Le Chevalier noir à Marseille: Batman in the South of France

Should you happen to find yourself in the south of France this summer, gentle reader, you may want to look up into the night skies for a different sort of light than that generated by celestial bodies:


Contemporary artist Alex Israel (1982- ) is perhaps best known in the art world for making use of his connections to the film industry in Hollywood, and coming up with paintings, films, and art installations that have a kind of plastic, pastel California feel to them. Broadly speaking, you can think of him as someone who is an artistic descendant of the Pop Artists of the 1950’s and 60’s, such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, but with a West Coast palette and outlook. No doubt had he lived back during the Studio Era, he would have been an artistic director for one of the major studios, orchestrating the overall look of films set in the Los Angeles of the time.

Mr. Israel’s most recent installation is just as cinematic, but it adopts a darker tone than much of his previous work, and for good reason. “Alex Israel”, which opened last month at the Centre d’art de la Cité Radieuse in Marseille, is dedicated to Batman. The highlight of the show, which is on display at the Centre’s rooftop, is a working Bat Signal, which the artist fashioned from an old World War II searchlight. And no need to raise a professional eyebrow, for those among my readers who are fellow attorneys wondering about intellectual property issues for this exhibition, since Mr. Israel obtained permission from Warner Brothers before slapping on the giant metal bat logo.

Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

In addition to creating a working Bat Signal, Mr. Israel has also somehow managed to (temporarily) acquire the Batmobile from the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” film. He’s surrounded it with special effects including lights, sounds, and a smoke machine, to make it seem as though the Caped Crusader is somewhere nearby, and could arrive on the scene at any moment. While to those of us who are in the States, this may seem somewhat standard fare, at least for those who go to things like Comicon or movie studio-owned amusement parks, in the south of France this sort of thing doesn’t happen all that often.


Indeed, Marseille may seem a rather odd place to throw up the Bat Signal, but as Mr. Israel explained in a recent interview, “I was inspired by the myth of Marseille, and that historically it’s been a bit tough, rough and dangerous.” It’s an apt observation, particularly if you consider the number of enjoyable gangster/action films set in whole or in part in France’s second largest city. Perhaps most famously, to American audiences, Marseille is an important location in “The French Connection” Parts I and II, but it also plays a role in numerous other films, from “Borsalino” to “The Transporter” to “The Bourne Identity”, as well as in several classic French mob films starring Jean Gabin.

So is this installation high art? No. But is it fun? Absolutely.

I think this exhibition is an excellent opportunity to point out to the reader that art does not always have to take itself seriously in order to be enjoyable. After all, many of those whom we think of as being in the high pantheon of Western art, such as Da Vinci, Dürer, or Rubens, not only created works that were intended to last forever, they also created ephemeral pieces that were meant to last for a few days or even just a few hours. These short-term installations provided visual entertainment to kings and queens, popes and princes, and even ordinary people, as they celebrated events such as royal weddings, church holidays, and military victories.

In this case, one can simply enjoy this installation for what it is, and the pleasure that it brings in seeing it. Mr. Israel mentioned that one of his hopes as a result of the exhibition was for visitors to look up into the night sky, see the Bat Signal, and realize that sometimes, “childhood dreams can and do come true”. Given how much of Contemporary Art (and indeed, contemporary society) is motivated by selfish narcissism, that’s not a bad counterpoint to want to make.

Alex Israel” is at the Marseille Modulor site at the Cité Radieuse through August 31st.Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

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