Paris funeral parlour to be modern art HQ

It is a vast, disused funeral parlour once known as the “factory of grief”, where all Paris’s coffins were once made and black horse and carts were parked as the starting point for every Parisian’s final journey. But politicians are now hoping the capital’s temple of death will inject some life into the city’s ailing modern arts scene.

The former state funeral parlour at 104 rue d’Aubervilliers in north-east Paris reopened earlier this month after being transformed into the city’s most daring modern arts centre.

The €100-million restoration of the massive 19th-century parlour is Paris’s art event of the year. Not only are Parisians attracted by the macabre past of the building — known only by its street number, Centquatre — the centre will also bring artists and tourists into the 19th arrondissement best known for its high-rises, poverty and gang culture.

Centquatre will offer cutting-edge workshops, studios and filmsets for artists from all over the world, from directors and sound sculptors to comic-strip artists and fashion designers.

The only pay-off is that they must allow the public to wander through and inspect them at work. Some warn it could become an “artists’ zoo” but others hail a revolution in contemporary cultural workspace.

It is the latest attempt to make up for 50 years in which Paris has slipped from a world arts capital to a museum city lacking in dynamism, where exasperated artists live in squats or flee to more vibrant scenes in places such as Berlin.

The masterpiece of 19th-century industrial architecture was built by the Catholic church in 1873 on the site of an old abattoir. But in 1905, when France separated church and state, the city authorities took over the funeral operation, arguing that anyone had a right to a burial, regardless of religion or status. It was the start of the state’s monopoly on funerals — sinners, such as divorced women, would no longer have to be buried in secret at night. With more than 1 000 workers the state funeral parlour built coffins, stabled horses to pull cortèges and designed and produced every aspect of the funeral procession. At the height of activity 27 000 hearses set out on funerals from there each year.

Contrary to popular belief, it was never a morgue receiving corpses.

But under Nazi occupation the pall-bearers sometimes had to collect remains of those executed in a Nazi prison outside Paris. At the end of World War II the remains of some concentration camp victims were brought back to the funeral parlour. During France’s wars in Algeria and Indochina victims’ possessions were presented to the families on the site.

There will be a mock “souvenir shop” in which an artist retells the history of the site with documentary footage and photographs. —

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