The term “site”, often mentioned in contemporary art, is particularly appropriate for describing the activities of the Cairn, a centre d’art located in Digne-les-Bains in the Alps of Haute-Provence. Artists go there and create perennial works on the protected territory of Europe’s largest geological reserve. These creations are incorporated into the encyclopaedic collections of the Gassendi Museum, itself organised like a huge showcase of curiosities. Invited to work on this subject, art critic Fabien Faure reminds us of the link between the mine prospecting activities of American geologists and the history of land art.read
In 1995, Nadine Gomez, curator of the Gassendi Museum in Digne-les-Bains (in south-east France) and Guy Martini, who founded the Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence in 1984, decided to found the CAIRN-Centre d’art. At the time, they envisaged an organisation resolutely devoted to contemporary art, which, however, would take into consideration the specific nature of this rural area in the southern foothills of the Alps, just outside the Rhone Valley area. Since then, devoted to the production of works and of monographic exhibitions, the CAIRN centre regularly hosts artists in residence, for whom they propose to work “in the spirit of the places”. In other words, while the CAIRN centre was based in the Réserve géologique de Haute-Provence – that is, concretely, in the area of 200,000 hectares that it covers – many artists, in return, have devoted themselves to re-examining, interpreting and reshaping the sites that make up this area. This dialogue, which has been renewed for almost twenty years, has produced dozens of exhibitions and lasting works, particularly “on location”. It gradually developed a collection that is clearly and deliberately situated or localized. The term “site” now seems to be appropriate for anyone who wishes to test and analyse the spatiality of many three-dimensional works – which are indeed exterior, but not only. However, since we are concerned with the foundations of the work done in Digne, it may be useful to re-examine the links between recent art and the idea of site, which is itself historically determined.
In both Europe and the USA, in the late 1960s, then especially during the 1970s, the redefinition of the term “site”, and then of the expressions in situ and site-specificity, sanctioned the introduction of this vocabulary into the lexicon of art at the time of the last avant-gardes. These ideas were then soon to experience the critical destiny that we know. This is why, nowadays, although usage tends to confuse the two expressions, their redefinition reflects distinct cultural fields. Originally, the expression in situ was used more in Europe, especially in France, where Daniel Buren used it all the time and theorised it from 1976, contributing largely to its widespread use. This rooting is not unrelated to the sort of historic substance given to in situ by its borrowing from archaeological Latin expressions, which relate to a frame of reference to which we are more accustomed in the “old continent” of Europe than people in North America. For, while geologists have been using the same expression since the middle of the 19th century to describe the study of rocks in their natural environment, archaeologists have more strongly linked their practices, methods and conceptions to the idea of in situ, thereby designating, since the same period, artefacts excavated in the location and place where they were used, since they could be presented on the very site where they were discovered. The idea of site-specificity, which is difficult to translate into French, means “work that has a specific relationship with the site that it occupies and which it absorbs in doing so”. It was coined in the early 1970s in the USA, where it has been in common use ever since then. The writings of Robert Smithson, and then especially of Richard Serra, have played a preponderant role in this cultural determination. In addition, in the USA, for because of the intensive operations carried out in a country that has vast expanses with low population density, the term “site” refers more clearly to the industrial applications of geological science than in Europe. Robert Smithson liked to blur the boundaries that distinguish museum rooms from abandoned quarries, where he found the very image of the non-site, the foil from which he tried to establish new possibilities for work in space. Parodying the prospecting programmes by mining companies, the artist significantly refers to “Site Selection Study”, an activity which we can imagine being applied to original, unexplored areas, which will soon have an artistic destiny.
Although this background now seems to be fading away and to be replaced by less detailed meanings, such relationships still determine approaches indirectly. Faced with the constitution of a geological scientific culture, of which the Digne area has been one of Europe’s major centres since the 19th century, the above aspects lead one to reconsider the work done within CAIRN, such as projects conducted in the last ten years by artists as diverse as Mark Dion, Herman de Vries, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Nonas. Aware of the issues inherited from Smithson’s work, the American Mark Dion, at his personal exhibition in Digne in the summer of 2003, subtly developed links uniting a geologically over-determined area and an essential period of the history of recent art. Covered by the black marl that is typical of the Digne area, the stairway construction of his Deep Time Closet (For Réserve Naturelle Géologique) cites the nominal conventions that govern the foliated order of the geological eras and, short-circuiting temporalities, freely borrows from the sedimented configurations of Glass Stratum, Leaning Strata and Smithson’s Alogons. Two years previously, during his first exhibition in the CAIRN centre, Herman de Vries had already made use of the materiality of the same black marl and the topographical and landscape suggestions that are associated with them. Regularly deposited on the floor, they formed a large powdery rectangle, passing through the entire length of the art centre’s gallery. This work, defining and delimiting an area, attested to the intense visual, tactile and spatial presence of the “things themselves”, to use an expression dear to the artist. Since then, de Vries has stayed frequently in the area. Inaugurated in 2003, his Sanctuaire de Roche-Rousse defines a protected site. Located at an altitude of 1,400 metres, on a site that is reached after walking for at least an hour, this semi-circular enclosure bearing on a face of orange-grey limestone consists of a simple wrought iron grille: “inside, one sees wildlife, intact life. The whole process of Nature is there”, says the artist. The Sanctuaires are spaces whose inviolability puts us in the position of eye-witnesses. Their effectiveness is due to the paradoxical situation that they establish: abandoning Nature to the fate determined by its own laws and, therefore, asking us to renounce any form of interference into its territory, they suggest that we should meditate on our belonging to the world.
The Sanctuaire de Roche-Rousse contains the ruins of a modest stone construction, which it does not protect in any way from its unavoidable disappearance, but which it simply anchors in its own site to place it on view during the time while it is gradually fading away. This accepted fate ignores the convenient nostalgia and the disembodied present that are established by practices of popularization and “touristification” that aim to artificially fix the remains of a disused living environment. Moreover, everywhere in the Alpes de Haute-Provence area, there are ruins – some visible, some less visible – of abandoned buildings and hamlets, which were often deserted after either of the 20th century’s two major wars. Many artists who do not pay any special attention to geological temporalities in their work, on the other hand, have been keen on these expressions of tough, dignified rurality, in which an additional “stratum” of the landscape is now revealed. This is the case, for example, for Andy Goldsworthy’s Refuges d’art works which, in blurring the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, attest in situ to the reinvention of the symbolic link that unites the built object to its past and, consequently, to the humanised area to which it belongs.
In the autumn of 2009, Nadine Gomez brought Richard Nonas to the ruins of the abandoned hamlet of Vière at an altitude of 1,200 metres, withdrawn into a warp in space and time. This encounter gave rise to the Edge-Stones: three alignments composed of 104 blocks sawn from white limestone in the Luberon Mountains. In Vière, as in other sites where the American sculptor has created arrangements on the ground, the lines emphasise the directions of the terrain and, according to the walker’s movements, they materialise a play of axes, bringing out the reciprocality and the relativity of different positions. With their powerful spatial and perceptual effects, they act on the place that they mark out and deploy in one same movement. Introducing breaks in the landscape in precise areas and according to defined directions, they literally open the place. For example, one of the arrangements connects the site of the former school to the remains of a mill, which was once supplied by a small canal that is now filled in. The Edge-Stones connect the Vière site, revealing the expansive force contained in the hamlet, which counters the invisible action of the mountains that set the village firmly in its own area.
Far from the stereotypes that try to present a false “Provencal” identity, the work done in the CAIRN-Centre d’art accepts the complex process which, in recent decades, has made the visual arts – and particularly the works and related concepts inherited from the history of sculpture – expressions that are open, localised and temporalised. In my opinion, thanks to this brief re-examination of some of the conceptual underpinnings of in situ and site-specificity, one may better grasp how this adventure makes sense today, and how it renews itself so that places may be invented in which places are lived.
Marseille, January 2013
Due to the limits imposed on this article, it is not possible to mention many other projects conducted within the CAIRN-Centre d’art, such as those by Bernard Plossu, Joan Fontcuberta, Jean-Luc Parant, Trevor Gould, Bertrand Gadenne, Paul-Armand Gette, Andrea Caretto and Raffaella Spagna and recently, as part of the VIAPAC French-Italian programme (Via Per l’Arte Contemporanea), by Stéphane Bérard, Jean-Luc Vilmouth, David Renaud, Abraham Poincheval, etc. Paul-Armand Gette, Richard Nonas, Joan Fontcuberta and Mark Dion are also associated with this programme.
Traduction: Peter McCavana
The invitation to rearrange the contents of this web-based collection, reminds me of the passing down of a great Naga necklace. As if each slideshow, web-performance, video, text, or audio work, were loosened from a cotton thread, and laid out on a taut cloth, like carved white conch shells, brass bells, red carnelian, bone, and blue-green glass beads, waiting to be newly strung. As I read and listened through the contents, I began to dream of jewelry setters. And so here I tell, if you wish, a decentralizing story; not decentralized, but one whose claim has the capacity to make the centre, come to seem estranged.
After crossing an arc, at the eastern edge of India, is a hill region bordering Bangladesh, China, Southern Tibet, and Myanmar. Among the states of this area, is exquisite and troubled Nagaland, with its innumerable cultures, united under the word ‘Naga’ and yet with communities, each with differing and exceedingly democratic models of government, and different material culture. Its worldviews that have the potential to open new ways of thinking about art are preserved in fragments of remaining material culture after the onslaught of proselytism and modernization. Among them is the philosophical linking of ornament with society and individual ethics. In ancient times, and still practiced by the conceptual works of the artist Veswuzo Phesao, is the right to decorate one’s bodies, clothing, or one’s home, based on a system of being able to calibrate individual merit as value: which was always somehow, value earned within a community, through codified rituals of generosity. Status came from having always individually earned it. A warrior, or one who fed his surplus crops to the village, these were the terms under which one was given permission to decorate one’s home. After passing on, one’s children could not inherit the ornamentation; they again would have to individually earn the right from society.
Over 2007 and 2008, I spent time in this region, writing about its contemporary art, and have been going back ever since. Hekali Zhimomi, the then director of a government-run art centre, the North East Zone Cultural Centre, told me of her own research into jewelry and value. In Ao Naga culture, she explained that when a work of jewelry is passed down, or purchased, before buying it, the new wearer must hear all the stories and merits of its first maker and past owners. It is through their personality and deeds that the work of jewelry could accumulate value. The work of jewelry has ethical provenance. And the character of its past wearers, is a strong determiner of its value, translatable into a shop price, but in reality a contemporary oral tradition of storytelling in continuance – where a graduate degree may be a new determiner of social achievement. For the Naga communities, jewelry – like all aesthetic and ritual – has been over time coded, eroded and re-coded.
It is a lens and a trope through which to perhaps read the particular form of value, in the efforts of such a website – to hold together the fifty centres d’art contemporain across France in one light website: whose entries are arranged by center, by author, or by the materiality of response. The series, and resetting of the series, gives the impression that there are also infinite subjective arrangements possible. The invitation to four editors from far-flung parts of the world, to restructure the contents of the website, with a new editorial over the course of four seasons, implies a seriality ricocheting within the content, like a musician within the set notes of a raag.
But our carnelians and glass beads here, as the first stringers would tell us, are the many turns of the die, an encounter with an idea and its potential. In this sense, what has accrued, are the ideas. The rituals of handing down jewelry, something always a little intimate and formal together – have the weight of history; at least of those small histories of people in the air. As if all those souls were summoned to the jewelry box. Conch shells, carnelian and glass beads remind me of ways of approaching biography and the lives of artists, of pedagogy and the ways we have of passing through and accruing knowledge, and the many ways of approaching value. But in focusing on biography, there is a ringing sense of missing colours and beads. I cannot speak out here for all that is absent, yet perhaps we could leave space in the necklace for all those ideas that come from biographies of differance, still to be strung in the centres d’art. With this thought, I pass this necklace on to my colleague, and friend, across the Nagaland border…
* * *
1. Inheriting ideas
Presented by the Centre d’art contemporain de Brétigny, Matthieu Saladin writes a text to accompany an exceptional sound score made in 1968, ‘LIKE A CLOUD HANGING IN THE SKY?’ by the group AMM. The group in turn had made this work in response to a prose work, ‘Sextet: The Tiger’s Mind’, by one of its members, Cornelius Cardew. What is key to my own arrangement, is the way Saladin’s text approaches artistic inheritance. In Saladin’s own writerly and artistic engagement with a double inheritance of the two works, he emphasises how ‘Like a Cloud’ was not a performance of ‘The Tiger’s Mind’, but an engagement with it, through new experimentation.
Emmanuelle Pagano’s ‘NIGHT-LIGHT’, at Espace de l’art concret is a writing experiment. It is a novelist’s selection of works from the Albers-Honegger Collection that performs a similar function in re-stringing works, by new criteria. These objects handed down to us – works of glass, a globe of light – are given emotional life, through the biographic form of storytelling, by which he links the defiance of gravity by an astronaut, with that of the glass blower.
“I am a glass blower, like my father, like my grandfather, my great grandfather. I love working with glass, it becomes full of life under heat. From this magic material it’s possible to make so many things, endlessly fashion it, give it any shape. One only has to stop it from yielding to gravity, Earth’s crushing call. In our family we have been defying gravity for several generations…When younger I wanted to be completely free from it, from gravity, I wanted to become an astronaut.”
2. Glass beads and the oral tradition
‘Glass does not forget anything.’
It is Thomas Golsenne who writes in his text about the relationship between the artist and the technician, called ‘THE HEART AND SOUL OF GLASSWORKING’ written for CIRVA – Centre international de recherche sur le verre et les arts plastiques:
“However, in music, the difference is that, if the musician plays a wrong note, he can always make up for it with the following note, whereas, in glass-blowing, it is impossible to make up for mistakes: everything has to be perfect from the moment when the glass is gathered in a furnace to the time when it is placed in another, less hot furnace, to allow it to cool. Glass does not forget anything.”
Nicolas Floc’h writes with beauty in ‘DEEP IN THE HEART OF THE SUBJECT’ for Centre d’art Le Pavé dans la Mare. In his writing, the glass becomes the material of philosophy. In a passage he compares glass with wine-making, referring to the passing down of technique, of knowledge, and ideas. “The secret of the process probably owes… also to a human chain of know-how and knowledge involved from grape-harvesting to the wine-making process.”
The oral tradition is in continuance, within contemporary art. In this case he also talks about the technicians being the ones to carry down the knowledge they have of glass, to the next artist entering the studio. To the triangles made between artist, audience and curator or institution, is the welcome addition by Golsenne of the role of the technician:
The artist “discovers the enormous furnaces, which give off air so hot that it makes the lamps swing, hanging from the ceiling several metres above. He discovers the material and its different states: small white beads (pellets) at the beginning, then a soft red-hot mass when it is gathered in the furnace and handled with the blow tube, and finally a solid, transparent volume when it has cooled down. He especially discovers these characters, these masters of the art of glassmaking, who have given everything for their passion, who hold all the secrets of the technique, and who are nevertheless there, simple and modest, listening to his words, wishing to please him, ready to go with him on a journey to the unknown in this future project.”
3. Questioning the biographic voice
Aymeric Ebrard, uses an alacrity of visual and aural description, in an autobiographical narrative, to capture being split: in this case, between two different residencies, in Lithuania and Morocco, intercut with each other in close succession. The text is a double view, titled with the cinematic ‘The Kuletchov effect’, suggesting something else arises from the combined meaning of two vivid and dissimilar images. What it captures, is for me, a form of writing in whose own poetry is wrapped a deeply clear, political voice. Take this sentence on Saïdia, at the Moroccan-Algerian border: “On either side, the run-down buildings would prance their social housing pealing volumes next to the camp pavilions owned by the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports.” Ebrard writes within ‘MODELS OF PRODUCTION’, at Centre d’art bastille. I am reminded, in my own insistence in listening for the first person, poetic voices, of Helene Cixous’ writing, and many others – that taut, crystal, political gleaning that accompanies each double-entendre.
‘I AM ALL WORDS’ is an extraordinary work by Adva Zakai, using the medium of a website, to convey her own métier, choreography. The curator of Le Quartier, Centre d’art contemporain de Quimper has written, “I’m now inviting you to pursue the project of ‘becoming an art centre’, but within the virtual space of Internet.” In an imaginatively intimate form of address, Zakai uses the first person, or the biographic approach, to tell the audience, the immediate precedents of where they are and what they are viewing, “opening is a solo where you stand on a table in a corner of the exhibition space. Your hands touch the walls, and very slowly you raise one leg. While you’re trying to keep a balance, you tell a story which could be your biography, the history of the space or the story of the director.”
In a series of letters, Guillaume Pinard and David Evrard discuss themselves, their own personalities, in ‘NOBODY CAN ESCAPE ART’ for Maison des Arts Georges Pompidou. From their lively writing, we hear a self-reflexive discussion of value and consumerism, gift-exchange, and collecting.
The director of La Galerie – Centre d’art contemporain de Noisy-le-Sec, Emilie Renard, corresponds with the art critic Sinziana Ravini in ‘DEAR SINZIANA V. DEAR EMILIE’.
These exchanges, seem to speak directly to the problematics posed by the necklace. Their exchanges question the biographic approach, the biography of the artist as a value within the reading of the work, and on gift-giving exchanges and translations between value systems. In candid writing, they analyse and reflect on the use of the first person as a fictional device, or as an autobiographical style, which they comment on as different to the “theoreticians from October”; a style that runs at odds perhaps with a scientific analysis of artworks. “Now I think the big issue of our time is the complete opposite of all that, the need to reclaim art discourse for the emotional domain, that mysterious theatre of the unconscious that’s there whether we like it or not. But to do that you have to be ready to expose yourself, lose your way, make mistakes and most of all, exaggerate.”
From this perspective, is also Aurélien Mole’s use of a futuristic, exaggerated, biographical voice in ‘HIATUS’ written for Parc Saint Léger.
“Based on the documents and oral sources that I collect from the area surrounding the Parc Saint Léger, I am virtually able to reconstitute what the art centre’s whole programme had been, both inside and outside of its walls. Other historians will use this information to extrapolate a sense of what cultural life was like in Europe between 2000 and 2075, and thus attempt to rewrite history from its margins.”
Jean-Pierre Cometti’s ‘BUT THE MAIN PROBLEM LIES ELSEWHERE…’ is a beautifully written work for Centre national d’art contemporain de la Villa Arson. Cometti writes revealingly, of how art needs to be located within context – what he sums up productively as “when is art?”
“The difference with what we usually call “experimentation”, for example in science, is that this kind of approach is not directly geared towards producing knowledge; but this does not in any way signify that they don’t pertain to knowledge. One can easily be convinced of this. In science and in philosophy, we have what are called “thought experiments”. A thought experiment means introducing an unrealized (counterfactual) possibility in the reasoning process, and estimating its consequences were it to be realized. This type of approach makes it possible to open up the concept of knowledge and to enrich it by allowing for wider and more inclusive forms of understanding. This is the privilege of fiction, and also of art.”
4. Valuing the political voice
“Even if I think that art is all about context (does not exist outside a certain place, a certain time, a certain onlooker) and all about audience (it is in relation to the audience the artist determines what has to be done), I think art is also all about the intention of an individual, the artist” writes Dora Garcia in “I UNDERSTAND MY ACTIVITY AS A RESEARCH” for 3 bis F – centre d’art contemporain. She gives the example of “The Beggars Opera” 2007, which she defined as “theater play in real time and public space”- for Münster Sculpture Projects.
“In this work, I created a tool to dismantle the conventions of art in public space…The work consisted of a character, Charles Filch, a secondary character from the Bertolt Brecht play and novel The Three Penny Opera, which “came alive” in Münster and became a citizen of the streets of Münster during the three months of the exhibition. It had all the qualities one should ask of an artwork in public space (existed in public space, changed the perception of it), and at the same time it was obviously a person- personnage and to reduce it to the condition of a number on an outdoor sculpture map was absurd.”
The most art historical of all the texts, is possibly, that of Gilles Drouault, who recalls brilliantly in the video, ‘THE WITNESSES’ at Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry – le Crédac, an exhibition of particular value to him, and he explains generously why. To him, this exhibition on industrialisation in the last century; was pertinent to its location in an once billowing industrial town of Ivry. Intrigued at how film and industry developed at the same time; he conjectures, that what has been most compelling about the 20th century, has been the development of the industrial world and the worker; premising that what was siginificant to the 20th century in particular was the worker as an individual with rights, worker’s strikes, as capable of forming trade unions. One of the achievements of the Western European system has indeed been the welfare of workers.
5. Necklace of strategies
The political subject matter in Alexandre and Florentine Lamarche-Ovize in ‘LAMARCHE-OVIZE, A COLLABORATION PROJECT’ for Micro-Onde, centre d’art de l’Onde, show a work dealing with women’s prisons. Antoine Marchand in ‘LET’S MEET IN TROYES, AUBE’ at Centre d’art contemporain / Passages, discusses being invited to devise ways to dispose of nuclear waste, and the ability of an artist to respond, or give value, to such a residency. Fabien Faure in ‘THE TIME OF SITE’ at CAIRN, centre d’art, writes of mining and its relationship to land art. Yet, there is also political strategy latent in the writings, for example, of Olivier BossCentre rhénan d’art contemporain, has a moment, where so as not to be surveilled, by the number of webcameras one takes in the subway, is suddenly a face, painted like the dazzle-pattern used in submarines during the First World War. It gives a moment to delve underwater and dip into art history, as something actively working as strategies in a politicized world – if one thinks of cinema, then terrifyingly and increasingly used today. In another discussion of cinematic effect, ‘EMPOWERMENT’, at Jeu de Paume, Antoine Thirion a critic, responds to an artist Claudio Zulian, who has been using cinema as a political tool, using historical re-enactments, and repetition as a strategy. I end this arrangement, with a performance: Emma Dusong makes the web-performnace ‘DOOR’ for Centre régional d’art contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon.
Bolstered by its success and visibility, uncoupdedés.net is restarting and subjecting existing content to new voices. In 2014 and 2015, several personalities from outside France will be asked to become our editorial writers for one season. Their task will be to place the contents of the whole magazine in perspective, presenting them differently through the prism of their subjectivity and their own work contexts. Catalina Lozano (Colombia), Zasha Colah (India), Moe Satt (Myanmar) and Manuela Moscoso (Brazil): each guest editor will reformulate the actions of the centres d’art, various aspects of which they will have been able to perceive through the magazine. Each editor-in-chief will “roll off” a cross-cutting text, presenting an original re-examination of the resolutely fluid geography of the centres d’art. uncoupdedés.net repeats the challenge from the poet Mallarmé, resurrected in the cinematographic art of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Every Revolution is a Roll of the Dice, 1977). The guest editors, coming from a variety of disciplines, will widen the circle of expression even more. Choral and fragmentary, uncoupdedés.net takes just as much after puzzles as it does after memories, and naturally calls for cut-outs of every kind…
Zasha Colah co-founded ‘blackrice’ in 2008 in Nagaland, and the Clark House Initiative in Bombay in 2010, after studying art history at Oxford University and curatorial studies at the RCA, London. She was the curator of modern Indian art at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at the CSMVS museum (2008- 2011), and was head of Public Programs at the National Gallery of Modern Art (2004-2005) in Mumbai. In 2012 she co-edited ‘In Search of Vanished Blood’ a monograph on artist Nalini Malani for documenta 13, and she curated two exhibitions of Burmese art, ‘Yay-Zeq: Two Burmese Artists Meet Again’ at ISCP New York and ‘I C U JEST’ in Kochi.