On Friday, June 13, Mobilians will gather for our monthly gallery stroll in downtown as the day’s heat fades. However, the portents of our cultural future will be actually be unfolding 630 miles westward, in splendid spectacle and to deserved acclaim.
That’s the date French artist Xavier de Richemont will unveil his latest work, an installation of light and sound projected onto San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral. Similar to his celebrated works around Europe, in Mexico and Canada that have launched Richemont to international stardom, it will be his first outdoor work in the United States.
His first indoor work in this country was, of course, at the Centre for Living Arts (CLA) where his piece “Hokushima” was a part of the Memory Project exhibition that premiered in spring 2012. Those visits also spurred something else from him.
That was when Richemont conceived of a like project on the USS Alabama, the decommissioned battleship-turned-museum on the bay. In his mind, he saw colorful images swirling over its grey bulk, turning it into “a peaceful, joyful object.”
Needless to say, when he finally made his plans public in April 2013 with a presentation before the Mobile City Council, the expected complaints began. Public howls of disrespect and Francophobia resulted in Richemont reworking the project in hopes he can get locals on board.
The project has proceeded slowly, with Richemont making changes and the battleship board giving him feedback. Most of that to this point has been little more than grousing and sources tell us they’ve become adept at telling the artist what they don’t want, but can’t seem to relay what would please them. Not exactly shocking.
What transpired in Texas couldn’t have been more different. The folks in San Antonio courted Richemont, eager to associate themselves with his fame. He came to town, assessed what was available and devised a plan. The locals jumped into action, started a group aimed at collecting the $800,000 for the project and smoothed every bump they could.
What Richemont designed tells the story of San Antonio from pre-historic times to the contemporary. According to mysanantonio.com, images of buffalo, cactuses and armadillos begin the display before shifting into a portrait of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. That becomes “a bustling mercado before giving way to the missions and the thriving city that has grown around them.”
By their account, it will illuminate Main Plaza three times a night, four nights a week for 10 years. According to Texas Public Radio, the Main Plaza Conservancy has a Time Warner-produced, 30-second TV commercial ready and a partnership with Univision who will have a live feed of the ceremony in Spanish.
The only public funds for the project are $25,000 from the county for maintenance. Twenty-five grand for a decade of international tourism? Sounds like an efficient formula to me.
Meanwhile in Mobile, the battleship board will meet for a retreat that same weekend, debating whether they will allow Richemont to work his magic with their prized artifact. By accounts of locals close to the artist, some of whom are heading to San Antonio for the big reveal, he is very eager to work with whatever they want if they will just get motivated.
His latest design, which can be seen in model form at CLA, is dynamic and beautiful. It utilizes our namesake azaleas along with other cultural images to highlight what can otherwise be a negligible sight for those who have grown inured to the ever-present ship near the Bayway.
My fear is that by the time Mobilians get through shooting down Richemont’s ideas, then exercising our noted negativity and intractability, either his work will be more commonplace or the artist will grow weary of the hassle. That or we’ll eventually be left with a depiction of Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan and Dale Earnhardt in Crimson Tide uniforms kneeling before Bear Bryant.
It’s not as if the battleship hasn’t been festooned with non-military décor in the past. Mardi Gras masks have been seen alit on its superstructure. At Christmas time, an illuminated cross has decorated it, despite what more pacifistic Christians like Quakers would say is an irreverent mixture of peace and war.
And as I’ve noted in the past, the Catholic Church has cooperated with Richemont repeatedly in these endeavors. Do we feel a warship – one whose only loss of life came not from battle but from a friendly fire mishap – is more sacrosanct than a place of worship?
This project would be one of the most highly visible of Richemont’s works, owing to its place on the water and the miles of clear sightlines. It would also put Mobile in the international news, along with the other French, Germans and Aussies who have established connections with the Azalea City in the last decade.
The hesitation needs to stop and we need progress immediately. We’re about to literally miss the boat on this one.