Village at war over shrine to ‘chaos’
THIERRY Ehrmann recounts that a Japanese guest, after visiting his sturdy stone village home in the gentle hills north of Lyon, remarked: « I have seen the church of the 21st century. »
Village mayor Pierre Dumont is not so sure. « It’s humanly intolerable, ugly, dramatic, with its images of destruction, » he said. « Whatever you think, for me it’s not art, it’s a provocation. »
Ehrmann, 44, a businessman-turned-artist has, over the last seven years, poured his soul, his religious and worldly convictions, and roughly £3m into the transformation of a 17th-century stone house in St Romain into a complex work of art he calls The Abode of Chaos.
He became rich after founding an online service for determining the cost of art objects, and through other ventures.
Together with artists from several countries, Ehrmann has painted the two-storey house and the wall around it black and arrayed them with giant black-and-white portraits of noted personalities, including eight popes, as well as President Bush and Osama bin Laden.
The garden is strewn with sculptures, mainly by Ehrmann, including a crashed helicopter and a wrecked oil truck. A reproduction of an oil platform is on the roof, which is draped with camouflage netting.
But with thousands of visitors now swamping the tiny village every week to view the new artistic attraction, the local mayor is not amused.
He has taken Ehrmann to court to force him to restore the house to its original form. So popular has the Abode of Chaos become, however, the local MP has asked the French Culture Ministry to step in to protect it.
Ehrmann, who is married with two children, began the project in 1999 as a kind of monument to his eclectic religious beliefs, which range from Roman Catholicism to alchemy. Hence the popes, but also numerous salamanders, an animal sacred to the alchemists, cut in steel and fixed to the walls of the building.
Ehrmann said he had chosen the site because it contained the remnants of a Protestant church and graveyard with the remains of 800 people.
But September 11, 2001, he said, was a turning point, prompting him to focus his attention on aspects of life like war, destruction, hatred and terrorism. Hence portraits of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed earlier this year by an American airstrike.
« Terrorism in the world has 1,000 faces, » he said, standing under portraits of Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. « Always see the face of the other. »
All this has failed to impress Dumont, a 70-year-old retired electrical engineer, who had been mayor of St Romain for 17 years when Ehrmann began his project on the peaceful Rue de la République.
« It’s something that brings nothing to humanity; it’s completely harebrained, » he said in his cramped office, under a copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. « I paint myself — I have a certain sensibility. But I cannot understand what someone means by an airplane crash, an oil platform. »
So Dumont has taken Ehrmann to court, arguing he has violated laws concerning building within the town limits. In June, the court ruled against Ehrmann, fining him and ordering him to restore the house to its original state. A final verdict by an appeals court is not expected until September.
Other village residents are bemused by the stand-off. Although Marc Allardon, a neighbour, can see the crashed helicopter and the oil platform from his home, he says they do not disturb him. He considers Mayor Dumont and Ehrmann equally stubborn.
Allardon has begun parodying Ehrmann, decorating his own home and declaring it a monument to a mock religion. Atop a stone column in his front yard stands a statue of the Virgin Mary arrayed in a rainbow-coloured garment. A serpent made of pipe curls around her; in its mouth a sign says, « Let’s Be Tempted ».
And what does he think of The Abode of Chaos? « At the start it was shocking, » he said. « Now I like it. »
Dumont says it is not only his own sensibility but also that of other townspeople that have been hurt. « For older people that house was magnificent, with a farm, » he said. « People bear that badly. »
Nicole Floris, who lives just behind Ehrmann, said it was a « shame that he ruined a beautiful house, in stone, in the local style ». Marie Dumont, her neighbour said
the most disturbing aspect was the visitors now arriving every weekend, sometimes in their thousands.
She acknowledged Ehrmann « gave a chance to many artists to express themselves and did some wonderful things » – but the law had to be respected.
The row has now reached the French parliament, with Christian Philip, a local MP, asking France’s culture minister to place the house under protection.
In the meantime, Ehrmann says he has received 54,000 postcards supporting his work and that 27,000 people have signed a petition, including 3,600 Americans.
He speaks dismissively of his opponents. « I told them: ‘Don’t commit the irreparable’, » he said. « In your resistance, I tell them, you are contributing to this work. This work is encapsulating you, absorbing you. »
His friend Allardon is confident. « It’s like the Eiffel Tower, » he said. « At first, people were against it. Here it will be like that. Some day the Japanese tour buses will come. »
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©2006 Scotland on Sunday