We are in the midst of an era that is challenging the concept of digital and physical space. This is most evident in our cultural institutions, where artists and galleries around the globe have had the difficult task of translating the tranquil museum atmosphere to the digital realm during a time where we physically cannot be together to observe art. Enter Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Fondation Cartier), located in the leafy 14tharrondisement in Paris, just south of the Seine. This incredible structure is an architectural feat of glass and steel that has been dreamt up by no other than Jean Nouvel himself and is irrefutably the most modern building on Boulevard Raspail, visited by thousands every week. When I think of the last time I passed through its doors, how I spent my time considering a life-size installation titled Musings on a Glass Box by the internationally acclaimed interdisciplinary design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, my experience was otherworldly, to say the least. Taking it all in, art in its entirety, was transcendent. The textures, the colors, the whispers of contemplation from others – can any of this be translated digitally?
When we talk about Cartier, we generally think of immense jewels, legendary craftsmanship, tradition, and distinct luxury. The Cartier legacy stands for much more than that, a brand who is first and foremost a fervent supporter of arts and culture. Founder and President, Alain Dominique Perrin, decided very early on that he wanted to establish an independent art creation, a formation that would feature a variety of fields of knowledge, culture, and contemporary art. He has been able to stay true to his vision, even to this day.
In its thirty-plus years of existence, the Cartier Foundation has exhibited over 1000 artists and countless record-breaking shows. Grazia Quaroni, a long time curator at the foundation, states that their primary objective is to give a quality panoramic view of what has taken place in contemporary art over the years. To accomplish this mission and to support plentiful new talent, the foundation commissions unique works and builds long-term relationships with presenting artists. “What we have done over the years is not only showcase the artists like other museums have done, but we have pushed them to go further in their exhibitions and our commissions,” explains Alain Dominique Perrin.
What happens now to galleries like this one? How does a culture so heavily reliant on art for dialogue and inspiration continue to thrive in a COVID-19 world? One glimmer of hope lies in the fact that, although we can’t see art in person, we are still hungry to access it by any means possible, perhaps even more so during times of uncertainty. We seek art to be moved, to be challenged, to feel hopeful.
In the past decade, there has been an on-going effort to digitize collections around the world, and COVID-19 has spurred many museums to pivot and innovate with digital programming. Art galleries have been experiencing record web traffic – clicks to Fondation Cartier’s website soared in the early days of the crisis. This gallery seemed particularly well-prepared for an online world of art. In practice, Fondation Cartier was originally created as testament to the physical experience and provocation of thinking; however, in 2015, they launched a digital archive, ‘online projects’, an original concept intended to be shared exclusively on the web. Since its inception, their main objective was to present a digital program that was less ephemeral and more everlasting. This program and their online viewing rooms have brought new inspiration to the Fondation Cartier’s perceptively curated content. Their thoughtful, deliberate programing has certainly helped keep the work accessible, relevant, and exclusive, even as a remote experience.
While people might not be physically connecting at Fondation Cartier’s extravagant art fairs and crowded shows at the moment, more than ever before, there is a sense of global connectedness and a continuous exchange of ideas in the art world. Virtual exhibitions have upheld and adapted longstanding traditions and conventions to suit the era and Fondation Cartier is a frontrunner in maintaining a museum’s legacy as an iconic space, even digitally. By translating a physical experience to the digital sphere, it has successfully drawn in an untapped global audience, inspiring universal conversations. Artists are also video conferencing to collaborate with other artists on various projects. Galleries are launching virtual showrooms, creating space for audiences to connect with art amidst the challenges of our current climate. There are no limits to this innovation.
Although there is still no equivalent to reproducing the experience of seeing an exhibition in person, it has been enlightening to witness how a digital experience has transformed museums in other ways. For example, Fondation Cartier has recently launched an immersive installation, Night Vision 20/20, by American Visual Art Professor Sarah Sze. This is the artist’s first foray into augmented reality with an app. This immersive tool plunges users, wherever they may be, into a nocturnal dream world. The app is downloadable for free from the Apple Store and Google Play and is composed of videos of the Twice Twilight and Tracing Fallen Sky installations, which form the two parts of the exhibition. Video segments overlap with reality, transforming our perception of it, and the dreamy AR experience is intensified by a soundtrack created by Sarah Sze herself. This installation blurs the line between dreams and reality, micmicking our inability to discern between what is real and what is not, not only in our dreams, but also what lives in our phones.
The art world has been reactive and their creative responses to the absence of physical visits to galleries will redefine how society as a whole will consume art in the future. The success of Fondation Cartier proves that art is here to stay, and the role of cultural institutions will continue to evolve. Before the pandemic, one could argue that the traditional contemporary art museum was less varied and engaging. In order for museums to remain socially vital over the past year, the delivery system needed to evolve and mature, democratizing access to art so that it is able to meet audiences where they are at. In a year marked with hardship, loss, and isolation, we didn’t let go of art–we only recognized its importance and simply changed how we experienced it.
Photography by: Shutterstock
 Bürklein, C. (2021, Feburary 2). Sarah Sze’s Night into Day at Fondation Cartier. Floornature. https://www.floornature.com/blog/sarah-szeas-night-day-fondation-cartier-16060/