At Alliance Française, an Icon is Reborn

by Katherine Arteche
Photography by Chino Sardea
09 Jun 2022

In a conversation with Fabian Forni, Executive Director of Alliance Française, he tells Portfolio about the importance of highlighting the iconic landmark in the Alliance Française community and his ongoing mission to bridge French and Singaporean culture.

On 15 April 2019, the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire while it was undergoing renovations. Investigations were inconclusive, deeming the cause of the fire “to have been started by either a cigarette or a short circuit in the electrical system". That year, the Cathedral did not host Christmas Mass for the first time since 1803.

Immediately, French President Emmanuel Macron made the commitment to rebuild the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris and restore it to its last known condition — as it was before the fire. The project is no doubt an ambitious adventure, as President Macron has announced that the restoration will be completed by 2024 in time for the Olympic Games in Paris.

Now showing at Alliance Française, (Re)Births is an exhibition that explores the construction and successive restorations of the famed Notre-Dame de Paris through a virtual reality experience where guests are able to explore the cathedral as it once was. In commemoration of the Unesco World Heritage site, Alliance Française de Singapour has decided to put the spotlight on the architectural masterpiece, featuring a guided walkthrough of the Cathedral’s history, documentaries such as “Our Lady of Paris”, and a series of talks, screenings, and workshops that continue to share French cultural heritage with all communities through the French Excellence program.

(Re)Births marks an important albeit morose anniversary for Notre-Dame. Will we expect to see this as a recurring event?
The idea is to present a fresh theme every few months, to highlight what makes France renowned internationally: Gastronomy, architecture, contemporary art, and design, hence we might not commemorate Notre-Dame every year. However, we will share the exhibition with other Alliance Française worldwide, as we did for the Rudolf Nureyev exhibition, presented in September in Stockholm, or on Le Corbusier, soon in Malaysia.

The Notre-Dame has been a very prominent landmark in the city, if not the whole country. Can you talk about its significance and what it symbolizes for the French?
Notre-Dame de Paris is certainly an unmissable landmark of Paris, and a symbol of France! The Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that has fascinated and inspired pilgrims and visitors all over the world for centuries. It bears incredible historic, artistic, architectural, and religious significance.

Yet it has also been a place of celebration for royalties before the French Revolution, where Napoléon was crowned Emperor of the French in 1804, and has commemorated requiem masses for numerous French Presidents, including De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

It is interesting to see the implementation of virtual technology (VR) for the cathedral. How has it been received and do you see more of such formats for similar exhibitions ahead?
The VR experience was made possible thanks to Ubisoft, who specially created our Notre-Dame de Paris: Journey to the Past segment. The experience allows you to walk inside the cathedral where you can rediscover the monument as set in the 18th century. It has been so successful that we now recommend our visitors to book their slot on our website on Saturdays, just so everyone can have optimal viewing time.

We are always looking for new media to share our content, and VR is definitely something we will keep in mind for future projects.

Your previous appointment at the French Embassy in Thailand seemed to focus on the Southeast Asian arts scene. With such a huge diversity, are there any outstanding works that have inspired you?
What caught my interest both in Thailand and in Singapore is the cultural diversity and abundance, from traditional to more contemporary creation processes. I proudly attended the first Bangkok Art Biennale, and since I’ve been in Singapore, I was amazed by the Singapore Art Week or S.E.A. Focus, just to name a few of the dynamic art scenes in both cities. It allowed me to discover the work of artists such as Alex Face, and Jamie Tan & Jamie Teo, with whom we have collaborated with in our theater.

Your role now focuses on bridging French and Singaporean culture. Are there any skills you’ve picked up that apply to your current role?
Both positions require curiosity, open-mindness, and a touch of inventiveness. But most of all, you need to be hands-on!

The last time I was here, I enjoyed the thoughtful exhibition of Rudolf Nureyev. Even with Notre-Dame, the programs and exhibitions have always been thoughtfully curated, artistic and educational. Is there pressure to put together a program that’s extra special, and how it would translate well to both the French and local communities here?
Each new exhibition is a new challenge, from selecting the theme to identifying the resources, producing the content, and finding local partners, etc. It comes with months of brainstorming and research work, and the cultural team at Alliance Française is fully involved and dedicated.

In every exhibition that we organize, we are always building a bridge between French culture and the country welcoming us. My conviction is this: That we learn better from one another. And onward to the next!

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