October 14, 2008

Art Auctioneer Takes a Turn to Real Landscapes Business of Green

By Nazanin Lankarani

On Oct. 4, the French auction house Artcurial held an unprecedented sale here of 210 rare and ornamental trees and shrubs, exceptional in their size, shape, age and beauty, bred since 1965 by the horticulturist Ghislaine de Preaulx Carlo.

The plants came from Carlo's nursery, Le Domaine des Rochettes, near Angers, about 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, southwest of Paris. The sale brought in euro 659,000, or $893,000, with several lots fetching prices in excess of euro 10,000 in intense bidding, including an "alba superba" magnolia tree that sold for euro 14,800, beating a high estimate of euro 12,000.

"The lots in this sale are not ordinary trees but the result of years of painstaking and creative breeding of rare specimens," said Francis Briest, one of Artcurial's principal executives, and the organizer of the sale. "They are works of art borne out of a spirit of research, innovation, and a sharp sense of contemporary aesthetics."

Popular interest is rising in horticulture and landscaping as art, as reflected in numerous plant exhibitions and sales this season in France, including a two-day show of rare plants starting Oct. 25 at Saint-Elix-le-Chteau, in the southern Midi-Pyrenees region, and an exhibit showcasing the work of the landscape architect Pascal Cribier.

Artcurial, which has made itself a reputation in the art world for pioneering new genres, has taken notice. The nursery sale is not its only venture into "green" business this year.

Bitten by the gardening bug, Artcurial will publish in December "Pascal Cribier, Itineraire d'un Jardinier" (Pascal Cribier, a Gardener's Journey). The book, co-financed by William Kriegel, a French-born U.S. energy mogul and horse breeding enthusiast, retraces, among other things, a collaboration between Cribier and Briest to create a garden at the Donjon de Vez, a 12th-century castle owned by Briest about an hour north of Paris.

Cribier, who prefers to be called a gardener rather than a landscape architect, is known for his historically accurate renovation of the Jardin des Tuileries, the park space between the Louvre museum and the Place de la Concorde in Paris, originally designed by the 17th-century landscape artist Andre Le Notre.

"There is a distinction between landscape, garden and nature," Cribier said. "I do not design landscapes, which are the result of social, political and economic choices. I create gardens, an artifice to obstruct the wilderness of nature."

At Vez, the award-winning garden, which is open to the public daily, blends a studied minimalism with seemingly haphazard growth, designed by Cribier to harmonize with the medieval fortress.

"The garden links the present to very ancient times," Briest said. "Without formal artistic training, the garden has allowed us to create art."

Artcurial's book will also serve as a catalogue for an indoor exhibition celebrating Cribier's work on the concealed side of gardens, and the delicate balance of climates and energies vital to their maintenance. "The garden is not only what you see. The essential part is hidden," Cribier said of his obsession with root systems, irrigation and soil quality.

The show, entitled "Roots have Leaves," recently ended in Paris but will reopen in Toulouse from Jan. 23 to March 30 in a cultural center run by the French power company Electricite de France, at the Bazacle hydro plant on the Garonne river. It will later go to Germany.

Curated by Laurent Le Bon, a Pompidou Center director who also worked on the controversial Jeff Koons show at the Chteau de Versailles, the exhibition, the product of an unusual collaboration between EDF and Artcurial, has environmental, scientific and artistic ambitions.

Alongside imposing suspended installations of tree trunks and roots, it highlights a winning project by Cribier for an international competition in 2004 to improve the environment of EDF's Cattenom nuclear power plant in Lorraine, on France's eastern border with Luxembourg.

The Cattenom project, entitled "Garden of Energies," proposed using water from Lake Mirgenbach, an on-site reservoir filled from the nearby Moselle river, to irrigate a tropical garden. "Four pressurized water reactors use the water from this artificial lake for their cooling process," Cribier said. "The water dumped back into the lake is tempered between nine and 30 degrees Celsius, even when outside temperatures drop below freezing." A Celsius range of nine degrees to 30 degrees corresponds to a Fahrenheit range of 48 degrees to 86 degrees.

Cribier's plan was to create an eight acre, or three hectare, island in the lake, that would be both a park, open to the public, and a laboratory for studying the growth and energy-saving strategy of plants. Warm water from the lake would be fed into a long, dark, buried greenhouse which would serve as a breeding place for subtropical species and a cooling system for the recycled water.

"Warm water causes serious ecological damage to the environment abutting the Moselle," Cribier said. "The island and its tropical garden would filter that water, lowering its temperature by several degrees, and decreasing the local ecological threat."

EDF, a member of the jury that unanimously awarded the project to Cribier, originally agreed to finance its cost, estimated at euro 1.8 million. Elisabeth Delorme, a representative of EDF's environmental foundation, EDF Diversiterre, said: "The work of Pascal Cribier is in line with the programs of the foundation in support of nature, landscapes and biodiversity. His vocation is to bring into public consciousness the importance of plants for humans and the preservation of the planet."

The project, however, was halted in 2005 by the French government's environmental and sustainable development agency, the Directions Regionales de l'Industrie, de la Recherche et de l'Environnement. The agency's intervention resulted in a decision by EDF to pull out of the project.

"The project was abandoned due to constraints imposed by safety authorities," Delorme said, referring to "security reasons" and a regulation that restricts human activity within 2 kilometers, or 1.2 miles, of a nuclear power plant.

Ariane Mercatello, a spokeswoman for the EDF foundation, said the project could not go ahead unless the government reversed its ban, which she said was imposed for anti-terrorism reasons.

Those arguments leave Cribier unconvinced. "A school was built within 1.6 kilometers," he said. "Hundreds of fisherman, surfers and swimmers use the lake daily."

"Nuclear installations should not be isolated," he added. The garden would "allow the local population to appreciate this industrial site and not demonize it."

EDF's decision to go ahead with sponsoring the exhibition - and to share in financing the Artcurial catalogue, which devotes a chapter to Cattenom - may reflect an eagerness to promote a positive environmental image and to offset concerns about the safety and transparency of the plant's operations that were sparked by the decision to drop the project.

Safety and transparency issues returned to the forefront of the national consciousness in July after a spill at Tricastin, a large nuclear site north of Avignon, which houses four EDF reactors, an uranium conversion facility, an enrichment plant and a weapons facility.

In the Tricastin incident, 163 pounds, or 74 kilograms, of untreated uranium in liquid leaked from a faulty tank, seeping into the ground and then into rivers that flow into the Rhone. The site operator, the state-owned nuclear company Areva, came under sharp criticism for its security measures, slow response and dilatory reporting of the problem.

"The environment is a topical subject," Briest said, commenting on Artcurial's collaboration with EDF. "Nature is a vast field of investigation, even for us in the art business."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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