By Christine Eyene
First published: 14/11/2011
Late October, Nice Airport, the shuttle transporting us from the plane to the terminal is interrupted in its route by a line of diplomatic cars. Sight of the cortege immediately prompts comments from fellow passengers on the G20 summit about to take place in neighbouring Cannes. As we approach Monaco, the presence of police forces is unusually heavy. Security is heightened as, word has it, demonstrators are planning on marching in protest against tax havens.
With its liberal approach to income tax and its culture of entertainment and gambling, one can easily imagine the Principality being the target of anti-capitalist movements. A hotspot for tourists in search of the glamorous lifestyle to which it is associated, the enclave is an unlikely art destination.
Looking for a break from the African sphere, I trade Bamako for Monaco and set out to visit a couple venues in the South of France. Although the French Riviera has never been a region relevant to the cultural field in which I practice, I seem to have visited most of the exhibitions presented at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (NMNM) since the appointment of its director Marie-Claude Beaud in 2009. Up to now I had never felt inclined to write on the art on show. But the current display raises quite a number of interesting questions on exhibition process from a museum’s perspective, namely: heritage, collecting, transmission of sensory experiences and modes of interaction with the audience.
The NMNM exhibition space is split up in two venues, Villa Sauber and Villa Paloma. The latter launched the Autumn season with “3 Exhibitions + 1 Film”, each project managed by one of the four members of the curatorial team.
By way of introduction…
The visit stars on the ground floor with La Table des Matières (Work in Progress…) by Jonathan Olivares Design Research. Curated by François Larini, this project consists of a 46 square-metre room functioning, in this initial phase, both as a flexible exhibition space showcasing furniture by the Boston-based award-winning designer and a laboratory making public the process leading up to the final design. The room contains four large benches reflecting Olivares’ distinctive interest in questions of practicality and multiple functionalities. Responding to their basic function, the benches shift from user-centred objects to becoming display surfaces on which are placed art and design magazines, books, newspapers, and other printed materials providing an insight into Olivares’ practice. These are complemented with tablet computers giving the visitor access to digital resources on the designer’s work, two examples of which are presented in the room.
La Table des Matières which title evokes an “entrée en matière” (an introduction) seems to be visually translated through the linear layout of the benches, with rows recalling a “table of contents”. For the visitor, the cognitive experience is threefold and plays on both our relation to the bi- and tri-dimensional, it also leads us to a virtual (i.e. digital) dimension. The space is conceived from the outset as an environment to be appropriated by members of the public. Objects, surfaces and resources lend themselves to tactile examinations and manipulations. A short but sufficiently informative wall text avoids this encounter with interior design from being too prescriptive or didactic. For instance, although visitors are guided in their consultation of the publications with a post-it applied on the pages featuring Olivares or relevant to his approach, one can leisurely flip through the pages of resources that broaden our understanding of product and interior design. All these elements give a sense of the multiple parameters taken into account by Jonathan Olivares Design Research.
La Table des Matières is an interactive space drawing the visitor inward, from the realm of palpable object to that of the thinking process. As opposed to objects and furniture formatting, or dictating, a fixed usage of the space, Olivares is giving form to a flexible user-centred environment capable of adapting to the evolving, shifting and sometimes immaterial experience of art. The room successfully manages to convey the NMNM’s ambition to find new ways of engaging with its publics. Its strategic location within the Villa Paloma – the entrance – gives it a double position in the course of the visit: as an introductory space before proceeding to the exhibition or as a concluding element. La Table des Matières will in fact be much more than that. It is planned to become “a library, workshop and multi-purpose social space, scheduled to open in January 2012”.
On medium, history and heritage
Moving on to the main show of the season, “Du Rocher à Monte-Carlo – Early Vintage Photographs of the Principality of Monaco, 1860-1880”, curated by Nathalie Giordano-Rosticher, retraces the history of Monaco both through its landscape alterations and architectural developments. Set over two floors, the exhibition is presented in a fashion that I personally found much more readable than the no less interesting shows I have had the occasion to visit at Villa Paloma. The photographs are displayed in a linear transition verging on repetition for those not familiar with Monaco and its topography. This is a deliberate choice from the curator who opted for a layout that follows the geographical features of the Principality. The visitors are presented with “geographic and diachronic sequences”, ranging from late nineteenth century images by Charles Nègre, Luigi Crette, Durandelle, Le Normand and de Bray, to name but a few, to actual views given by the windows. The walls of Villa Paloma almost act as transparent membranes setting apart reality and exhibition space, cityscape and two-dimensional visual narrative.
From The Rocher, to La Condamine, Monte-Carlo and Fontvieille, adorned with architectural vestiges like the Casino (1863) and the Opera (1879), Monaco as a topic or figure is depicted through a variety of media, ranging from stereoscopic views to digitised images of the collection. The recourse to technology – with tablet computers – echoes the latest developments in the field of photography. Indeed beyond the geographical subject, this exhibition also deals with the history of a medium which arrival in Monaco marks a twenty-year delay after the announcement of its invention in Paris. This owed to the “the Principality’s isolation until the arrival of the railway (1868), at a time when the only land access was by mule track”. Pictures from this period are literally shown as carriages on train tracks. While photography as a technique is illustrated by the inclusion of stereographoscope and the projection of André Martin and Michel Boschet’s Invention of Photography (L’invention de la photographie), 1964, 23’ (© Argos).
The presentation of a large number of the vintage prints in antique display units enhances the archival value of an exhibition which opening coincided with Heritage Day. The collection was set up over twenty years by Monegasque researcher and antique dealer Christian Burle who was passionate about Monaco’s history and botany. This archive is all the more important as it was gathered at a time when photography raised scarce interest. Still today, the fact that only ten of the pieces on show belong to Monaco’s national collection, out of the three hundred pieces recently acquired by the Prince’s Palace, begs questions about heritage and acquisitions. Answers to these can be found one floor above.
Beyond mere vanity
The top floor of Villa Paloma pays homage to H.R.H. Princess Caroline of Hanover with “Caroline of Monaco, Portraits by Karl Lagerfeld, Helmut Newton, Francesco Vezzoli, Andy Warhol, Robert Wilson”. This selection shows black and white, and colour photographs, as well as a video, dating from the early eighties up to 2009.
Each artist used their sense of creativity and their signature style to push the boundaries of official or media portraiture, as suggests writer Jim Palette in his introductory text. Newton’s photomontages (1983) feature the Princess in surreal settings, Warhol colourful portraits (1983) give her a hint of pop glam, while Lagerfeld’s fictional scenes (1985) conjure up Hollywood movies and reveal the Princess’ sense of performance.
This approach is taken further by Francesco Vezzoli, known for his peculiar reinterpretations of artistic and cinematographic classics, and his sometimes satirical yet playful take on celebrity culture. Vezzoli’s Portrait of H.R.H. Princess of Hanover (Before and After Salvador Dali), 2009, shows Princess Caroline as Queen Christina of Sweden played by Greta Garbo in Robert Mamoulian’s film Queen Christina (1933). She is also photographed in the manner of old masters paintings. Both parts of the double portrait, especially the latter, are charged with iconographical elements and art historical references worth expending on. But the interpretative material fails to guide the visitor through these highly symbolical images.
The exhibition culminates with a video portrait by Robert Wilson (1985) showing the silhouette of the Princess in the dark, until light slowly discloses her back, hands and face profile.
On first impression, an exhibition honouring the aristocracy may raise a few eyebrows. One could see it as a safe choice, a self-celebratory statement which artistic discourse, were it not for the established names, could be put into question. But the sobriety of the closing portrait, revealing only parts of this iconic figure reduced to a shadow in a black dress, as well as a breathing layout avoiding visual over-abundance, narcissism and vanity, make it a much more humble project. In the absence of specific press release, the rationale of this exhibition only becomes clear in an interview of Marie-Claude Beaud by a local television channel. In it the Director of the NMNM explains that Princess Caroline, who is President of the national institution, has been involved with the art world for quite a long time and has “passionately and generously collaborated with artists”. We learn that not only did she lend photographs from her own collection, she also donated the NMNM prestigious art works like Wilson and Vezzoli’s. The Princess’ keen interest in, and genuine support for, the arts is a trait she holds in common with Queen Christina whom she embodies in Vezzoli’s portraits.
For a national institution that, like any other museum in the world, has to cope with the economic downturn and adapt to the current waves of budget cuts, acquisitions become a serious issue. Add to that the challenges faced by the NMNM to bring local audiences to contemporary art, when other forms of leisure seem more readily available, and the position of Monaco clearly contradicts the misconception that art is only for the elite.
It is against this background that one is to make sense of this exhibition dedicated to Princess Caroline. This show leads us from the notion of heritage to that patronage which, just like in the Renaissance, remains a much-needed form of support both for practicing artists and art institutions.
The last exhibit – it is in fact located on the second floor in the video room, but stands out from the other projects focused on the venue or Monaco – is one of NMNM’s latest acquisitions. Letter On the Blind – For The Use Of Those Who See (2007) by Javier Tellez is a proposal by Cristiano Raimondi. This documentary conceived for the 2008 Whitney Biennial is in my view the most compelling piece in the Villa Paloma’s current display.
The film is set in McCarren Pool, a disused swimming pool in Brooklyn, New York. The sun is shining, adding bright luminosity to the footage. A group of visually-impaired participants walk in line to a designated spot. As they pass in front of the camera, and the moment of a long travelling across the face of each protagonist, the hierarchy imposed by the sense of sight is overwhelming. The visually-abled suddenly become aware of their gaze over the visually-impaired. This ability taken for granted translates into a one-way engagement with the scene. In fact our ability to view the scene, to describe it, the architecture, the graffiti, initially comforts us in our position.
The shift happens when a majestic elephant passes the main gate. Viewers see the big mammal approaching at slow pace. As it comes closer, we realise the limitations of our sensory experience. The virtual nature of the moving image that tricks us into experiencing things from a distance prevents us from getting a sense of the impressive size of the animal and numbs the fear most city dwellers would probably feel at the proximity of the pachyderm.
We hear it trumpet, we hear its legs tread on the sandy ground, we get a circular view of its body, we see it move, our eyes follow the lines on its skin, they look like cracks on the soil of barren land, but that stops here. The ultimate experience is lived through touching, a privileged sense while sight is relegated to the backseat.
We look at the blind people touch the elephant and it is through their perception, by proxy, that we share this encounter. They talk of its thick skin and warm body, they feel its bones, its size, its strength. They can even smell it. From then on unfolds an array imagined forms and textures sight could never allow. The skin of the elephant is likened to tyres, lizard skin, a plastic wall, a coat, falling curtains, a strange fabric, goat skin like the one used to make drums, a carpet, a piece of furniture, a hairy couch material. Its morphology is translated in terms of front and back. Its size is gauged in storeys. The elephant is associated to popular stories, Babar, Horton, and embodies nature.
This work, the blurb says, was inspired by the Buddhist parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant”, as well as Diderot’s controversial “Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See, 1749” in which Diderot takes issue with Descartes’ statement on “the existence of innate ideas in man, independent of any experience.” The project follows Tellez’ consistent line of inquiry on forms of marginalisation owing to disability and mental illness.
With Letter on the Blind, Javier Tellez shows us that imagination is an unbounded phenomenon and that perception cannot be limited to visual references nor does it have to conform to the physicality of forms or materiality of textures. Not only does the film succeed in toppling the unchallenged privileged position of the viewer, it also opens the gaze to subjectivity and metaphor.
(All images courtesy of Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, except uncredited exhibition views by the author).
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
“3 Exhibitions + 1 Film”
56 Boulevard du Jardin Exotique
16 October 2011 – 8 January 2012
“Looking up…™ : ON AURA TOUT VU revisits the Galéa Collection”
17 Avenue Princesse Grace
22 June 2011 – 29 January 2012
For further information, visit NMNM website.