Off-space No 22: La Salle de Bains, Lyon

By Louise Darblay

Tell the Children, 2012 (installation view). Photo: © Aurélie Leplatre / La Salle de Bains, Lyon

Sitting on the heights of the historic hill of La Croix-Rousse in Lyon, La Salle de Bains has, over the past 15 years, become a key alternative not-for-profit exhibition space for international contemporary artists in the city’s cultural landscape. The project started in 1998, when Olivier Vadrot, Lionel Mazelaygue and Gwenaël Morin, who were then students at Lyon’s school of architecture, decided to open an exhibition space in what used to be the bathroom (salle de bain) of a ground-floor apartment in the historic centre of the city, where they would invite artists who inspired their work as architects to create site-specific proposals in response to the 40sqm space.

As the initial trio gradually shared then delegated the direction of the space to new members – most recently to Caroline Soyez- Petithomme, who codirected the space with Jill Gasparina from 2008, before becoming the sole director in 2013 – the aesthetic choices have slightly shifted from an emphasis on site-specific, installation-based works to more formalist works, with an inclination towards abstract painting and digital art. However, the ethos has remained consistent; to develop well-produced artist projects that have a particular resonance for the artist’s trajectory – be it as a transition show or with a middle- or late-career perspective. Over the years, La Salle de Bains has produced up to seven exhibitions a year, working with a wide range of international artists, from established names like Thomas Hirschhorn, Jonathan Monk and Nathaniel Mellors, to younger artists such as Magali Reus and Anthea Hamilton, resulting on several occasions in acquisitions by major public collections.

You don’t need to banalise art to make it accessible; rather, you need to work on its mediation and its communication to the public

It’s the same ethos that makes La Salle de Bains so resilient in the face of art-industry pressures, which have pushed many institutional and independent spaces to prioritise accessibility at the expense of artistic content and to lapse into increasingly peripheral programmes and activities. For Soyez-Petithomme, you don’t need to banalise art to make it accessible; rather, you need to work on its mediation and its communication to the public. Focusing its energies on the mounting of exhibitions onsite and off-space, and on the publishing of artist books, La Salle de Bains is working towards new exhibition formats and methods of mediation, such as the 2012 show Tell the Children / Abstraction pour Enfants (an echo of Andy Warhol’s Painting for Children Pop art show at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich, in 1983), which introduced children (and adults) to very contemporary abstract paintings by artists including Claudia Comte, Lisa Beck and Olivier Mosset – all hung at children’s eye height, on vividly patterned wallpaper.

It’s with this kind of involvement with local audiences that Soyez-Petithomme hopes to ensure the future of La Salle de Bains, which is currently uncertain. Having established itself as something of an institution over the years, La Salle de Bains has gradually received support from the French Ministry of Culture, the Rhône-Alpes region and finally the city of Lyon, which also owns La Salle de Bains’ current premises. There are cracks in the walls, however, and for a year now, rain has leaked periodically into the exhibition space, to the point where the ceiling fell in and the gallery was forced to close for a few months earlier this year. Unable to afford a commercial space, La Salle de Bains is hoping the city will relocate them to a new, potentially larger space, one that would allow it to develop collaborative programmes with a wider network of art centres and kunsthalles. The other option would be to become an affiliated public art centre, which would mean losing part of their independence and taking on a whole lot more paperwork.

While the local government is so far unmoved by the critical situation, which means that the space might have to close by the end of 2014, Soyez-Petithomme is actively working towards the opening of its upcoming exhibition with the young Londonbased artist Gabriele Beveridge (through 8 November), as well as developing other artist projects. While these will definitely make it into public view, it’s hard to tell if this will be on the heights of La Croix-Rousse. To be continued… 

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue.