Alex Israel mines Batman lore for Marseille exhibition
The Los Angeles-based artist commandeers the brutalist rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation with an homage to the Gotham superhero
If you find yourself in Marseille on a cloudy summer night, gaze up to the sky and you just might see the Bat Signal. Projected from the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, it pierces through the dark night and casts a familiar emblem in white light, as though the city were summoning Gotham’s favourite superhero. This is the audacious headliner for Californian artist Alex Israel’s Batman-themed exhibition at Marseille Modulor (MAMO), the contemporary art centre founded in 2013 by designer Ora ïto.
Israel is the seventh artist to take over MAMO for the summer, following on an older, and largely Francophone roster that has included Xavier Veilhan, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham and Felice Varini. He often engages with the seductive power of Hollywood, reframing movie props as readymade sculptures that capture a cultural moment, and at MAMO, Israel’s choice of subject responds in part to the architecture.
Occupying the top levels of the Cité Radieuse, the art centre comprises a double-height gymnasium with a striking curved ceiling, and a roof terrace anchored by an undulating chimney. The elegant bulk of the concrete building, combined with sweeping views of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the azure Mediterranean, make it the perfect superhero’s lair. But the artist was also inspired by Marseille’s historic reputation for violence and crime, explaining, ‘It’s the idea of this really tough and gritty city which made me think of Gotham.’
Israel fixated on the 1989 Batman film (directed by Tim Burton, and with production design by Anton Furst), which he’d first seen as a six-year-old. ‘It deeply and profoundly impacted me like those kinds of experiences do when you’re young,’ he recalls. The artist particularly liked that Batman doesn’t have any superpowers. ‘He just has to do the best he can as a human.’
As far as solo exhibitions go, this one is succinct. A Batmobile has materialised in the centre of the gymnasium, which has been darkened to emulate the iconic Batcave. Grumbling engines, billowing smoke heighten the sense of drama, and give the impression that the car is about to speed off. Within the dim space, the aquiline form and scalloped tailfins of the Batmobile seem to take on a new aura. ‘In the dark, it loses its objectness and becomes this reflective surface for light, and kind of a breathing thing,’ he muses. ‘It’s almost like a memory or a fantasy.’ Israel is interested in how the installation will inform the viewer’s perception of a car that he calls ‘the ultimate fetish’.
Meanwhile, on one corner of the roof terrace sits the Bat Signal, housed in a modified Second World War era searchlight – the same make as the one that appears towards the end of the movie. By day, its white exterior contrasts with a mirrored reflector punctuated, of course, by the Batman logo. After sundown it lights up, its conical beam in delightful dialogue with the form of Le Corbusier’s chimney. Weather permitting, Batman’s emblem will glow amongst the clouds – a world first, considering that the movies had relied on special effects. ‘It seemed perfect in this specific place above a city with a history that aligns with the meaning of Batman,’ explains Israel. ‘This is a symbol of hope, heroism and courage, of Hollywood and America.’
Ora ïto had planted the idea of this piece two months ago when, in a last-ditch effort to convince Israel to take on the show, he’d told the artist, ‘You can do whatever you want. You can even put the Bat Signal all over Marseille.’ At the opening last week, the French designer seemed delighted, and perhaps still in disbelief that his casual remark has now become reality. ‘What’s genius about the show, I think, is that the old building becomes the art piece. For me, Alex is the new Andy Warhol.’ §