On ViewThe Parc Des Ateliers, LUMA Arles
June 26, 2021 – Ongoing
LUMA Arles rises above vast Provençal fields and vineyards fed by the Rhône. It’s capped with a faceted Frank Gehry tower, the polished steel sides stepping down, reflecting the golds and yellows of the dried fields and parching sun. Prélude, as the name suggests, is one of the inaugural exhibitions of collector Maja Hoffmann’s long-standing project in Arles, LUMA. A secondary meaning of the word, to warm up, is appropriate as the work exhibited finds ways of accessing a growing feeling, that something disastrous is coming, things are heating up and this is just the beginning of our collective discombobulation.
The tower, as a way of entry into the Parc des Ateliers, houses, studios, libraries, exhibition spaces, and permanent installations like a variation of Carsten Höller’s Isometric Slides which elicits periodic cheers from visitors, punctuating the din of the central hall. Gazing up, a part of the wall on the third floor is cut away to reveal a mirrored spiral staircase, a momentary and whimsical glimpse of a M.C. Escher piece in real life that happens to be the work by Olafur Eliasson, Take Your Time. Wandering up the stairs and around the cavernous interior of the steel peak became disorienting until I realized the work I came to see lay behind the tower in a series of post-industrial spaces that once acted as National Company of French Railways (SNCF) workshops and repair shops next to the tracks that lead from Arles south to the Mediterranean ports.
Prélude, a group exhibition of works by Sophia Al Maria, Kapwani Kiwanga, P. Staff, and Jakob Kudsk Steensen, resides in La Mécanique Général, a large rectangular building near the center of the Parc. The buildings frame newly planted gardens designed by Bas Smets and full of native Camargue plants that rise up on mounds separated by serpentine paths like the eroded limestone of Les Alpilles with their attendant rivers that ripple down east of the Rhône from the Alps to the sea.
Kapwani Kiwanga’s “Flowers for Africa” (2021) welcomes visitors with an enormous dried eucalyptus frond gate. The smell having long dissipated, the fragile oblate leaves frame a series of dried bouquets on white plinths. Some lay flat, others in vases—statice, globe amaranth, yarrow, heliconia, etc.—all completely desiccated at this point, translucent in their death. Flowers for Africa, an ongoing series of site-specific installations, takes images of “moments of historical importance” from around Africa and reproduces the flower bouquets that accompanied the signing of treaties, independences, accords, and peace. The bouquets are made in collaboration with local florists, using available flowers to interpret the source material. Flowers, as an accompaniment to moments of celebration, have a long history of framing our successes, but as ephemeral efflorescence, they are not eternal. Kiwanga’s poetic act, framing these collections of flowers as signifying past moments of political success and allowing them to wilt and dry, suggests the fleeting nature of social treaties, their promise and ultimate demise.
Down a greenish-roofed hallway and into a side room off the main hall, one encounters P. Staff’s Conjunctions (2021). A flexible LED screen is hung like a quilt, framed by blown uranium-glass bodies installed on the floor; too narrow to be bowls, too wide to be vases, they are receptacles of some sort, transparent vessels glowing a faint, ghoulish green in the blacklight spots. The LED screen flickers on pink and a hypertext onslaught begins: YOU TWO PLANETS YOU CONJUNCTION YOU TOUCHING YOU YOU YOU A GIFT… (not a quote, but a summation). A poem written by P. Staff during the pandemic flashes word by word in bold all-caps sans-serif on the screen as mono- and bi-tone colors shift in tint and shade around the vocable. An abstract soundscape plays from above. The poem works through isolation, feelings of desolation, of connection, of finally connection, of the other as gift, of the self as gift. The visual ferocity of the imagery is visceral—at one moment I could feel the heat as the LEDs all glowed red. My mind and body confused and perhaps enraged by the flashing, blinding screen, tried even harder to focus on each word as they were brazed by color and form connections, conjunctions between them to stitch together a transient feeling of recognition. The trans-poetics of Staff create a tenderness in this visual trauma, the message hard-won, conveys the gift of one another.
Back into the main room, I enter Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s contribution, Liminal Lands (2021), an installation and VR work that explores the liminality of this region, a vast brackish river delta south of Arles known as the Camargue. Red, green, and white concrete mats pool around the VR headset locations. The mats are colored with the red and green algae endemic to the Camargue. The white is, of course, salt; the Camargue has long been a site of salt collection. Shallow square pools called “salin” were carved into the rocks here to gather and then dehydrate the brine of the Mediterranean. Steensen, during a residency at LUMA in 2020, went into the salt marshes and took high-resolution images of this unique ecosystem, an estuary that is a temporary home to over 400 species of migratory birds including flamingos. The virtual reality portion of the work takes the viewer into the salt flats, moving from the carved out salin down until the crystalized towers of salty brine reach over the viewer and I become enveloped. Time and space become distorted as the scale of the viewer is manipulated in virtual reality. Dunked into the brine and accompanied by algaeic sigils that float around the viewer, time slows as the water surrounds. The rocks below pulse and jiggle, accumulating, growing, living. The geological growth that happens in these liminal spaces occurs on timelines normally beyond our comprehension. Yet, it is as if we were present and part of coral accretion as it transforms dissolved calcium into calcium carbonate stone. Salt is an entry point into geologic time with its ability to dissolve and recrystallize on a scale perceivable by us. Perhaps in the same way it enhances our taste, it too can enhance our perception of time, drawing us closer to the depths that necessitate thinking and planning on the grandest timescales.
Sophia Al Maria’s Tender Point Ruin (2021), commissioned by LUMA for this exhibition, is a filmic meditation on art and being. There’s a feeling of being on the edge, of dropping into this place from elsewhere. The video essay weaves together fragments of postcolonial understandings, poems, provocations, skits, and a tattoo session. Opening with a color inverted close up of the sun, flares and all, the video work moves effortlessly through planetary scales, a rolling moon, and a rocky beach where the protagonist collects shards of ceramics and a curious piece of plastic with French and English script that prompts Al Maria to ask, “Is this from the past or the future?” to which comes the reply, “The present.” A refrain in the video comes from questioning what art is. Hafez’s answer: “Art is the conversation between lovers … True art makes the divine silence in the soul break into applause.” Another answers: “Art is two stones rubbing together and the detritus left behind, it is what’s left, what you don’t know what to do with.” Near the end in which Victoria Sin makes a cameo while applying their face, the artist gets a tattoo of a petroglyph of the sun. The shot lingers over a table where a rubber stamp laying upside down reads “The end is nigh.”
So in this moment, this prélude to disaster, what is art? Tumult will create more liminal edges, more cracks, more moments of conjunction. The leavings of these frictions will be many, but I hope some of us remain to allow what has been left behind to please the silence within.