The most popular art gallery in Paris will be demolished on Thursday. So will all of its art works. No one will complain. Thousands of people have been queueing around the clock – and around the block – to see the murals, “graffs” and tags at “Tour Paris 13” before the bulldozers arrive at 8pm.
At the instigation of a Parisian gallery owner, a condemned nine-storey block of council flats on the banks of the Seine was taken over seven months ago to create an “ephemeral” exhibition centre for 105 street artists from 18 countries. Interest in the free show was modest when it opened to the public at the beginning of this month but has become intense, almost frantic, as demolition approached.
The tower has had to stay open day and night since Tuesday to absorb the queue of mostly young people which has stretched for 300 metres around the building and down the entire length of the next street. For safety reasons, only 49 people are allowed into the building at one time.
There has been little conventional advertising for the show, claimed to be the largest “collective street art exhibition” ever to be staged. Word has spread mostly though the social media.
Guillaume Huet, 23, a politics student, said: “We arrived here at seven in the morning and we’ve been waiting seven hours. We have another two or three hours to go. We really wanted to see the graffs which are supposed to be extraordinary.
“Now we are wondering whether it’s worth it. But the longer you wait, the longer you feel you have invested a part of your life and you don’t want to lose the investment. So you stay…”
Tour Paris 13, near the Gare d’Austerlitz on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Ministry of Finance, is a dull block of council flats built in 1956. It will be replaced next year by a larger, more adventurous-looking council block.
Mehdi Ben Cheikh, who created a gallery for street art in Paris 2004, persuaded the town hall of the 13th arrondissement to delay demolition of the block and join him in sponsoring the exhibition. “At first the idea was to paint the façade only,” Mr Ben Cheikh said. “In the end we invited 105 artists to share the 33 flats. Each artist has at least one room to himself. I wanted the visitor to lose his or her bearings and be plunged entirely into each artist’s world.”
Can it still be street art if it is inside a building? “Yes of course,” Mr Ben Cheiklh said. “ Street art is not only found on the street…If the artist is working straight onto a wall with no commercial motive, in some part of the urban landscape, then it’s street art.”
The artists who have worked inside and outside the building come from as far afield as Chile and Colombia. They include celebrated names of the street art world such as Seed, Inti Castro, Stinkfish and Pantone.
“We are the new artists. Graffiti art is the world’s biggest art movement,” Mear One, an artist from Los Angeles, told the Associated Press. “In the 1970s, art was so elite that only the upper level people could do art or appreciate it. So it got boring... and now we are in a situation where this is the art form.
“All that other art is cool, but it has roots in the past, and we are the here and the now.”
When the artists began to work inside the building last March, some of the flats still contained rubble or broken furniture. Several tenants were still refusing to move out. The debris – but not the tenants – were incorporated into their work.
In a city which despises the concept of queueing, the length, and patience, of the lines of people waiting to enter Tour Paris 13 was an art work in itself. Most of the crowd consisted of young people in their 20s. Student life in France cannot be too much of a strain, it seems.
Many of those waiting had brought their computers or books. Others were playing cards. An enterprising local man was selling coffee from a large aluminium jug at one Euro a cup.
“It seems crazy to wait so long,” said Sylvie, 23. “But there is something exciting about the idea that these works of art will be destroyed shortly and that you will be one of the few who experienced them while they were still there.”