Too beautiful for its own good

To mark the new millennium, the historic Provençal city of Avignon has been turned into a museum without walls. A great idea, but is the chosen theme, 'La Beauté', just too vast?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Embracing a subject as vast as "beauty" was always bound to cause problems. France's big summer show, the artistic highlight of the country's millennium celebrations, involves three core exhibitions in Avignon, mixing existing works and specially commissioned pieces, additional projects located around the historic southern city, and an international cast of over 90 artists, writers, fashion designers, composers and musicians.

Embracing a subject as vast as "beauty" was always bound to cause problems. France's big summer show, the artistic highlight of the country's millennium celebrations, involves three core exhibitions in Avignon, mixing existing works and specially commissioned pieces, additional projects located around the historic southern city, and an international cast of over 90 artists, writers, fashion designers, composers and musicians.

During gestation, a number of projects have fallen by the wayside - no Buren, no Starck, no Kitano; the Pesce café is still being built and the Vito Acconci skatepark will arrive after the exhibition has ended. The collaboration between Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen and Björk - a "spiritual transition from this life to an after-life" involving a steel case filled with maggots - opened late, and, after an initial burst of pink and orange fringed bunting, Christian Lacroix's decoration intended to pick out the trail through the city fizzles out to leave the visitor alone with a totally inadequate map.

The cornerstone exhibition is "La Beauté in fabula", within the massive 14th-century Palais des Papes: a dark, circuitous route taking in several newly renovated rooms not normally open to the public. Contemporary works are hung alongside pieces from antiquity, medieval sculpture, Chinese paintings and bronzes of the Kama Sutra continuing the mixing of continents and epochs for which La Beauté's curator Jean de Loisy became known while at the Fondation Cartier.

It doesn't take long to realise that the exhibition should be called "Love" or "Sex" rather than "Beauty", a concept so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. In fact, it's probably better to forget reading the booklet (impossible in the dim lighting in any case) with its corny fable of medieval courtly love. "The propos is neither historic, nor theoretical, but built on a metaphor, the pursuit of beauty that takes the form of an amorous trail" - a far from evident journey via the states of the soul, locus terribili or trials and frights; carnal love or the celebration of cliché and, finally, spiritual awakening.

Where the exhibition succeeds is in displaying contemporary art, notably video, within medieval walls and in sometimes interesting, sometimes too obvious juxtapositions with art of other periods: Anish Kapoor's polished bronze lozenge in the Loggia; Guiseppe Penone's installation cladding the plinth of an antique head of Hypnos and entire walls of a tower room in panels of fragrant bay leaves; Annette Messager's suspended stuffed animal/soft toy misfits alongside Renaissance armour.

A highlight is Bill Viola's 1996 The Crossing, impressively installed in the Grande Chapelle: two figures stride towards each other before being engulfed, one by flames, one by water, proof again of Viola's painterly use of the video medium and spiritual symbolism. But it's Jeff Koons' sublimely kitsch Split-Rocker - a 250-tonne mutt's head, 12m high, made of 75,000 pots of flowers glittering in the sunlight - that is perhaps the most convincing argument for beauty of the lot.

In the Jardin des Doms, "La Nature à l'oeuvre" exhibits nature as a work of art in a fantastically expensive mise-en-scÿne, a sort of souped-up natural history museum. Wafting jellyfish, curious fossils and cases of insects are displayed in a space so dark that the warders constantly have to inform visitors that there is another room off the side where maverick Belgian artist/director/choreographer Jan Fabre's iridescent beetle coats are hanging.

The third exhibition, "Transfo", aims for hip in the graffiti-laden concrete buildings of a former tram-repair centre just beyond the ramparts. It provides a suitably edgy, urban setting for the clanging, high-speed videos of Franck Scurti and Steve McQueen. Niele Toroni has created a pétanque pitch and café, and there's an amusing video installation of Hussein Chalayan's furniture-cum-clothes.

Paradoxically, despite the multidisciplinary emphasis of La Beauté, and an original guest list that seemed to number as many designers, DJs and musicians as visual artists, it is ultimately the artists who emerge, while the fashion brigade and supposed crossover between artforms are curiously insignificant.

It's in the section called "La Belle Ville", the less-sung exhibitions installed around the town, that there are the most discoveries. It's partly a question of space, as works are allowed to breathe after the rather claustrophobic hang of the Palais des Papes, but partly because these works seem the most considered. Turbulence by Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, previously shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale, is brilliantly installed in the Gothic expanses of the deconsecrated Eglise des Célestins. At the centre, two facing screens oppose a white-shirted, male singer before his male audience and the veiled, black-clad female singer before an empty auditorium. They sing in alternance, never together, a deep, rhythmic wailing that echoes round the church, a non-dialogue of isolation and the distance between the sexes.

Then there's the mysterious Palais des Sentiments, "a museum for the wounds of beauty" in the Couvent de Sainte-Claire, beside the ruined church where Petrarch is supposed to have first spied his eternal, unrequited love Laura in 1327. This show is about dreams, miracles, signs and imagination, but there's a sense that genuine artistic research has been carried out. In the garden, you are invited to choose a deckchair, rug or cushion and meditate for as long as you like accompanied by a sonnet composed by Arvo Pärt. Within the house there's a cabinet of aphrodisiacs, love philtres and aromatic plants, a room where you can make your own talisman or leave a message, and in the "laboratory of consolations", you can discover the curious tale of Rose Tamisier, a Provençal girl who in 1850 received the stigmata.

You'll need a taxi to find the concrete housing blocks of the Quartier Champfleury. The Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has deliberately chosen the public spaces of a wider Avignon, beyond the enclosed walls of the tourist city, "to displace the notion of beauty as an aesthetic concept towards thought, ideas and projects, but also make a project outside the ramparts, far from the belle ville", working with 11 young North Africans to construct his monument to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. A lounge and library with sofas and Deleuze's texts, four rooms showing videos, including Deleuze's A-Z and Passages, in which the North Africans talk about racism and the problems of being a Muslim in France.

Next door, a Moroccan woman and four young girls look on from the base of a statue of Deleuze in blue plastic tape. Around a tree is the "hotel" of tributes and slogans. Open 24 hours, seven days a week, with lights strung across the terrain, it's curiously uplifting as Adem, Fafa, Kamel, Nordine, Ridd, Waabi, etc, give you a guided tour, talk about their involvement in the project, offer to show you all the videos, and how they built the house from inexpensive or recuperated wood, parcel tape and plastic sheeting.

After the chilly scholasticism of the Palais des Papes, there's something passionately vital and involving about this project, and a welcome touch of humanity.

'La Beauté' runs in Avignon until 1 October (00 33 892 684 694)

Comments