Buren’s Columns

In 1986 Daniel Buren created Les Deux Plateaux (commonly referred to as ‘Buren’s Columns’) in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal in Paris.  The work, which consists of cylindrical pillars covered in black and white stripes and arranged across a large grid, originally received a lot of negative criticism.  It was, and still is, daring for its time, and the strange juxtaposition of modern and ancient surely was a source of irritation.  But today the installation is much loved (it recently received a 6 million euro facelift), and it has been embraced as an important landmark.  As one commentator observes, “This work, which was on the verge of toppling the whole Ministry of Culture, now holds a certification as a National Monument.”

Buren’s columns are a celebration of space, place, and the Parisian city-scape.  This may come as a surprise: what do abstract, geometric forms have to do with a lived human environment?  His signature “stripes” are direct copies (the exact width) of stripes that decorate numerous awnings in Paris.  It is an intentional “borrowing” from a prominent visual motif of the Parisian city-scape.  But much more than this can be said.  His geometric forms have a way of delineating space and allowing us to see the space that we move in.  The columns are laid out in a perfect grid and so acts as a kind of spatial orientation for our bodies within the courtyard.  Another interesting feature is the difference in height between the columns, which appears, at least in some places, to correspond to channels of water that flow under the courtyard.  In this way, the columns draw our attention both to the space we inhabit and to spaces unseen.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the Palais-Royal, and though I had seen pictures of Buren’s Columns, I was not prepared for what I would encounter there.  Instead of the austerity and silence so commonly associated with modern art, I found, much to my delight, that the courtyard was filled with vibrancy and play.  In fact, it appeared that the majority of people there were children, and the space had been transformed into a surrealist’s playground.  I watched as children climbed on pillars, jumped off pillars, danced on pillars, and  ran around pillars.  Paris has the greatest parks it the world, and even Buren’s Columns did not fail to deliver.

Reflecting on my time there, it seems to me that there are two lessons here: one about art and the other about church.  First, in regards to art, Buren’s Columns is a striking example of the way that play does not detract from a work of art, but actually augments and completes it.  Through play, the space that Buren’s columns brings to our attention is actualized.  Through play, the courtyard comes to life.  And the pillars, themselves, become props in the imaginative games that children play there.   All at once, I could see the columns as solemn and as playful.

All of these reflections on imagination and art, play and seriousness, have, I think, something valuable to add to the way that Christians think about and practice worship in their local congregations.  And there is a lot to add, which is why part 2 will need to wait until next week.  To be continued…

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