The bucolic countryside surrounding the small hamlet of Saint Romain au Mont D’Or seems like the last place one would find one of the most provocative art exhibits in all of France. Nestled in the hills just outside of Lyon and surrounded by centuries-old houses built of the local golden stone, it seems better suited to a Monet landscape than a dark perspective on the state of contemporary global politics.
So, when you come around the corner and see a blackened broken wall covered in painted faces, statements, and slogans, it causes you to stop dead in your tracks. That is just what the man behind La Demeure du Chaos (The Abode of Chaos), Thierry Ehrmann, wants to happen. “My art is designed to make people think, to make them wonder about their choices, and what is in their future,” says Ehrmann.
When Mr. Ehrmann purchased his sprawling 17th-century villa a couple of decades ago, his new neighbors had little reason to question his motives. He was one of the more successful businessmen in France as the founder and CEO of several prosperous internet companies, including the Serveur Group and Artprice. But not long after moving in he began to indulge his passion for art.
His first focus was the inside of his home, where he began to radically transform everything. Walls were torn out, ancient facades were stripped away, and the sound of industrial tools rang out well into the night. Something was happening, but it was contained inside the ancient stone walls of his villa.
When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, Ehrmann knew he was witnessing something monumental, and felt he had to make a statement. “9/11 was the true birth of the 21st century and nothing but chaos has followed in its footsteps,” he says . “My art highlights the alchemy that is happening right now around all of us.”
With this new-found passion, the focus of his art changed and he decided to use the large plot of land surrounding the villa to make a statement about post-9/11 war, anger, hatred, and greed driving people’s choices and, the resulting damage being inflicted on the planet. He threw himself completely into the project and started to create sculptures throughout his estate that addressed the world as he saw it, and has not stopped since. It seems that every time some significant event happens in the world, he and his team of artists create something to address it.
With over 5,500 different works of art on display it is easy to get overwhelmed during a visit to the Abode of Chaos. From the moment you walk through the gates you feel that you’ve entered a post-apocalyptic world. Covering every surface, painted images of the famous, and infamous, stare out at you. Each nook seems to harbor the image of a skull. The walls with their shredded skin look more suited for a war zone with steel rebar poking out at skewed angles, seeming like they might topple at any minute.
Towering over the main house is a recreation of an oil platform, which calls attention to the destruction wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Under it a split mural of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden looks out over the courtyard while Donald Trump, Fidel Castro, and a smiling monkey dare you to lock eyes with them.
Right next to the derrick is a wrecked helicopter and a burned-out military truck, part of a work of art highlighting the destructive effects that the war for oil has had on the planet. Over the years Mr. Ehrmann has worked with artists from several countries and they have often found interesting items for the Abode. Strewn throughout the compound are numerous shipping containers, an aircraft fuselage, burned-out cars, a large boat, and more than enough steel to build a small building.
One of his favorite mediums is steel. Rusting hulks poke out from beneath foliage with various symbols, silhouettes, and signs burned into their surface.
Nine massive silver skulls are arranged throughout the grounds, each one adorned with symbols and artwork. They have a sobering effect, just like Mr. Ehrmann hopes. “We are all decaying, moving towards death at all time, from the moment you are born,” he says. “I choose not to ignore it.”
A succession of mayors of his village have declared that the Abode of Chaos is an eyesore, an abomination, and other, even less flattering terms. They want the exterior of the villa returned to its original state with all of the artwork out of sight. Over the last decade the village has rerouted bus routes to avoid the Abode, turned down all requests for more parking, and distributed literature decrying the place. But despite their attacks the museum is one of the more popular attractions in Lyon region, attracting over 120,000 visitors a year. It is open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, and admission is free.
Ehrmann’s fight with the mayors has not just been limited to local squabbles. The village has been fighting him in court continuously since he decided to share his artistic vision. With ample financial resources at his disposal Mr. Ehrmann has refused to back down and his fight is changing the status of artistic freedom in France, and Europe.
He has taken his case to the highest courts, and on July 7, 2016, after 17 years of lawsuits, he scored a major victory when the French Minister of Culture helped usher through a law in Parliament that guarantees that “artistic creation is free” and thus there is no basis for making the Abode of Chaos disappear. Even with this law in place he knows that the battles are not over. The latest mayor, Pierre Curtelin, has vowed to keep fighting.
Despite what happens in the future, one thing is certain. Mr. Ehrmann and his team will keep creating art within his walls. Every time another shocking or disturbing headline on the internet demands our attention, someone inside the Abode of Chaos is sure to stop for a moment and wonder how they can use it to make another statement about the madness of our world. “For we humans to make things better we must first recognize how bad things are, to see the worst that can happen,” says Ehrmann. “Only then can we begin to fight back, to make a change.”