Monday, June 23, 2008

Not weaving, but drowning

Friday, June 20

To La Piscine, the now famous swimming-pool museum in Roubaix, near Lille in north eastern France (left) for the opening of an exhibition for which I'd written the catalogue essay.

I'd heard much about La Piscine, which opened to great fanfare in 2001 after a major makeover, but had never visited it. The invitation thus offered an opportunity to see at first hand what the Journal des Arts has just declared to be France's fifth most important museum (based on visitor numbers and the number and frequency of exhibitions).

Built by architect Albert Baert between 1927-1932 as a temple to the body, hygiene and sport, this masterpiece of Art Deco design was quickly recognised as France's most beautiful swimming-pool and one of its most successful public buildings.

During the nineteenth century Roubaix was a burgeoning industrial town, second only to Manchester as textile manufacturing centre (it is still home to La Redoute, the mail-order clothing company). As a result from 1800-1850 it saw population growths unequalled by any other town in France as people flocked there for work.

However, the textile industry peaked towards the close of the 19th century and then began a downward slide leading to a long period of stagnation brought about by the First World War and the depression of the 1930s. Thereafter the town's industry was blighted by regular industrial action and the population decreased accordingly.

The swimming pool was seen as a means of redressing the decline in what had once been regarded as France's "sacred city of socialism." (If you've ever spent time in the decaying old public baths and steam-rooms of Budapest, you'll have a sense of the ambience of La Piscine during its golden age, judging from surviving photographs.)

Arriving at the town's elegant 19th century iron and glass train station on a summer evening and making your way to the beautiful museum it seems hard to believe that Roubaix remains riddled with social problems.

According to a recent BBC4 documentary (Small Town Murder), behind the elegant signs of regeneration, Roubaix is "eroded by poverty, unemployment and crime. It has become a society that offers little opportunity to its inhabitants." Its small police force is "kept busy by armed robberies, domestic violence, car theft, missing teenagers, and arson." These are the wounds that Sarkozy vowed to heal.

One Parisian visitor to Friday's opening related his experience of travelling by train from Lille to Roubaix earlier that afternoon when he had shared a carriage with some locals. "These people are so, so exotic," he said of his impoverished compatriots, his lip curling into a rictus of displeasure. "I mean, the way they look, the way they dress, their language. Incomprehensible. I mean really exotic."

At dinner during the vernissage the reluctant anthropologist took his place beside other representatives of the Parisian art élite who had also gamely ventured into the heart of darkness. A wealthy New York private equity entrepreneur joked about packing the bread and peanut butter before flying out, thanks to the plummeting dollar.

Listening to their tales of woe I was yet again reminded of the gaping social and economic divide that art and culture may brilliantly disguise but will never erase.

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