PORQUEROLLES ISLAND, France — With a permanent population of only 200, almost everyone who comes to Porquerolles is a visitor, journeying across land and sea to arrive at this breezy, fragrant island. You can smell gusts of eucalyptus and pine before you even get off the boat. 

This voyage by sea is the starting point for this summer’s exhibition at Villa Carmignac, a 2,000-square-meter art space set within a 15-hectare estate in the center of the island, run by Fondation Carmignac. Legend suggests that Porquerolles Island was visited by the poet-traveler Odysseus/Ulysses, where he fought the sea monster Alycastre. The Dream of Ulysses is inspired by the journey made by the epic hero and by every modern-day visitor to Villa Carmignac, as it combines mythological events with contemporary issues. 

Installation view of The Dream of Ulysses at Villa Carmignac, Porquerolles Island, France. Pictured, Adrián Villar Rojas, “The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (XII) (The Bison)” (2015) (© Adrián Villar Rojas; photo by Thibaut Chapotot, courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and Kurimanzutto)

Upon arriving at the Villa Carmignac, visitors are invited to drink a beverage distilled from locally foraged herbs before being asked to remove their shoes at the threshold of the exhibition space. There is an emphasis on taking the time and space to engage with art, both mentally and physically. 

The exhibition itself is composed as a labyrinth via freestanding walls, enclosed spaces, and full-length mirrors, designed by Italian theater scenographer Margherita Palli in collaboration with curator Francesco Stocchi. As a result artworks reveal themselves unexpectedly, and often at close quarters, in a sequence that depends on the visitor’s choices. The show is an exercise in unsettling visitors’ sense of place and direction, prompting internal as well as external journeys. 

The Dream of Ulysses plays with the conditions of liminality. The opening image is a reproduction of a c. 470 BCE tomb fresco from the Greco-Italian town of Paestum, depicting a seemingly carefree naked man diving from a platform into a pool of water below. The painting evokes (and may symbolize) the transition between life and death — and the free-floating precarity permitted by moments of in-betweenness. 

Carol Rama, “Untitled” (1987), mixed media on paper and canvas, 12.91 x 18.78 inches (photo by Pino Dell’Aquila, © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin, Italy)

The show features around 70 works from the Carmignac Collection, interspersed with loans and a handful of new commissions. Its expansiveness makes use of the multiple themes in Homer’s 24-book epic. Monsters are a recurring motif, from Francesco Clemente’s “Autobiography” (2003) to Archangelo Sassolino’s mechanical sculpture “Figurante” (2010), in which hydraulic jaws slowly exert enormous pressure onto a bloody bone until it shatters; the bone is replaced each day only to be destroyed again in an endless cycle. 

The story’s many sirens, temptresses, and goddesses are referenced, too. In Carol Rama’s 1944 watercolor “Dorina,” for example, a wild-haired woman caresses a snake emerging from her vagina in a fascinatingly multidimensional exploration of gendered sexuality. Elsewhere, Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #296” (1994) suggests an oracle or fortune teller. The figure of Penelope bookends the exhibition through two works by Martial Raysse, including “Faire et defaire Penelope That’s the Rule” (1968), which has never before been publicly shown. Penelope is Odysseus’s wife, awaiting her husband’s return after 10 years at war in Troy and another 10 trapped on a sea voyage. These works frame Penelope as an active, agential character, weaving her own destiny and ruling over her household autonomously for two decades.

Oliver Laric, “Ram with Human” (2021), SLS nylon, SLA resin, pigments, paint, aluminum, 63.78 x 36 3/5 x 12 3/5 inches (courtesy Pedro Cera Gallery)

The Dream of Ulysses also contains a number of allusions to the myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. Feather-clad forms are seen in Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait and in Ann Ray’s “Unfallen Angels” (2012), while falling bodies that recall the ancient diver from the opening image appear in works by Carol Rama and Adger Cowans. The myth is not mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, but the familiar story perhaps helps to clarify the exhibition’s sub-theme of hubris as it is defined in Greek tragedy (an arrogance and a belief that one can overstep the limits defined for humankind by the gods). 

The labyrinthine setting makes it difficult to know when the exhibition has concluded. Eventually, however, visitors will likely find that every path leads back to the central atrium, which is inhabited by Jorge Peris’s new commission “Heroes boca abajo” (2022). Set under a glass ceiling covered with a sheet of water, the space contains a series of intersecting ropes and canvas sails, evoking the sense of an odyssey rather than a specific itinerary or means of transport. Here, as throughout The Dream of Ulysses, there is an emphasis on the journey rather than the destination — an attempt, perhaps, to turn every traveler into a poet. 

Arcangelo Sassolini, “Figurante” (2010), steel, bone, hydraulic system, 29 1/2 x 25 3/5 x 9.55 inches (© Arcangelo Sassolino, Collezione Forin, Italy; photo by Marc Domage)

Entering the hushed spaces of the Villa Carmignac is an exclusive experience. The south of France and its beautiful islands are known for attracting very wealthy tourists, and the whole place exudes a glamour that only comes from money. The expense and time required by the journey that inspires the exhibition would make it prohibitive to many. Audiences are therefore predominantly White and upper middle class.

Within these parameters, however, the Fondation Carmignac sets out to make blue-chip contemporary art accessible to visitors not usually engaged with the art world or familiar with the conventions of contemporary art exhibitions. The vast majority of the island’s tourists are drawn by the beaches and natural beauty of the national park; out of 100,000 visitors per year, the Villa Carmignac receives around 60,000 of them. Those under 25 are offered heavily subsidized tickets, as well as free talks and open-air cinema evenings, and partnerships with local festivals are used to draw people in. Meanwhile, contributions to historic restoration and ecological projects attempt to forge ties between the foundation and its island setting — a setting that hovers between myth and reality. 

Adger Cowans, “Icarus” (1970), gelatin silver print 47.24 x 49 3/5 inches (© Adger Cowans, courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York)

The Dream of Ulysses continues at Fondation Carmignac (Ile de Porquerolles – La Courtade, Hyères, France) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Francesco Stocchi. 

Travel to and accommodations were provided by Fondation Carmignac in connection with the exhibition.

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.