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If walls could talk

(Published on 2 December 2014)

I visited an extraordinary building in Paris recently where someone had taken the unusual step of asking its construction workers what they thought and did while assembling the plate glass and acrobatic steel armatures.

It was the swanky Louis Vuitton Foundation’s glass ship museum, which President François Hollande called “a miracle of intelligence, creativity and technology,” during its official opening late October. A miracle Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry performed — with the small matter of $135 million.

American artist Taryn Simon interviewed carpenters, engineers, electricians, plasterers, security guards and others on-site who left their mark, often permanently, behind chalky-white walls, ceramic tiles or entombed in cement during its five-year construction.

Those who obliged, albeit anonymously, offered a captivating snapshot not only into their personal lives — their hopes, fears, rituals and curious habits — but also into the social, political and economic issues affecting the workforce employed to create this new Parisian showpiece, the epitome of affluence and privilege.

Naming her works “A Polite Fiction”, Simon casts a spotlight on voices that are silenced and preserved, simultaneously.

I stumbled across her exhibit on the lower floor, just after a tour of ten other, shall we say, more esoteric contemporary works such as Cerith Wyn Evans’ suspended glass pipes emitting notes that spoke of the building’s “resonance”. Or, Pierre Huyghe’s film of his Antarctic trip to produce a musical score later performed by a symphonic orchestra in an ice rink in Central Park, New York…


Swanky Louis Vuitton Foundation’s glass ship museum opened late October. Its glass panels, shaped by acrobatic armatures of steel and wood to look like billowing sails, are surrounded by cascades of water and reflection pools. — Picture by Helen Hickey

Photos were displayed to show where occurrences took place, or the precise location of items later concealed by plaster and paint. Such as a newspaper article from 2013 detailing the murder of three Kurdish political activists in Paris, placed in the ceiling of an executive office. Objects left by workers were also on display.

I was tickled by certain comments, and shocked by others. Here’s a selection:

Black ink on drywall: “… wrote his name to commemorate his last job site in France before moving to Mexico with his wife. He had decided to leave France because it is so expensive.” From: Viana do Castelo, Portugal. Resides: Mexico

Makeshift prayer room: “ …performed Islamic prayers daily at the entrance to the construction camp. He regrets leaving his country.” From: Algiers, Algeria. Resides: Bondy, France

Sexual harassment site: “… was sexually harassed four times while walking from the construction site to her car. The incidents included a man pressing his erect p…. against her passenger-side window; a man flashing her; and two men asking her how much she costs. The construction site was next to a known site of prostitution.” From: Paris, France.

Caressed wood: “… had what he described as a carnal relationship with the museum. He would compulsively stroke materials he found pleasing.” From & Resides: France

Hidden under concrete: “… hid half an ecstasy pill and three joints in a secret opening that another worker accidentally filled with concrete…he liked to smoke marijuana while on night shifts.” Resides: France.

Plastic bottle (50 cl) of urine hidden behind ceramic: “…had a habit of urinating in bottles and hiding them behind walls in the museum to avoid wasting time walking to and from the construction camp.” From: Oujda, Morocco Resides: Élancourt, France

Graphite drawing of a man in a trench coat flashing his p….: “…said he was teasing the security cameras.” From: Strasbourg, France. Resides: Paris, France

Graphite on drywall: “… drew over 100 goats on the construction site. He longed for his goats on his parents’ farm in Portugal. From: Vila Real, Portugal. Resides: Nanterre, France


Tantalising views can be seen of the romantic Jardin d’Acclimatation, mirrored skyscrapers of the financial district La Defence, thick forest treetops and a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

Suicide site: “Every morning for three years…said a hello to a homeless man at the construction site’s entrance. One morning he arrived to find the man had hung himself from a fence with an electrical cable…looked at the fence every morning from then on in remembrance.” From: Paris, France.

Simon’s collection also investigates the disappearance of items from the construction site: copper and aluminum cables sold to scrap dealers, cement used by a father to build the walls of his daughter’s bedroom and an oak sapling that a worker took to Poland, planted and named after this boss.

The art installation itself is like a dedication plaque to these invisible workers, whose toil and tears would never have otherwise entered the consciousness of the countless visitors that will flock to see this architectural dream.

Long since departed; yet part of them still remains. Inextricably entwined into the sparkling glass, polished surfaces and brushed steel they so carefully assembled. A rare and touching tribute to those who did their bit to make the miracle happen.

Walls can’t talk. But sometimes, they should.


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