Friday, April 24, 2009


A couple of summers ago, I spent a week here, and was delighted by "the first Montpellier biennale of contemporary Chinese art," a sprawling thing that was set up all over town and had some astonishing pieces in it. I had been resigned to the fact that the city I was hoping to move to wouldn't be as interesting, art-wise, as the one I was leaving, even if by that time Berlin's more creative galleries had closed and the city's culture establishment was on the ropes and fading fast. I knew I was in a city where the only museum featured a definitive collection of a period of art that I hate, and figured that maybe I could re-fuel on occasional visits to Paris.

For some reason, I wasn't particularly surprised when the time for the next Chinese biennale came and went and nothing happened.

This, of course, doesn't keep me from stopping into free exhibits here. The Pavillion Populaire, just across the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle from the Fabre, has some interesting photo shows -- I saw one on Weegee there that was great (except for the silly captions) and another on panoramic photography which stretched the definition a bit but was otherwise fascinating.

And the other day I was wandering around the St. Anne district and saw that the church in the square, long deconsecrated and now a venue for art shows, was having another biennale, this one the Biennale of Young Creators in Europe and the Mediterranean. Well, actually, what they were showing were the local participants, out of a larger number who'll be showing in Skopje in September.

It's always good to tote a bit of skepticism into a show like this, as a way of protecting yourself from disappointment. With most of these artists in their 20s, you're going to find a lot of unfinished ideas, a lot of pretentious flailing, and, maybe, one or two who show promise. And so it is with this one.

The first piece you'll notice, I guarantee, is Reynald Garéaux' "Blackscape," which might have looked good on paper, but doesn't seem to be panning out. What you have is a large wooden box, its top painted white. Within the box is a speaker, from which, at regular intervals, a really low, loud, bass note issues. A bunch of black pigment has been laid on the box, and I guess the idea was that the sound waves would cause patterns in it. Two visits to the show, though, show that the only thing that's happened is that the pigment has spread out and, yesterday, some of it had spilled onto the floor. Another better-in-planning-than-execution piece stands near it, Cédric Jolivet's "General Space Mobility," a tower on which is mounted a few round mirrors. It's supposed to represent a cell-phone tower, only with mirrors, geddit, and it does seem to achieve a limited success with kids, who love to make faces while standing in front of it.

There are several pieces by artists who you realize are going to turn 50 teaching art in provincial universities, bitter that their genius as youngsters was never recognized, and a couple you want to come back to when they've figured stuff out. In the latter category are Alexandre Giroux, whose "X-Ville" photos of a fake town built for police training beg for a little more attitude or point of view or...well, something, and a group of several people who got together to create "Etc...," an outsized case shaped like a metronome which contains a metronome clicking away furiously, its signal picked up by a mike which feeds it to an electronic circuit which only allows some of the clicks to be broadcast to the outside world. This got my "so what else can you do" award.

And, inevitably, there's going to be the artist whose work just stands there with uncommon brililance. There's nothing that Aurore Valade is doing that hasn't been done before, nor are there questions in her work which haven't been asked before, but boy, does she do a good job. The spooky, dreamy feeling her cramped interiors give off is, you soon realize, due to intense manipulation of the images. These pieces take a long time, and no doubt many sittings, to create. The deeper you look into them, the more details you see, and, if you're lucky, the more you realize that the potential narratives they imply don't exist, but, rather, are red herrings, very clever red herrings. Which then makes you question the validity of the image, and on and on. Valade is the kind of artist who has seized on something which, if she doesn't get bogged down with academia or art-world politics too much, can fuel a lifelong career. I look forward to the one-woman retrospective in, oh, ten years.

Biennale des Jeunes créateurs, through May 31. Carrée Ste. Anne, open...well, in typical style it doesn't say on the website, but I'd guess Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm. Seems safe enough...

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