How Pokémon Go Helped Uncover Lost French Artwork

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What are the Chansey’s of that? The story of how Pokémon Go players helped unearth lost French sculptures.

Since the release of Pokémon Go last July, the augmented reality app has achieved some pretty fascinating things. It has united communities, set new download records and has inspired some bizarre real world events. Pokemon Go also recently served as the catalyst to uncover lost and unfinished sculptures from a deceased French artist. Allow me to tell you the tale…

Ernée – a pleasant commune in the Mayenne region of France, most famous for its motocross track. During a recent holiday, my family and I spent a few days in Ernée taking in the sights, catching up with friends and generally relaxing. Much like many other locations in France, the majority of Ernée’s shops and business shut down for 2 hours for lunch. It was during one lunchtime, desperately trying to keep my 4 kids entertained, that we decided to buy some icecreams and take a walk. A local family had recommended we check out something called “Les Géants” or “The Giants” in a local field. Curious as to what this could be, we headed out.

Next to a roundabout, in a field of long grass, stand what the local community call Les Géants. Massive sculptures and statues overlook the surrounding areas from a vacant lot. The statues themselves are beautiful in their uniqueness and often breathtaking in their size but we noticed something as walked among them and played football in their shadows – they’d been abandoned. There’s a graffiti-covered amphitheatre hidden away behind hedges and a small pond fenced off from the world. Several of the statues had started to crack and weeds & nettles had started to claim them as their own. Still, my family enjoyed exploring the area.

As we wandered, I noticed the area started to fill up with groups of people huddled together looking at their phones. They’d occasionally move from statue to statue, huddling up once gain. It looked a little odd but as we walked passed one particular group, I saw something very familiar – the unmistakably furious screen tapping of a Pokémon Go Gym Battle. As I was on holiday, I hadn’t even considered whipping out my phone and checking for Pokémon lurking around the area so when I did I was astounded – the entire area was filled with Gyms and Pokéstops. Each and every one of the statues and sculptures featured in the game in one form or another. Looking around, there were numerous groups, all playing the augmented reality app together. A thriving community of Pokemon trainers.

I introduced myself to one of these groups, torturing the French language as I did so, and a lovely man named Gim who spoke some English welcomed us into his circle. Between my limited French and Gim’s impressive English, we struck up a conversation. He told us that the friendly Pokemon trainers met here every weekday at lunch time to walk, battle it out over the Gym and hopefully fill out more of their Pokedex. We talked for a while about the game, compared Pokemon (Gim had a 2K+ CP Charizard he was particularly proud of) and the conversation eventually turned to the park itself. Neither Gim or his group of friends had any idea of where Les Géants had come from or who had created them. They had a vague recollection of some sort of concert happening at the amphitheatre years ago but they knew nothing more. After an hour of Pokemon hunting, the lures had ran out and Gim and his group went back to work.

The next day we returned to Les Géants to eat our Lunch and sure enough, Gim and co. were there. He was locked in a tight Gym battle with another player, Philipe (rocking a Lapras at 2.5K CP with the elemental advantage over Gim’s Charizard). The Gym changed hands multiple times over a half-an-hour period until Gim saw that we were there and stopped to talk to us. He explained that he had asked the other Pokemon Go players who frequently visited Les Géants if they knew anything about who put the statues and sculptures there and he then lead me and my family (along with a few other interested Pokemon Go players) up a path to an abandoned building.

Another Pokemon Go player, Valérie, was waiting for us. She spoke fluent English and explained that once upon a time, the abandoned building was some sort of art exhibit and that the statues and art work that many called Les Géants were all part of this exhibit. By this point, it was now 2PM and the area quickly emptied as everyone returned to work, leaving my family and I alone. We walked around the abandoned building, trying to find some clue as to who it was that had created the beautiful statues and art work littered around the area. We found a single photo on a stand, positioned in front of a locked door, that we could see from a window which served as our only clue – Until my two year old son decided to explore. Much like any other infant, if you take your eyes off of my son for two seconds, he’ll be up to some mischief. This time he ran off into a rundown shed that looked like it was about to fall down. Hot on his heels, I sprinted (okay, I quickly jogged. I’m not much of a runner) after him and picked him up before he managed to find more trouble to get up to. Looking up, that’s when I saw it…

Louis Derbré was born in the French commune of Montenay, part of the Mayenne region, in 1925. A year later his parents bought a farm in Ernée where Louis lived and worked until he was 19. After World War II ended, he moved to Paris where he found manual work at an artistic publishing house. Inspired by the works he saw there, Derbré took a sculpture class and discovered he had a natural talent in the field. His first ever piece, a portrait of a friend who visited the publishing house where he worked, went on to win the Fénéon Prize in 1951. Derbré continued to sculpt, working under the celebrated sculptor Émile Gilioli while he perfected his craft, until he was ready to exhibit his own work and won many prestigious awards such as the national prize of the School of Fine Arts in 1953. During his career Louis Derbré erected sculptures around the globe including the massive bronze Memorial for Peace near Hiroshima, Japan. In 1991, Derbré returned to Ernée where he lived and worked until he died in 2011.

… Before me, surrounded by brambles that were growing through the walls of the shed, was a treasure trove of artwork. Incredible, jaw-dropping sculptures, statues and pieces were stacked along the walls in different states of abandonment. Some were wrapped in cellophane and were just a little dusty, others were exposed to the elements and covered in dead leaves. I called my family over and we stepped a little further into the shed to see what all of this was, very aware that this felt like trespassing. To the side was a poster on the floor, soggy and brown that read “Espace culturel Louis Derbré”. I quickly Googled the name and found a few Trip Advisor reviews and a photo gallery. What many local Ernée residents refer to as “Les Géants” was created by the sculptor Louis Derbré before his death in 2011. There was once an exhibition centre here for his work but was closed in 2014. It appears as though the art that was on display here was packed up and stored in the shed in which we now stood. Carefully, we stepped through the shed being wowed by the forgotten and unfinished artwork that lay around us.

The next day, and our last day in Ernée before moving on to Paris, we returned to Les Géants to tell our Pokemon Go playing pals what we’d found. Valérie and a few of her friends arrived first and we showed them the shed and the artwork inside the Espace Culturel Louis Derbré. We all agreed not to touch anything (as this still felt very much like trespassing) and they were just as impressed by the art as we were. Word spread among the other Pokemon Go groups that day and several other groups including Gim and Philipe made there own to the shed to take a look at what was inside. More than 30 people came by in the 2 hours that we were there. A family came by to chat, tempted by a Pokemon lure on a nearby Statue. After looking at what was in the shed, they reminisced about when the exhibition was open and informed us they were going to speak to the local administration to see if there was any way they could better preserve the artwork from the elements and to see if they could contact the current owner of the art. We exchanged email addresses and parted ways, hopeful that the forgotten treasures in the shed might be restored and “Les Géants” might be called Espace Culturel Louis Derbré once again.

The few days I spent in Ernée were memorable for many reasons but I don’t think I will ever forget the camaraderie with the thriving Pokemon Go community there and how our combined curiosity managed to unearth a plethora of impressive art work that seems to have been forgotten or unfinished.

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