Lee Ufan Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima (2010) and the Space Lee Ufan at the Busan Museum of Art (2015) in South Korea.
A leading proponent of the 1960s Japanese Mono-ha movement, which explored the properties of industrial and natural materials, Lee is best-known for confronting steel plates, rubber sheets, and glass panes with stone, wood, or water even, in their physical forms to create effortlessly poetic sculptures, many of which are central to the new Arles space.
It is not so surprising that, after leaving his mark on Asia, Lee would relocate part of his New York foundation to France. The 86-year-old artist, who is represented by French gallerist Kamel Mennour, among others, has been exhibited all around France for years, and he maintains a studio in Paris’s Montmartre district, where van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Picasso all lived at some point before him.
The real question is why Arles? This is where his 2013 show “Dissonance,” which led to the publication by Actes Sud of his first monograph in French, took place, before showings at the Château de Versailles (2014) and the Centre Pompidou Metz (2019) made him a big hit throughout France. “I am especially charmed by the city’s perfume where time fades away amidst the treasures of Roman culture,“ he said.
The artist was also recently asked to partake in the celebrations of Arles’ 40 years as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Running through September, the resulting outdoor display features 13 works scattered across the 4th-century Alyscamps necropolis, a site imbued with spirituality. “Since we are in Arles, I tried to express a dimension that transcends space-time,” he said.
At Lee Ufan Arles, the four-story, 14,500-square-feet hôtel particulier consists of nearly 25 rooms, the very first being a luminous shop and ticket office rolled in one, followed by an elegant library, which may be turned into a tearoom in the future, both courtesy of award-winning French designer Constance Guisset.
In the first gallery, which once likely served as the guest entrance for the Dervieux family, stands at the center a monumental concrete cylinder that is a narrow snail-shaped labyrinth meant to be entered. Inside lies a floor projection of white clouds slowly moving through the air. “Like van Gogh before him, Lee Ufan was very much inspired by the Arlesian sky,” said Jean-Marie Gallais, curator of the 2019 Lee Ufan show at the Centre Pompidou Metz, who has also written wall text for the Arles space.
Lee confirmed, “The moments of my morning walks gazing at the sky along the quays of the Rhone make me feel happy.” He’s titled this brand new work, an architectural collaboration with Ando, Ciel sous terre (Sky under earth).
As with previous projects, Lee has paid special attention to site-specific installations throughout the mansion’s grounds. Chemin vers Arles (Road to Arles) beautifully presents a curved mirror slab set upon the gravel. Just as the mirror begins its curve upward to the ceiling, Lee has place between two large boulders. And older pieces have been reactivated, too. The Stage (originally conceived in late ’60s), in the second gallery, is a case in point. Visitors are once again invited to step into a circle of light shielded by a large steel wall next to a massive rock.
A little further are two examples from Lee’s “Relatum” series (Relatum 1969/2022 and Relatum – Gravité), which synthesize the artist’s earliest experiments with Mono-ha. Between these two works is a Roman bust discovered in the early stage of construction, about 2.5 feet underground, exactly where Lee had already planned to install Ciel sous terre. “It is ironic, when you think about it, that the only place that needed to be dug would display a video representation of the sky”, Gallais, the curator, said. Now a long-term loan from the Musée de l’Arles antique, the relic has its own window case in the middle of a short hallway leading to an ascending staircase, which Lee had painted in white, and a new elevator.
Going down to the space’s lower level, which is accessible only by appointment, are not one, but three site-specific creations. Two works from the “Dialogue” series, swaths of gradations of colors—one in oranges, another in blues—coming from exceptionally broad brushstrokes, have been painted on the floor. Lee compares them to “archeological findings” for the public to chance upon. The orange-dominated one is perpendicular; the blue-heaven one is parallel to a white wall where the artist has handwritten a poem called “The Bottom”: “At the bottom of Arles there is a story, / at the bottom of this story there is an image, / and at the bottom of this image there is the unknown.”
Back above ground, the approach on the second floor (the first floor according to the French system) is mainly chronological, starting with his 1970s series “From Line,” with stripes painted in one gesture until the exhaustion of paint, to the 2000s “Dialogues” series, the latest pieces of which include wavy lines that convey deeper vibrations. The display includes drawings from the 1980s, some surprisingly less minimalist than others.
One level up is a forthcoming “hybrid” multipurpose space, for meetings, conferences, receptions, and concerts, as well as exhibitions of artists who are not Lee Ufan. (He would like to include works from his personal collection in the permanent display, “but nothing has been considered in detail yet,” he said.)
This area is the only place in the building where the original moldings and authentic chimneys have been kept visible, as if to make people feel more at home. As a matter of fact, the artist said he sees the Lee Ufan Arles as a “place to live” rather than an exhibition hall, adding that “understanding the intelligence or the meaning of this space is not required to share the breath and sensations that life provides us while strolling among the paintings and sculptures.”