A Chaotic Call to Arms
The gesture that is what we call the making of art takes many forms. But it can be argued that at the heart of this ancient act, which binds all of us as humans, lies an essential urge to somehow make sense of life, the universe and everything. A complete artistic engagement can take the form of a life devoted to the creation of such work. Or for those who share in the artistic spirit, it can manifest itself amongst the wealthy as a committment to enable artistic creation, in the form of purchases of existing works or the sponsorship of new ones.
In the ancient French village of Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, on the banks of the Saône just a few minutes from downtown Lyon, a pitched battle is currently being waged that brings into play many issues around the creation of art and the freedom of the individual. Elements of this struggle are quintessentially French, some are universal in nature and a few are just plain wacky. But the case of the Demeure du Chaos, literally the Home of Chaos, is worth a look for those who create or support those who do. Especially since at this point the project is under threat from destruction by bulldozers.
Some context is essential before proceding to the nitty-gritty. The first thing to know is that Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or is a gem of a town, a picture-postcard village dominated by little streets and centuries-old houses famous for their golden-colored (pierre dorée) stone. Not only is the town itself special, it's situated in the Mont d'Or, a small mountain on the edge of Lyon with powerful historical roots. Its heights dominate the plains and rivers below, with its woods and productive soils, coupled with numerous springs (later harnessed by the Romans to provide Lyon, then called Lugdunum, with water via aqueducts) ensuring its settlement by the early Gauls. I lived in a nearby village for several years, in a stone house that contained fragments of Roman masonry and had a cross at the bottom of the garden bearing the date 1609 carved in a rustic hand. The continuity of history in the Mont d'Or is palpable.
Now factor in the hero (or villain) of the drama, a certain Thierry Ehrmann, who embodies the contradictions of modern-day France. Ehrmann, now in his forties, has lived a life too rich in eccentricities to enumerate here but even the briefest description sounds like a character too impossible to exist. Born into a wealthy family with connections to the Freemasons, Ehrmann soon dumped the family business and in the 80's set up shop purveying sexually-related content via the Minitel service, France's precursor to the Interent. Succeeding at this, Ehrmann got the Web thing early on and through his Groupe Serveur became the first Internet service provider in France. He wisely continued his early focus on network-enabling databases, with Groupe Serveur now including 20 businesses employing 180 people.
Many of these databases are arcane in nature, devoted to such things as French legal information, which he Internet-enabled for the first time, triggering years of legal attacks from traditional publishers who struggled (unsuccessfully) to keep a lid on the data. His most notable net business, from a non-French perspective, is undoubtedly Artprice.com, the global leader in providing current and historical data on the price of artworks at auction. Here again Ehrmann had the insight to snap up sales data, deemed worthless at the time, going back hundreds of years in some cases and providing the service with a historical foundation that gives it a monopoly status. The corporate slogan of Groupe Serveur nicely sums up its focus: "The deregulation of opaque markets."
And where is the firm's home base? Why, in an 18th-century pierre dorée structure to die for, located in a walled estate in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, which also serves as home to Ehrmann, his two wives and gigantic black dogs. Ehrmann himself wears only black, which is as good a segue as any to the topic at hand, the Demeure du Chaos. Because that's what this huge estate, Serveur Groupe and all, has now become, with black and red as the dominant colors.
Rewind to 2001 and 9/11, an event of global proportions. While reactions spanned the gamut, Ehrmann's response was perhaps unique—to accept his own inevitable death caused by the chaos of world events, and in effect reconstruct it. No more beautiful building, carefully maintained estate or swimming pool—all the traditional trappings of success. A meticulous "deconstruction" of the interior and exterior was to begin that is still continuing, causing increasing mystification, wonder and, in some cases, rage, amongst inhabitants and public officials in this sleepy village. All fueled by Ehrmann's personal fortune, one of the 400 largest in France.
Loving to exploit legal loopholes, Ehrmann had managed to get the entire compound registered as a work of art back in 1999, which in theory would free it from the need for construction permits. On that basis in 2001 he began inviting artists to participate in the creation of this chaotic realm, which has included 45 participants to date. A realm that outwardly displays a descent into chaos but also embodies "The Spirit of the Salamander," that fire elemental so beloved of adepts of the esoteric. The salamander is a link to Ehrmann's Masonic background that is also the corporate symbol for Groupe Serveur, demonstrating the absence of dividing lines between his business and personal domains.
Almost five years later there is increasingly less visible of what had stood for hundreds of years, with both the exterior and interior savagely transformed into a scene of devastation. Ehrmann himself lends a hand helping execute the massive works via flamethrower and heavy equipment. There's a half-buried jet in the back yard. What seem to be meteorites fill what once was a swimming pool. The previously golden stone is blacked, defaced, melted and torn down. Burnt cars are strewn about the parking lot. There's even a replica of the post-attack World Trade Center (shown above), a sculpture that took 18 tons of steel and 90 tons of concrete to create. The best thing is to simply visit the Demeure du Chaos site, which hosts thousands of pictures. Amongst the various articles, the aptly titled The Neighbour from Hell provides the best English overview.
While you're there, consider signing the petition (just in French, alas) to protest against the destruction of the Demeure. What, is Ehrmann planning to wreck the whole thing, as some extravagant gesture? On the contrary, the forces of reaction, in the form of the local mayor and a magistrate, have found a way around the protected status of the project, with a mandate to put everything back the way it was and not only cease outraging the local populace but demonstrate that bold, original artistic projects are not wanted in France.
As an aside, I'm not the first to point out similarities between the Chaos project and the famous Ideal Palace of the Facteur Cheval. Cheval, a humble postman, became known as the village idiot of Hauterives thanks to a 30-year period in which he brought back stones from his long walks delivering letters in the Drôme region, a few hours south of Lyon. From these stones he single-handedly constructed a magical palace in his back yard which was first celebrated by the Surrealists before achieving global recognition, and is now classified as a French historical monument. Perhaps the village mayor of Cheval's day also viewed this construction with a jaundiced eye. But the mayor is long gone and forgotten, while the Palace remains. If you're ever in the region, I highly recommend a visit.
The Demeure du Chaos is in the middle of a complicated issue, pitting right of freedom of expression against the perceived public good (in this case, peace and quiet, and protection of local property values). Sure, Ehrmann is rich and wildly eccentric, and he's destroying a beautiful, historic property. One could also make a case that this is simply a calculated effort to build the brand of his Artprice.com business. On the other hand, in our era of terminal blandness, of avoiding risk at all cost, of not putting our money where our artistic mouth is, perhaps we could do with a few more Ehrmanns? As long as we didn't have to live next door to them, of course.