The Bastille Art Centre in Grenoble is a place with somewhat paradoxical visibility.
Perched atop the Fort de la Bastille, an emblematic tourist spot in the city, it is accessed via the “Bulles de Grenoble”, an urban cable car in operation since 1934. The site enjoys heavy foot traffic: around 350,000 visitors per year, 15,000 to 18,000 of whom also take a peek at the exhibition space. These visitor metrics are not inconsiderable for a contemporary art centre, but nevertheless only represent a tiny fraction – about five percent – of the people coming to appreciate the panoramic view over the city.
Located in a cul-de-sac behind the cable-car station, the art centre is not all that easy to find. Owing to the heritage status of the fort, the negotiations to install visible signage to guide visitors took several years to eventuate. Its accessibility is complicated by the pricing policy of the cable car and inclement weather, but also a lack of funding for communication and mediation.
On the other hand, owing to the very photogenic nature of the site, the exhibition photographs from the Bastille Art Centre are widely circulated via the portfolios of the artists who have exhibited there, thus earning the centre national and international renown.
The result is increased visibility, yet also confidentiality. Having recently moved to the region, I visited the art centre for the first time to write this article, although I had already “seen” a lot of the exhibitions through their photographic documentation.
The site is a wonderful setting for a number of reasons.
Comprising four vaulted rooms arranged in cascade over three successive levels, the first contains two bay windows opening onto a view of Grenoble. The architecture in dressed stone is that of a defensive fort: the thick walls provide protection, while the openings afford views – designed for surveillance and taking aim. Today, they symbolically draw the city into the art centre. So its architecture perfectly echoes its paradoxical visibility, a metaphor for contemporary art itself: whereas the centre faces the city and encompasses its presence, it remains quite invisible from the outside, also due to its complicated access.
The history of the art centre, which celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2021, nevertheless began in the heart of Grenoble. The association Lieu d’images et d’art was created in 2004, following the closure of the contemporary art gallery La Nouvelle Galerie. In search of new premises, the association eventually moved into one of the spaces of the military fort, which was being renovated at that time. It adopted the structure of an art centre in 2005, opening its doors to the public in 2006.
Since the arrival of Emilie Baldinin as the art centre’s director in 2015, the focus has been on monographic exhibitions and in-situ productions. An unsurprising choice, given the extent to which the site requires some thought be applied to the dialogue between the architecture and the artworks on display there. For the guest artists, it is an exercise that is both exciting and complex, and that is also a matter of perspective.
Some, like Martin Belou, chose to play with the plunging view, as seen from the railings. He extended the cascade architecture by creating a closed water circuit that wound between the floors, through a series of patinated gourds, placed on tables made out of the offcuts of Vincent Mauger’s installation. The latter had opted to restrict gazes and partition off spaces. He broke up the existing architecture through the construction of an inclined floor to accommodate a sculpted breezeblock landscape. Other artists, like the Nøne Futbol Club, placed their works so that they were oriented towards the city, facing the large bay window. Conversely, Thomas Teurlai decided to obstruct the windows to accentuate the subterranean atmosphere of the vaults, hosting a collection of graffiti sampled from their original walls and stored, like archaeological artefacts, in a museum storeroom-style display.
The works and their exhibition context thus play at mutually showcasing, parasiting, or counterbalancing one another. Martin Belou, whose exhibition I was able to visit, deliberately explored the possibilities of interaction, or even contamination, between the architecture and the artworks: several gourd compositions were positioned in such a way as to echo the mould developing along the many infiltrations of the walls, threatened by its invasion. The artist even asked Christophe Levet, the exhibition photographer, to include the details of these plant and mineral compositions in the documentation of his installation. So once again there was a question of point of view and framing, a choice of openness and exposure, at the expense of the protection the fort initially provided.