Retrace the sensational trajectory of 59 Rivoli from an abandoned Parisian building to a hallucinogenic wonderland of art.
Drawn by its kooky-looking facade we have just moseyed inside 59 Rivoli, and are quickly ambushed by a colourful pastiche of faces and abstracts, monsters and superheroes, leaflets and brochures. Not sure where we are or what we may find in this hallucinogenic wonderland, our eyes bounce like marbles. Where do we look? Rather, where all do we look?
Doodles, abstracts, art forms and comic characters are splashed all over the six storeys of the building. It’s not the handiwork of any one artist but a group of artists with different art styles.
Colours, doodles, abstracts and forms are splashed all over. There’s even a piano painted over in goofy art. We take a moment or two to savour the quirky madness that has engulfed us. Then, as we amble up the spiral wooden staircase speckled with paint and scribbles, we ascend to a higher realm of intrigue: a melange of comic characters, monochromatic sketches and Japanese Manga figures explodes on the walls and the landings. There are artists slumped over their canvases and easels, their personal belongings and artworks strewn around.
Just what is this place?
Art studio, art gallery, concert space. A French institution. A contemporary Parisian icon. An ode to artistic freedom. 59 Rivoli is many things all at once. But its most spectacular feature lies unseen – its remarkable journey from an illegal squat to a legitimate art site.
Strewn across all the floors of 59 Rivoli are paintings and easels - some ready, others a work-in-progress. Artists, 4-6 to a floor, work in these open studios.
Once upon a time, 59 Rue de Rivoli, a mid-19th century building in the premier arrondisement of Paris, used to house Credit Lyonnais, a historic French bank known to be a leading lender to Hollywood studios. When the bank relocated, the building fell vacant, lying locked for almost a decade. In 1999, Kalex, Gaspard and Bruno – a trio of maverick artists who called themselves ‘the KGB’, in jest of course – squatted on 59 Rivoli. It was not anarchy but a lofty aim that propelled their action: to make use of a viable, but disused, property in a city where space was at a premium. KGB were also looking to create a radical commune where artists could freely express themselves.
An entire wall painted over with eyes greets visitors as they climb up the spiral staircase.
The collective, rechristened ‘Chez Robert Electrons Libres’, began organising workshops, shows and concerts, winning over many residents of Paris. The authorities, however, were not amused with the ‘squart’, a word denoting a mashup of squat and art, and bombarded them with eviction notices. With a canny lawyer and an agreeable mayor (Bertrand Delanoe had announced during his mayoral campaign that he would legalise the Libres if he were elected, which he did) the group managed to earn legitimacy. But the matter of building safety still needed to be tackled. Not only had it suffered damages due to disuse and negligence, it was also over 150 years old and needed structural bolstering. After much effort the Paris City Hall bought the building and undertook massive renovations. In 2009, 59 Rivoli reopened to a rapturous audience. Renamed ‘After Squat’, it soon became a compelling attraction.
The oeuvre at the After Squat is not divided by either style or medium.
Here, a black- and-white painting made by one of the artists in residency, and a monochromatic guitar.
Today, it is one of the three most-visited legitimate art sites of Paris, and one we discover serendipitously. The 1st arrondissement is a shrine to heritage as it houses the spectacular Louvre, Ile de la Cite, the Tuileries as well as Pont Neuf. Its main shopping street Rue de Rivoli – named after Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory against the Austrian army – counts among the fashion capital’s spiffiest. After Squat punctuates the street’s sophistication with its bohemian eccentricity.
The quintessential French je ne sais quoi permeates the former squart. Its six floors house 30 artist studios; one-half is permanent, the other is meant for residencies ranging from three to six months (the artists are strictly not allowed to live on the premises). Unlike a conventional art gallery, the oeuvre is not divided by either style or medium. There are portraits, abstracts, interpretative art and depictions of profound political commentaries and satires as well as sculptures and installation art.
Artists, four to six to a floor, work in their open studios and visitors are encouraged to walk through and even interact with them to understand the organic process of creating art. The constant flux of artists imparts a dynamic character to the building with ever-changing facades and constant improvisations. It’s the zaniness, irreverence and — more than anything else — unexpectedness of the streamers, banners and puppets hanging on 59 Rivoli that pulls us inside.
The bohemian façade of 59 Rivoli –
with streamers, puppets, banners – sets it apart from the haute couture stores and boulangeries of Rue de Rivoli.
When we emerge a couple of hours later, the Rue’s highfalutin haute couture stores and boulangeries appear too genteel. But us? Spoilt by 59, we suddenly lean towards the wacky. And so, on the pretext of picking up a leaflet of the After Squat as a souvenir, we walk right back in.
A spiral wooden staircase leads up past colourful walls with portraits, abstracts, and interpretative art.
Wacky, it is.
59 Rivoli is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 1 to 8 p.m.
Free entry, donations welcome. Free concerts every Saturday and Sunday from 6 p.m., September to June.
Squat + Art
For all its pop value, 59 Rivoli is not the only artists’ squat in the city. There are other ‘squarts’ too, including: Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre; La Miroiterie, a concert, art and screening venue; Les Frigos, once a 43,000 sq ft cold storage depot now occupied by 200 artists; and Le Laboratoire de Creation, which used to serve as the water tower of the Royal Palace. The only ‘official’ stipulation for a squart is that artists use the space for purposes of art alone and not as lodging facilities. In return, they pay a token amount far lower than the rent of a studio.
Long before 59 Rivoli became a squart, Berlin used to boast a similar phenom called Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles). Once a department store, it had served as a Nazi prison before turning into a war casualty. Partially ruined, the property became a warehouse and was slated to be demolished in 1990. A clutch of artists from all over the world rescued it in the nick of time and adopted it as a creative commune. The five-storey building became a star attraction with more than 60 artists from 30 countries occupying it at its peak. Not only that, the Tacheles had its own independent cinema, cafe and exhibition space. However, the temporary lease that had been earned after a hard-fought battle, ended in 2008. Though the artists stood their ground for a few more years, they were forced to vacate in 2012, signalling the end of an era.