Thierry Uhrman versus the chic Lyon suburb

Article published on April 2, 2008
Article published on April 2, 2008
Controversy erupts as an artist turns his residence into an ‘Abode of Chaos’, with heaps of scrap metal and works of art

Inversed his initials and he shares them with Steven Spielberg's greatest hero, E.T. It was during the early hours of 9 December 1999 that this extra terrestrial dropped to earth and onto a bourgeois manor in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, a small town in Lyon's golden suburbs. And then, the town's thousand or so inhabitants discovered the total chaos that was a dark and sombre facade covered with graffiti, disembowelled walls, piles of scrap metal, surveillance cameras everywhere and even a crashed helicopter.

In the courtyard, there's a reproduction of an oil platform on the roof overhanging the replica of the World Trade Center in ruins. Thierry Ehrmann, artist and businessman, has a message for earthlings which reflects an arcane and tragic world shaped by war games, by men and women who make and unmake the world which is remote, never-never and a-temporal. Only a small part of the population accept this truth, but others on the conservative side are in violent opposition. They want to retreat, untroubled, into a quiet cocoon, finding shelter from that incessant tumult of cities.

(Photo: 'La Demeure du Chaos' by Thierry Ehrmann)

Complaining about the businessman

After villagers staged a few hostile demonstrations, then-mayor Pierre Dumont decided to bring their complaint to court in 2004, in the name of France's 'urban code' (code de l'urbanisme). He wanted Ehrmann's home, an old coaching inn from the seventeenth century, changed. A four year legal battle ensued, with the French media covering every aspect of the story. Controversy grew each day as opinions formed and people chose sides. Ehrmann's accomplished his first round - unleashing peoples passions.

On 16 February 2006 the Abode was at risk. The tribunal decided that it had to be altered, with a penalty of 75 euros per day; a totally laughable amount for a businessman worth at least a million dollars. The Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or town hall counter-attacked, and France’s 307th richest man was promptly trotted back to court with his art masterpieces in hand. Lyon's court of appeals fined him 200, 000 euros for a ‘failure to declare the construction of a structure exceeding 40 metres,’ but did not impose any reconstruction or destruction of the place.

Despite the two judgements imposed on him, Ehrmann went into the third round with a smile, but justice struck one last time on January 15th 2008. In effect, Thierry Ehrmann has ended up becoming very involved in the life of his village. He even interferes during municipal council meetings, where sides taken are generally well documented.

Bric-a-brac arms

By the end of the tribunal, Thierry Ehrmann found himself adulated by some and detested by others. Admirers see him as a modern George Orwell, but his detractors describe him as ‘an insane psychotic’. A fierce adversary of misinformation, he doubled his efforts in the fight to take hold of the collective consciousness. His arms are bric-a-brac: paint bombs, metal skeletons and concrete blocks. He rediscovered a strong dose of creativity and passion in his accomplishments. In this apocalyptic decor, with all its entangled allegories about the wrongdoings of the powerful, with its portraits of dictators, terrorists and detractors, Ehrmann's cynical philosophy best expresses itself on a placard by the artist Ben - ‘the end of the world is coming.’

To make his point, Thierry Ehrmann uses symbolism heavily, from Peak Oil to the Twin Towers, the blood scattered like tears by the razor in the bunker, the control room, or Big Brother (aka Thierry Ehrmann) who supervises his workers and visitors, or with Anna Politkovskaya and the victims of New Orleans. The Abode continually changes in the same way that reality does, diving further and further into daily chaos. Who is the real subject of this controversy? The destroyers, or the denouncers?

Provocations of the politically correct

The Haus Ur was set up during the eighties in Mönchengladbach by German architect allemand Gregor Schneider, shown at the Venice Biennale (Photo 1986: ©

In the same ‘factory’ style, we find Gregor Schneider's architectural project Totes Haus Ur. This work of art which was awarded the Golden Lion for the best entry at the 2001 Venice Biennale, is akin to Ehrmann's Abode, but without the chaos. Gregor Schneider inherited his father's house, which he then transformed into a ‘Dead House’. A cold decor, without doors, partitions instead of walls and a deprivation in space that carries phenomenal acoustics.

All the characteristics of the Dead House are put together to disorient visitors, to evoke a kind of unease in them. Like his French homologue Ehrmann, Schneider provokes the politically correct. In 2007, he erected the Cube Hambourg 2007, a life size replica of the Ka'ba in Saudi Arabia, which literally means ‘the House’. In reality, it is prophet Mohammed's mausoleum in Mecca, the most sacred place in Islam. Banned at the Venice Biennale in 2003 because of politico-religious tension, where it was supposed to have been erected in Saint Mark's square, it was finally shown in Hamburg where it was received favourably by local Muslims. Artistic advertence brings with it a new victory, through those who are courageous enough to be conscious humanity's future. And if one day our planet were to become more peaceful, and if ‘working with matter would be like recreating an act of love’, then maybe E.T. would finally find his ‘home’.

The author is head of the Lyon babelblog