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This former submarine base in France is now the world’s largest digital art space

A Nazi U-Boat base in Bordeaux’s docklands has been transformed into a stupidly big immersive art gallery

Huw Oliver
Written by
Huw Oliver

Long gone are the Nazis and their formidable submarines. These days the 41,000-square-metre U-Boot-Bunker in Bordeaux’s docklands is home to the Bassins de Lumières: the world’s largest digital art centre.

Built in German-occupied France between 1941 and 1943, the U-Boot building has over the years been used as a metallurgy plant, and occasional festival venue and film set.

But last week it looked markedly more glamorous than ever as museum collective Culturespaces opened the doors to their latest digital art space. The Bassins occupies four cavernous 110-metre-long chambers centred around huge pools that used to house 16 Nazi submarines.

Bordeaux’s Bassins de LumièresPhotograph: Culturespaces / Erich Lessing / akg-images / Bridgeman Images

The venue’s debut show is an audiovisual exploration of the works of Gustav Klimt: a new version of the digital exhibition that inaugurated the epic Atelier des Lumières in Paris and first appeared at the Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence.

In it, the sumptuous interiors of Imperial Vienna appear on every surface, then transform into outsize versions of Klimt’s most famous paintings, from ‘The Kiss’ to his iconic gold-and-silver portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (which, aptly, was once stolen by the Nazis). All the while Mahler, Wagner and Beethoven blare from 80 hidden speakers.

A smaller-scale show on abstract painter Paul Klee, whose highly individual style combined expressionist, surrealist and cubist influences, runs concurrently in the same space.

Bordeaux’s Bassins de LumièresPhotograph: Culturespaces / Erich Lessing / akg-images / Bridgeman Images

The Bassins project may be much more ambitious than the Paris and Provence venues – the 3,000-square-metre space is more than three times bigger than either – but the pools are what make it really stand out. If there’s one thing more dazzling than a Culturespaces art show, we reckon it’s seeing it reflected simultaneously in a vast expanse of water.

When it opened for the first time last week, the venue had strict social-distancing measures in place. Masks are compulsory, there are temperature checks at the entrance and you have to pre-book a half-hour slot in advance. Once you’re there, however, you can stick around for as long as you like.

As lockdown restrictions are lifted the world over, we can see the appeal of a place like this: it’s vast, it’s loud, it’s immersive and it’s so extravagantly removed from all the decent (but ultimately quite repetitive) virtual tours that have kept us going through these strange times.

Here’s to more brilliant art institutions reopening – and opening anew – over the coming months.

Want to know when you can travel to France? Here’s what we know so far.

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