What do you do with a giant cavern?
That was the question that vexed the Provençal village of Les Baux-de-Provence. For centuries, giant blocks of white limestone had been extracted from a nearby mountain to build the town and its towering château. But by 1935, competition had forced the limestone quarry to close, leaving behind a massive, ghostly chamber. There it sat for decades, cold and silent, waiting for someone to restore it to glory.
That someone was Albert Plécy, a photographer and filmmaker, who arrived in 1975 with the idea of a “total image.” He installed a few giant projectors that flooded the cavern with colour, projecting images that he coordinated with music. For viewers inside the cavern, it was a kind of total immersion that he called the Cathedral d’Images, or the Cathedral of Images.
From this modest beginning, the programme has slowly become more sophisticated and today it uses hundreds of cutting-edge projectors and complex computer control. Now called the Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Light), the site is run by Culturespaces, France’s leading private manager of museums and art centers. Carrières de Lumières has become one of Provence’s leading tourist attractions and has led to the creation of “siblings” in Paris, Bordeaux, and South Korea.
What is it like to visit the Carrières de Lumières? Imagine walking into that giant cavern—at first all you see are its high, gray walls, a bit drab-looking in the dim light. Then the room goes dark and slowly you begin to hear music, beautiful music. Images start to appear on the walls and floor—huge, brilliant images. For the Vincent Van Gogh program, you might see the famous Sunflowers painting here, then Starry Nights over there, followed by one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits on a wall and another on a massive pillar. The images move, fade, explode, and reappear—it’s dazzling. You are completely surrounded by colour and sound. Maybe you’ve seen other sound and light shows before, but nothing like this. The word you keep thinking is “magical.”
But words don’t do justice to the Carrières: it’s something you have to see. Here’s a little taste:
There is a new programme every year, each one dedicated to a different artist. Picasso, Klimt, Chagall, and Renoir have all been featured recently, and Van Gogh is a particular favourite because he painted many of his masterpieces in the nearby towns and countryside of Provence.
The Carrières has been so successful that Culturespaces has expanded into new cities. 2018 saw the opening of the Atelier des Lumières (Workshop of Light) in an abandoned Paris foundry. The Atelier was an immediate hit, with tickets so hard to come by that viewers had to book well ahead to be sure to get in. It is already drawing over a million visitors a year.
This year’s new venue is the Bassins de Lumières (Pools of Light) near Bordeaux, inside a former submarine base. It’s the world’s largest digital art center, several times the size of either the Carrières or the Atelier, and is expected to be very popular. Like its predecessors, images are projected onto walls but—uniquely—they are also reflected in the water of the four enormous basins that previously held submarines. Visitors enjoy the experience by walking on gangways above the water and along the quays of the enormous basins.
Outside of France is the Bunker de Lumières (Bunker of Light), opened last year in South Korea. It has a setting similar to the Atelier des Lumières and is already drawing many visitors.
Whenever you make your next trip to France, consider a visit to the Carrières, Atelier, or Bassins. It just might blow your mind.