Still from Mark Wallinger, Threshold to the Kingdom (video), 2000. Photo: The Russian Museum.
September in France
by Deanna Sirlin
I have always thought that where a work of art was made is important. The local light and color, and maybe the food and politics, have a large affect on an artist and somehow permeate the work. I also think that seeing a work of art in different places can change the way it is perceived, as context certainly can change meaning. With this in mind, I will try to describe my experiences in Paris and Toulouse this past September.
Château de Padiès, where I was an artist-in-residence for two weeks in September, is in Lempaut which is, as best as I could tell, a tiny crossroads in a particularly beautiful part of southwestern France about 35 kilometers from Toulouse. I have taken part in other residencies--I was invited to Yaddo as a young artist, which turned out to be crucial to my artistic development. In mid-career I was invited by the city of Nuremberg, Germany as part of their sister city exchange program with the City of Atlanta. For two weeks, I was with 14 other artists at a retreat, and for two additional weeks I made art while living in the city of Nuremberg. It may seem strange that Atlanta and Nuremberg are sister cities, but “they both rose from the ashes.”
But enough about me. What I want to comment on here is the amazing amount of art in France and some of the amazing attitudes I encountered as I traveled between Paris and Toulouse. What day are you reading this? If it is the 22nd of the month there is a one-day art exhibition, as there has been on the 22nd of every month for the last 15 years, in the home of Laurent Redoules in Toulouse, which he calls “Le Salon reçoit”--"the room receives." Redoules not only invites one into his home and hangs a show there-- he also removes everything from the space to make it as much as possible like a white box gallery where an artist will show their work just for the night of the 22nd. The work I saw there on the 22nd of September 2009 was interesting, well made and conceptualized. It was the work of a not so young artist who is quite far from just emerging.
At the end of the same week, there was a festival of exhibitions of contemporary art in Toulouse called “Printemps au Septembre” ("Spring in September"). In the depth of winter I can only tell you how wonderful the idea of spring felt in the fall during the last nights when it was warm enough to walk the city and look at art. That night, the galleries stayed open all night. I went with my hosts from Padiès to Musée les Abattoirs. This former slaughterhouse is a museum of modern and contemporary art. There were several simultaneous exhibitions in the space, but the Jim Shaw painting installation, Labyrinth: I dreamed I was taller than Jonathan Borofsky, created especially for the Printemps au Septembre, was really magnificent. This installation is a mise-en-scène complete with backdrops and two dimensional flats of figures from Picasso and Dali that refers to the stage curtain Picasso designed for the Théâtre du Peuple in 1936, The Minotaur’s body dressed as Harlequin, an important work in the Abattoir museum’s collection shown as part of the installation, and The Tricornered Hat, a stage curtain by Salvador Dalí for a 1949 ballet performed by a Spanish dance company in New York City and presented here for the first time in France. I loved the graphic and theatrical presence of this work with its large painted caricatures that are articulated with an illustrational style presented en tableau with the Picasso and Dali theatre curtains kitty corner to each other and the flat figures behind them. The work fills the entire large gallery. As viewers, we can merge with the elements and walk in and around the space and become part of the theatre: first, I am a voyeur and then I am part of the scene. And I enjoy so much the going back and forth between being in the art and behind the scenes.
As if that was not enough, in the next gallery of the museum is a body of work by the German artist Cosima von Bonin, who sews together fabrics to make paintings and sculptures that read like a sort of soft sculpture bricolage. She does not hang the paintings on the wall but brings them into the space like theatre flats. She has hung stuffed animals on clotheslines across the gallery. I am sort of bored by plush in contemporary art, but I have to admit hers have a certain charm.
If you think all the art was in this one museum, I have misled you. In fact, these were not even the only exhibitions in the Musée les Abbatoirs, let alone other venues. I counted over 27 sites around the city, and there may be more of the unauthorized variety. I will not go into details about all these exhibitions, which varied in content and quality, but it did indeed make happy to have all this art around me when back in the States galleries in my city are hanging on for dear life.
My days at Padiès were sprinkled with work, dialogue, and travel to other art venues. My hosts took me to the Toulouse Lautrec Museum in Albi. I must admit I did not want to go, as I had a bad cold and thought nothing could make me leave the comfort of my studio and the pleasure of making drawings there, but I am glad they insisted. I had forgotten about Lautrec--how dare I in the place of his birth! His hand made the most elegant of lines and the clarity of his compositions is delicious. Sick as I was I absorbed these works and felt better, at least for the moment: form triumphs over illness.
I left Padiès after only two weeks but I think I got what I needed. Who knows what would have percolated if I had stayed longer; but for me it was the right amount of time. So, on to Paris where of course there is no shortage of art. However, there are still surprises to find and efforts to make in the support of contemporary work. At the Cartier Foundation was an exhibition of French graffiti artists. As wonderful as the works inside the museum with accompanying video documentation were, the wall outside the center was even more spectacular. It given over to graffiti artists: first by invitation, then to all who wanted to come work on the site, writing over each other's tags and drawings. Watching all this, I experienced the thrill of art making vicariously.
One of the Paris gallerists on whom I reported in the TAS issue for March 2009 has already lost her lease, but hopefully not her energy and verve--Galerie Lorrain Baud has moved to Berlin. The director of School Gallery, Olivier Castaing, has kept up his good humor with a delightful exhibition by a collaborative partnership of 2 men and their dog from Argentina. These triple family portraits are vividly colored embroideries, all made by hand by the artists as they watch telenovelas, with their little dog making the family complete. Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone have worked in Buenos Aires together in this way since 2003. These are indeed artists worth noting.
Leo Chiachio & Daniel Giannone, Pombero, pomberito y yaguareté (embroidery), 2008. Courtesy: School Gallery, Paris.
At Galerie Isabelle Gounod I found an exhibition by a young artist named Wilson Trouvé. His excellent exhibition, aptly titled Impasto, featured a brightly colored sculpture made of melted giant Legos, which was a visual trip. I love the drippy lusciousness of the work and the way it plays with the notions of contemporary abstraction and the drip. Isabelle was also in good humor, but had the slightly worried look all gallerists seem to have these days.
I ventured to Montmartre the next day to find the Kadist Foundation. For some reason I had never been to this part of Paris and was sort of shocked to find it in full tourist state, filled with souvenir shops and cheap wares. I am told there are very beautiful parts of Montmartre but for me the imprint will be of the Japanese tourist showing me a postcard of the Moulin Rouge and asking me where it was … sorry to say, I did not know. I was more than a little delighted to find among this visual chaos the Zen-like space of the Kadist Foundation and the exhibition Capturing Time curated by Jeremy Lewison, a member of the Kadist Foundation committee. This was the first exhibition drawn from its collection, a revealing and satisfying way to understand the foundation and what it is about. Time has always interested artists. Tacita Dean’s video Baobab, about those wonderful knobby ancient trees of Madagascar, shot in black and white, conveyed a feeling of time standing still. Both the loss of time and the need for it permeate this exhibition.
I went to the Louvre to see the very excellent exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice curated by Vincent Delieuvin, Arturo Galansino, and Jean Habert. This is a monumental exhibit that premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this past summer. As I left the museum at dusk and strolled through the Jardin des Tuileries I found the most delightful installation of by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone consisting of giant silver colored heads that look as if they were made with tinfoil (they were not, of course). But their large scale was such a delight in the context of a 16th century French garden. The contrast between the contemporary work, the light and the garden was perfect.
Kimsooja, A Needle Woman (multi-channel video), 2005. Courtesy: Kimsooja.
I girded by loins for my last evening in Paris, which just happened to be the Nuit Blanche, a city-wide all night contemporary art fest. There are Nuit Blanches all over the globe, but the Paris one is quite large and now stretches all the way to the suburbs.
Mark Wallinger's Threshhold to the Kingdom is a brilliant work-- it was when I first saw it in 2000, and it still is now. It was very special to have this work in a beautiful church, l'Église Saint-Eustache, combined with Wallinger’s choice of music, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. As you stand in the center of the church you watch the video of people moving through the international arrivals door at an airport in slow motion. Korean artist Kimsooja presented her video Needle Woman in Paris projected on the outside the grand expanse of the Hotel de Ville. Again I enjoyed the video in this particular context; I felt at one with her as she stands with her back to the crowds, her long dark ponytail and her back a strong and powerful silhouette. In the program, the video is listed as a new work for Paris, but as far I can tell it is part of same series she made between 1999 to 2001. It also says Kimsooja is moving to Paris. Of course, she can revisit this form of performative video of the intervention of her body into the chaos of the city. Both of these works have been seen many times before, in many different exhibition contexts. But the specific juxtapositions between them and their Nuit Blanche venues made them special all over again. Where and how you see a work affects your perception of it. Whether in a residence in Toulouse or a church in Paris, France makes it special.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist.