ARLES, France — It first looked to be cold, gray, and rainy on the first April weekend in Arles, somewhat in stride with the general dour spirit of the French these days. This grouch has been indicated by the regional election successes of the far right-wing National Front party. With stagnation unemployment in France at over 10% (around 12% in the European community) the mood under the current Socialist party administration has been overcast, malcontent and nationalist, of late. But with the first breath of April spring, a psychic international egg was hatching in the Camargue region, cradled in the nest of art. So even as the mistral winds blew hard, they blew warm and from gauche à droite à gauche.
The art program started on Thursday night with openings in private art galleries (I myself had a vernissage at Galerie Omnius) and then with the Friday opening of the newly vitalized Fondation Van Gogh, orchestrated by the Swiss zoologist, environmentalist, and philanthropist Luc Hoffmann. Dr. Hoffmann, at 91, is a congenial man with warm and bushy eyes who has been supporting Fondation Van Gogh for decades under the direction of its founder, Yolande Clergue. But now the foundation has moved to a new and very chic location fashioned by the architects Guillaume Avenard and Hervé Schneider.
After three years of work it opened its doors with the inaugural exhibition Van Gogh Live! curated by the Kunsthaus Zürich-bassed Swiss art critic (and founder of the magazine Parkett) Bice Curiger, who is now the director of the Fondation Van Gogh.
I dug that Bice cheekily chose to highlight-center a tremendously cryptic Thomas Hirschhorn installation that both celebrates and mocks Van Gogh’s popularity and non-exclusivity. For his new, large-scale piece “Indoor Van Gogh Altar” (2014), Hirschhorn imagined himself as a young Japanese woman of today who is obsessed with Van Gogh.
I lingered in the sprawling silver installation for as long as I could, given the crowds, before passing swiftly by a room of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits (I obviously don’t get Peyton’s appeal) and headed straight for the dozen works by Van Gogh on loan from other institutions. (My favorites being “Autoportrait avec pipe et chapeau de paille” (1887) and “La Maison jaune (‘La rue’)” (1888) — both from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.) These were set off alongside his influential contemporaries, such as Camille Pissarro, Gustave Courbet, and Claude Monet. This re-opening of the foundation topped off a new look at Vincent Van Gogh taking place in France with the show Van Gogh / Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society, which continues at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through July 6th.
With Saturday came the hatching of an enormous project for Luc’s daughter, Maja Hoffmann: the opening of work on her 20-acre LUMA Arles campus, the aim of which is to create a contemporary art center for living labor. LUMA Arles will be providing artists with opportunities to experiment in the production and presentation of new work in collaboration with other artists, curators, scientists, innovators and audiences. The goal is to create a community to produce new work and ideas.
LUMA Arles encompasses six historic, large-scale industrial buildings, of which five are being renovated by Selldorf Architects for presentations, installations, exhibitions, artists’ residencies and studios. One historic building, the Grande Halle, was renovated in 2007 by the initiative of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
This strategy, both jovial and intense, judging by its principal image, John Baldessari’s “Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man” (1984), began with the launching of the curious show Solaris Chronicles, curated by Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Philippe Parreno at the Atelier de la Mécanique (Mechanical Workshop) a mammoth rave-ready abandoned SNCF workshop edifice.
Solaris Chronicles seemed to me a show as much virtual as actual that morning, as a large amount of relational flux (and some warm air) was established around the models of Frank Gehry, the architect who has designed the tower of the Luma Foundation; the center piece of the research and reference facilities, workshop and seminar rooms, artist studios, and presentation spaces. This model took inspiration from the limestone peaks of Les Alpilles, mountain range that rises from the Rhone Valley northeast of Arles and was pristinely presented in an adjacent building.
As I entered the vast dark cavern for Solaris Chronicles, I immediately was swept up in a very Dionysian piece of recorded music (already underway) that sounded like Hermann Nitsch’s “Allerheiligensinfonie” — so I braced myself for something bloody. It turned out, however, to be a piece I could not identify by Pierre Boulez.
In the dimness I could just make out teams of young people wheeling around large-scale models of Gehry’s earlier architectural models, such as his project for Abu Dhabi and his brilliant Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
A cynic might point out that all this rolling around might appear to some as the re-arranging of deck chairs on the Titanic, but I found the flow of models fitting for a project as yet still a mix of the mighty and flighty — where the actual and the virtual aspects of it are still approaching each other, merging.
I liked this Dionysian entrance very much and thought that it was just right for the April event, as it put me in mind of the ancient Greek Spring rite of Dionysian ekstasis. May I remind you, however, that the culmination of the Dionysian ekstasis spree was an ecstatic frenzy in which the participants tore apart and devoured raw a sacrificial animal so that psychological frontiers may be torn down in preparation for an immersive divine dive into a world of unity — in this case, perhaps, between artists, communists, curators, scientists, socialists and philanthropists. Just who the sacrificial animal was here remained the open question.
There then was a pause for a round of speechifying (there are always numerous speeches at European cultural events) followed by a blinking Philippe Parreno “Marquee” sound and light show, featuring works similar or identical to those in his Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World show at the Palais de Tokyo that closed in January.
As they were at the Palais de Tokyo, the marquees were kind of cute but yawn-inspiring, and I noticed most people ignoring them as they made their way out of the space. I thought they were both gratuitous and overly obvious as related to Frank Gehry’s architectural models — more about ghostly nostalgia than building a dynamic future.
At the second round of speeches, before the public aperitif, Rolande Schiavetti — the wife of the city’s Communist mayor Hervé Schiavetti, herself the daughter of a railway worker — spoke of her father’s joy at finally seeing the city’s industrial ruins reborn. Gehry said that he loved France, and that he would try not to screw it up, and the Socialist deputy Michel Vauzelle praised the alliance of communists, socialists, and great Swiss philanthropic capital for transforming the city through art.
It was elevating to experience such a moment in this ancient city, known for its Roman theatre where bullfights are conducted. We will see if the good cheer and unity lasts soon with the coming scuffle over Lucien Clergue’s Rencontres d’Arles as four candidates, Christine Ollier, François Cheval, Sam Stourdzé, and Julien Frydman battle it out. (The final decision will be announced by festival directors April 16th.)
Van Gogh Live! runs until August 31 at Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles (35 rue du Docteur Fanton, Arles).
Solaris Chronicles runs until October 26 at Atelier de la Mécanique (Parc des Ateliers, Arles).
Rencontres d’Arles opens July 7 and closes September 21 (Arles, France).