la Demeure du Chaos
de Thierry Ehrmann
the Neighbor from Hell
Travelling upstream along the River Saône from Lyon one comes to Fontaines and, a few meters before Paul Bocuse’s famous restaurant, a strange billboard, graffitied with a sinister skull and the words, « Chaos dwells at Saint-Romain. » A few kilometers further along, here finally is the quiet village thus named, Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or. Well, not that quiet, in fact. Because recently Thierry Ehrmann, CEO of the Serveur group and of Artprice.com has set about « deconstructing his property » and turning it into the « Home of Chaos », a huge work of destruction that is not to everyone’s taste.
The first time I went to the Domaine de la Source, that historic (1) building looked rather different from what we see today. When Thierry Ehrmann bought it with a view to making it both his home and company headquarters, it was a bourgeois manor of some 100,000 square feet, built in the famous golden stone of the Monts d’Or and standing in the privacy of a walled park. But since 2001 this Domaine de la Source has gradually become the Home of Chaos and the walls no longer hide a thing -on the contrary. The scene today is one of desolation, worthy of John Carpenter’s New York 1999. Apocalyptic. On the parking lot a score of charred autos look like wreckage from inner city riots or a terrorist attack. All around, huge meteorites have dug craters while further on a plane has crashed into the garden. But the most spectacular part of all is no doubt the miniature replica of the ruined World Trade Center, a ten-meter sculpture made with 18 tons of steel and 90 tons of concrete. Nearby, ehrmann plans a Berlin Wall that will be transformed into the barrier being put up by Israel in the West Bank.
In places the facade of the house itself has been liquefied, the fine gold stone turned into a muddy lava by a thermal lance. Everywhere you look are metal salamanders and enameled plaques by Ben, esoteric symbols, frescoes, metal beams apparently propping up the brutalized walls. The interior has been transformed too. In Ehrmann’s office, Renaissance paintings and furniture have been replaced by welded metal, rubble walls and cables hanging from the ceiling, making this strategic room look like the headquarters of a secret organization. On the half-collapsed staircases leading to the apartments are strange sculptures and frescoes. The dominant colors, red and black, also play an important role in the symbolism of alchemy. Thus, on the wall of a windowless room called the « Temple of Sex », a huge portrait of Bin Laden evokes the red work while, on the facing wall, the face of George W. Bush symbolizes the black work. It would be impossible to describe all the details -besides the house keep changing. Anny Brunelle, Nicolas Delprat, Marc Del Piano and Ben are among the artists who have helped Ehrmann on this work in progress so far. Next up is the construction of Rudy Ricciotti and Mathieu Briand’s bunker, which will house the Organe, a contemporary art museum. In the apartments the floors will be replaced by ropes so that residents can walk through the air. The rest rooms will be popened up and chemical toilets fitted. As Ehrmann puts it, « It’s the day after. » The atmosphere is one of post-atomic chaos, post-civil war, something very contemporary, not unlike what you see on the TV news. Ehrmann describes himself as a news addict. He must have noticed how the word « chaos » has become a media catch-all, a way of saying that the horror couldn’t get any worse. That’s why he wanted to give tangible and spectacular form to this slow collapse of a mutating world, in a gigantic installation including all the world’s major events and figures -religious, political and intellectual. And without moralizing. But why in his own home? For practical reasons, sure, but also because looking after a nice little property investment probably doesn’t rock Ehrmann’s world. The man is a gambler. To understand how a millionaire with a Midas touch came to be where he is you have to delve into his biography. His is no smooth business profile. The son of an influential member of Opus Dei, Ehrmann made his first big bucks in the 1980s on the back of telematic Minitel, boxing and a whole host of equally incongruous activities. He makes no secret for his mystical past as a Freemason and alchemy nut. Anyway, in the 1990s he founded Artprice, a company specializing in online information about, well, the price of art. The art world got to talking about him when he sponsored the 1999 Lyon Biennale. Ehrmann is an inveterate orgy man and a bigamist. The whiff of sulfur hangs about his person. Some say he is the Devil. And so the shadow of Beelzebub also appears on one painted wall, while upside-down portraits of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers on the facade add another degree of Satanism. (It is even said Ehrmann had Monseigneur Delorme perform an exorcism on him.) Our modern Satan is building (or unbuilding)a contemporary Inferno in a little village outside Lyon. Stone by Stone. The original neighbor from hell, at least for many locals. The mayor of Saint-Romain has done everything in his power to thwart this « architectural sacrilege » but in vain. A member of the governing party (the UMP) even suggested a special law to bring artworks within the range of urban planning regulations. But he withdrew it. Because this is, officially, a work of art: Ehrmann is registered with France’s Maison des Artistes and deposited the idea for his « Demeure du Chaos » in 1999, before he started work. A man with a legal training, he loves to find loopholes in the law and drive a truck through them. The big debate is whether he’s a real artist or just a slightly crazy millionaire à la Howard Hughes. Both, no doubt. His madness is of the variety that can take you a long way. An example: at a perfectly serious board meeting (members include LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault), screened the film of a performance (2) in which, with bailiffs threatening to slap possession order on his property, he slashes himself with a scalpel. « It’s your madness that I’m buying » said one delighted stockholder when it was over. Against all expectations, the Demeure and the personality of its owner are good for business. So much madness, that uncertainly defined territory that Ehrmann knows well, he who spent several years with the status of « incapable adult ». » As for the « artist » label, it’s not very important. After all, artists with weird lives and minds are no novelty since Art Brut came along. Anyway, the Demeure du Chaos is unique, a kind of post-9/11 version of the Postman Cheval’s « Ideal Palace. » (3) It now attracts a very mixed bag of visitors, from the curious to mystics, graffiti artists and nuns come to pray. Some seven hundred people turn up every weekend, sometimes returning home with a little bit of black stone as a relic. The Demeure du Chaos looks set to run and run.
Translation, C. Penwarden
(1) Gallo-romain ruins were found here. The site was also home to a priory and post house.
(2) Viewable on ehrmann.org
(3) This elaborate construction wich fascinated the Surrealists is just a little further south, at Hauterives.-TRANS.
copyright ©2005 artpress
artpress – numéro 312 – Mai 2005