This is a story about amazing beauty, imagination and magical effects — and it begins, ironically enough, at a one-time leprosarium, or hospital for lepers, in Beauvais, France, a small town outside Paris.
Lepers were sequestered in Beauvais in the 12th century. That history is now noted in an outdoor art installation made up of slim metal rods that curve up into the shape of a bowl. Each rod is tipped with a red, marble-sized glass ball.
Xavier Perrot and his partner, Andy Cao, are the 30-something landscape artists who created the work, called Red Bowl. Perrot explains that they chose red as a reminder of how, in medieval times, lepers bathed in blood hoping for a cure. If the blood "cure" didn't work, they were banished from society, and made to wear a shroud and carry a wooden noisemaker so townspeople could hear them coming and run out of their way. A priest would pronounce them dead, and family and friends would march them to a dormitory that sits behind thick stone walls on the outskirts of Beauvais. Arriving there, the leper would kneel and have dirt shoveled onto his back.
"In a symbolic way," Perrot says, the leper "is buried, and that's the end of his life, at least on the outside. That means he is no one outside of these walls."
Today, the former leprosarium — known as the Maladrerie Saint Lazare — is a bucolic, pleasant scene. But the windswept, blood-red glass of Perrot's installation reminds visitors of a grim past.
A Tribute To Beauvais' History
In town, Perrot and his partner have another installation that uses wind and light to animate a historic structure. Built in the 13th century, the Saint-Pierre Cathedral is a carefully restored, gothic tourist attraction. It stands just a few steps away from what's left of the Saint-Barthelemy Collegiate Church, where a religious order once preached and prayed.
Today, the remnant of a Saint-Barthelemy tower glistens with a Cao-Perrot installation called White Dome. Light bounces off 1,000 almost-invisible nylon filaments — or fishing lines — that descend from a dome at the top of the tower. The nylon lines hold a series of wire rings that form a kind of hoop skirt that's adorned with 3,000 tiny crystals.
When the sun hits the tower, the fishing lines turn silver and the crystals — made by the world-famous Austrian company Swarovski — shoot off rainbows of light. It makes for a beautiful dance of light and color.
Both White Dome and Red Bowl were commissioned by the town of Beauvais, which is also known for its elaborate 17th- and 18th-century tapestries, as a proud nod to its history. They're showing through mid-September.
Birthing 'Cloud Terrace' In D.C.
In the U.S., Dumbarton Oaks — a historic, 10-acre garden in Washington, D.C. — is also ablaze with colors. It has roses, azaleas, lilies and a new, temporary installation by Cao and Perrot. The pair arranged tree-high poles into an oval shape, and on top of those poles they perched a configuration that pairs luxury with something very basic.
"It's a wire mesh cloud made of two different gauges of chicken wire," says John Beardsley, head of the garden and landscape studies department of the Harvard research institute based at Dumbarton Oaks. "It's just plain old chicken wire... folded into elaborate shapes that evoke a big bank of cumulus clouds. And then it's hung with 10,000 Swarovski crystals."
Like those at Beauvais, the crystals at Dumbarton Oaks are on loan from the Austrian company. All 10,000 have been hand-tied to the chicken-wire cloud, where they cast prisms everywhere. On a cloudy day, they glimmer like raindrops.
"And then it's all reflected in an oval pool that the designers created to reflect it in," Beardsley says.
Between sculpting the wire mesh and threading and tying each of the cut crystals, it took the landscape artists and some volunteers a month to make Cloud Terrace, which is open to the public through November. Until the actual installation, Beardsley had only seen drawings of the piece. He says he was relieved when it was finally in place.
"It's a birthing experience," he says, laughing. "We gave birth to 10,000 crystals and a wire mesh cloud."
But in the midst of all the oohs and aahs, you have to ask how — in these rough economic times, with daily doses of joblessness, hopelessness and anxiety — you can justify the luxurious sparkle of artworks like this? Well, Beardsley says, the crystals are on loan, and chicken wire doesn't cost much. He says the real investments were time and aesthetics. And then, there's something else:
"There's also the saying that, in tough times, art is more important," he says, "that keeping the spirits up and the soul alive in difficult economic circumstances is terribly important."
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we'll report on two art installations. They're in very different locations. One is in Washington, D.C., and the other is in France, a 20-minute train ride out of Paris. But these art installations have one thing in common. Both exhibits showcase the power of light.
Oh, they have one other thing in common - NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: This is a story about amazing beauty, imagination, magical effects. And it begins at a one-time leprosarium, a place for lepers, in a small town outside of Paris. In the 12th century, lepers were sequestered here, a history noted now in an outdoor art installation.
Slim metal rods curving up into the shape of a bowl - each rod is tipped with a glass ball. The marble-size ball is red. In medieval times, lepers, hoping for a cure, bathed in blood.
XAVIER PERROT: In order to heal, yes.
STAMBERG: In their own blood?
PERROT: No, animals' blood.
STAMBERG: Xavier Perrot and his partner, Andy Cao, are the 30-something landscape artists who created the work.
Is this why you chose the red, as reminders of drops of blood?
STAMBERG: If the blood cure didn't work, the leper was banished from society. He was made to wear a shroud, and to carry a wooden noise-maker so townspeople could run out of his way. A priest pronounced him dead. And then his family and friends marched him to this dormitory that sits behind thick stone walls on the outskirts of the town of Beauvais. Arriving here, the leper knelt.
PERROT: They would shovel dirt on his back.
STAMBERG: On his head.
PERROT: On his head or on his back, yes.
STAMBERG: As if they were burying him.
PERROT: In a symbolic way that, you know, he's buried and that's the end of his life, at least on the outside. That means he's no one outside of these walls.
So when they came here, they were given...
STAMBERG: A shroud.
PERROT: Yeah, the shroud.
(SOUNDBITE OF A DONKEY)
PERROT: What is that?
STAMBERG: What is it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A donkey.
STAMBERG: Donkey. Where is that donkey?
PERROT: This is new, actually. They just got it.
STAMBERG: I bet he knew I had a microphone.
STAMBERG: The donkey, Rhubarb, shares a field at the former leprosarium. It's called the Maladrerie Saint-Lazare with some sheep and roosters. A bucolic, pleasant scene these days. But the wind-swept blood-red glass of Xavier Perrot's installation reminds visitors of the grim past.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: J'arrive. Hello.
STAMBERG: In town, Perrot and his partner, Cao, have another installation that uses wind and light to animate a historic structure.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
STAMBERG: The 13th century Beauvais Cathedral is a tourist attraction - Gothic, intricate, carefully restored. It's a few steps away from what's left of the Saint-Barthelemy Collegiate Church, where a religious order once preached and prayed. The remnant of a tower there glistens at another Cao-Perrot installation, light bouncing off a large dome from which 1,000 almost-invisible nylon filaments, fishing lines, descend to hold 3,000 tiny crystals attached to a configuration that Scarlett O'Hara could have worn.
It looks like, oh, a hoop skirt from the old days. Ring after ring of wire that form a cap. And along every single one of those wires you've attached the crystals.
When the sun hits the tower, the fishing lines turn silver and the crystals made by Swarovski, the world-famous Austrian company, the crystals shoot off rainbows of light that delight visitors.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)
STAMBERG: It really is beautiful. A dance of light and color, commissioned by the town of Beauvais, as a proud nod to its history. Beauvais is also known for its elaborate tapestries, 17th and 18th century treasures.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER)
STAMBERG: In this country, treasures of nature are the pride of a 10-acre garden in Washington, D.C., where Harvard University runs a research institution. The gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown, blaze with color, from roses and azalea, lilies, and a new temporary installation Perrot and Cao were invited to design. They arranged tree-high poles into an oval shape. And on top of those poles, they perch a configuration that pairs luxury with something really basic.
JOHN BEARDSLEY: It's a wire mesh cloud made of two different gauges of chicken wire.
STAMBERG: It's just plain-old chicken wire.
BEARDSLEY: It's just plain-old chicken wire...
STAMBERG: John Beardsley is director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.
BEARDSLEY: ...folded into elaborate shapes that evoke a big bank of cumulous clouds. And then it's hung with 10,000 Swarovski crystals.
STAMBERG: Those crystals again. Beauvais has 3,000. Georgetown has 10,000 - on loan from Swarovski and hand-tied, all 10,000 of them, to the chicken wire cloud, where, suspended, they cast prisms everywhere. On a cloudy day they glimmer like raindrops.
BEARDSLEY: And then it's all reflected in an oval pool that the designers created to reflect it in.
STAMBERG: It took the landscape artists and volunteers a month to make "Cloud Terrace," to sculpt the wire mesh and thread and tie each of the cut crystals. John Beardsley had only seen drawings of the piece. When it was finally in place, he says he was relieved.
BEARDSLEY: It's a birthing experience.
STAMBERG: Like Fanny Brice once said something was like giving birth to a baby grand piano.
BEARDSLEY: We gave birth to 10,000 crystals in a wire mesh cloud.
STAMBERG: In the midst of all the oohs and aahs, you have to ask how. How - in these rough economic times, with daily doses of joblessness, hopelessness, anxiety - how can you justify the luxurious sparkle of artworks like this? Well, says John Beardsley, the crystals are on loan. Chicken wire doesn't cost much. The real investments were time and aesthetics. And there's something else.
BEARDSLEY: There's also the saying that in tough times art is more important, that keeping the spirits up and the soul alive in difficult economic circumstances is terribly important.
STAMBERG: The Perrot-Cao cloud will stay at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington until October, maybe a bit longer. The Beauvais pieces are up until mid-September.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can see photos of the crystal and light creations at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep..
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.