Last weekend was the 27th annual Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, which resembles the Open House in London or Heritage Days in the UK nationwide. There were many, many places to visit in Paris and throughout France as a whole, but we had to narrow the choice down. Choosing to stay local we found two sites that were of interest, catering for our varied tastes. The first location lay near the cinema in Place de Clichy, close to Pigalle.
The Salon d’Isis was at the heart of partying and fun in the Roaring Twenties. With a restaurant on the ground floor, a ballroom in the basement and a ‘love hotel’ on the top floor, it attracted customers from all over Paris. Now redeveloped by the Association of Friends of Magnum, you can still see the wonderful 1930s glass ceiling. Now called Le Bal it aims to explore the historical, documentary and contemporary in photography, film, video and new media. Its aim is to discover artists concerned with and aware of the political and aesthetic issues of their work. Oh, and, bizarrely enough, it has an English themed café that could just as easily be at home on Chiswick high street.
The present exhibition is of American photographers including the likes of such greats as Jeff Wall and Walker Evans. Superb reflections on America and its dream from some alternative perspectives. All the photography was meaningful and moving but I got caught up by a piece by Sharon Lockhart entitled Lunch Break (2008) which depicts a corridor in an iron works. Shot on 35mm film each frame is duplicated eight times, resulting in a slow motion film that is more like still photography. The effect was that I felt able to enter the image within which hidden elements would slowly reveal themselves. It was a very dreamlike, intimate and contemplative piece.
A more indepth review of Le Bal and Anonymes can be found here.
The second stop was the masonic lodge on rue Puteaux, again not far from Place de Clichy, home to La Grande Loge de France. Originally a convent for monks, the building now serves as a centre for freemasonry and as a museum and library to all things masonic. With its origins in the 18th century, though probably going back into the 17th century, the GLDF in its present form was founded in 1894. Freemasonry has a long and varied history of union and separation between various lodges.
The tour was open, friendly and thorough, though questions on why this particular Lodge is men only was a little awkward, as it rightly should be. Despite the tour being conducted entirely in French I understood that the apparent openness toward discussing freemasonry was slightly deceptive. I think it is clear that there is an esoteric side not so openly discussed; for instance the meanings of various signs and symbols were dismissed as simple thinking aids. Yet I can tell you that these signs and symbols are considered much more powerful and meaningful, as some awfully naive schoolboy like paintings on the staircase clearly depicted to those willing to look further.
However I do not think there to be any deviousness or maliciousness contained within their secrecy. A desire to keep true meaning hidden behind deliberate obscurity by all esoteric groups is less to do with protection from misuse, it seems to me, but rather to preserve a feeling of purpose for themselves. On a parallel with religion, the preserve of the priests is to keep the people in their place. And yet what is hidden is a philosophical goal toward good; hidden behind all obscurities are messages of hope and universal truths. Why then hide what is good from the people who desire it most?
Nevertheless, the lodge is almost always open to the public and serves a reasonably democratic system, save for membership of women, with a purpose to meditate on philosophical questions. All in all it was well worth the visit and, as we left the building, clearly a very popular destination. I blame Dan Brown…
PS The photographs from the masonic lodge may look like they were taken by a hidden camera but photography was allowed