The first time I went to Sète, I wasn't too impressed. I wandered around with my then-girlfriend, observing, it being high tourist season, families on vacation who brought back memories of tension-filled similar events in my past. The whole town shouted "beach vacation!," and she was shouting "beach!" because she wanted to parade around topless, which was fine with me. As we drove out of town, the weirdness of the huge long beach which stretches between Sète and Agde became apparent. It's all beach, all sand, but if someone's built a bunch of cabins across the road, the beach is crowded as hell. If not, it's empty beach. We found a nice spot with no one in sight, she did her thing and ran around picking up shells (note from the trip back: please wash your souvenir shells and be absolutely certain the remains of the inhabitants are no longer in them), and then we went back into town for a nice coquillage and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet from one of the touristy places along the harbor.
But I knew there must be more to the place, and we'd gotten a hint earlier in the day, when we'd stopped to take a look at the place before heading into the mountains. The parking situation was out of hand, and so we'd deposited her Smart in a parking lot near the Moroccan customs dock: Sète's harbor not only features a horrifying ferry service to Tangier, but is a port of entry for ships from Morocco, Tunisia, and, until recently when I guess the boycott shut it down, Israel. At any rate, we were walking into town, and passed a harborside café where the staff was at one of the outdoor tables, smoking and drinking coffee, when an enormous tuna boat pulled into the slip and honked its horn. One of the waitresses jumped up and returned with a blackboard on which was written "We feature fresh tuna."
So when, for the second day of the Patrimoine weekend, E and J decided they wanted water, that was the destination. Those two are as assiduous as I am about research, and so by the time we'd parked, the Google map printouts were out and a visit to the local tourist office was underway. (At one point, J stopped some locals to ask where it was, and they pointed to it and informed her that it was closed because it was Sunday, so not to bother. She responded that it was Patrimoine weekend, so it must be open, as, indeed, it was. These guys have only been here a few months, but they've already learned that the real motto of France is "pas possible.")
Sète just isn't big enough that the visit to the tourist office was necessary, but it was a nice enough stop, and we learned that we were just a short hop from the place in town I most wanted to see: MIAM, the Musée Internationale des Arts Modèste, or Museum of Modest Arts. I'd seen a video about the place on the Michelin website (I get a newsletter from them from time to time), of all places, and was excited to see more. There was, unfortunately, a guided tour underway, but it proved easy enough to navigate around it. MIAM is extremely hard to describe. It's sort of a collection of collections, which change from time to time, and the current one (only up until October 2, so get down there if you possibly can) is a pip. What's there at the moment is a collection of hand-printed Brazilian booklets, some outsider art including some great paintings on cardboard by a gardener named Germain Tessier, a collection of a kind of American folk art I never knew existed, to wit Chicano prisoner handkerchief art which is being produced in New Mexico, Texas and southern California, absolutely glorious in its over-the-top depictions of religious and romantic scenes, some paintings from Bamoun, Cameroon, some of which can be seen at the bottom of this page, and, finally, works by Bernard Belluc, one of the founders of the museum.
Belluc is one of the strangest artists you'll ever see. He collects things. If flea markets in France aren't very good, he's probably the reason: he collects things in quantity. He then arranges them in installations/tableaux with a theme. The visual assault is beyond belief, and it must be even more powerful if you're French, since so much of the content is boxes and cans and bottles and posters and other detritus of the everyday life of some years back. Toys are marshalled in army-like quantities, ink-pens explode from the center of a piece dedicated to the production of visual art, a large piece dealing with vacation-time asks the question "the mountains or the shore?" with enough crap that the answer seems logical: anywhere but here. MIAM has also displayed these pieces in claustrophobic proximity to each other so it's impossible to stand back: you're forced into the maelstrom of objects. In a way, Belluc's work reminds me of Laura Kikauka, in Berlin, with far more content than her simplistic "kitsch is kitschy" message. Belluc is after something serious here, although just what it is besides a demand for respect for the artifacts of the past and the work of the people who created (and designed) them is hard to say: the piece dedicated to the French electrical system is almost moving in its homage. MIAM has too much here to absorb easily or quickly, but you should at least attempt it. If Belluc is exhibited anywhere else (and I'm not sure he is), it's worth going to see what in the world he's up to.
Our next goal was directly across town (not such a great distance, to be honest), the CRAC, or Centre Régional d'Art Contemporain. On the way, E announced he could use a snack, and, fortunately (compared to what happened when we launched ourselves into the mountains a couple of Mondays ago) not only is there an amazing local snack, the tielle sétoise, but there was an amazing tiny place called Paradiso selling them. In case your French isn't that good, a tielle is a little pie filled with finely minced octopus and cuttlefish in a spicy tomato sauce, and it's just amazing. Furthermore, Paradiso not only had tielles a good twelve inches across (as well as the more traditional little ones), but a mussel turnover, several small pizzas, and a tomato-and chèvre tart. I was still stuffed from breakfast, so I turned down E's offer of one (stupidly enough), but E inhaled his (and J her tart, although I wasn't envious there, my violent allergy to goat cheese being always on my mind), and I'm real glad these people don't have an outlet in Montpellier. Which isn't to say that I won't seek them out next time I'm in Sète.
CRAC turned out to be everything MIAM wasn't. Or, maybe it's more accurate to say it wasn't anything MIAM was, like interesting, challenging, or fun. On display was a show by Philippe Ramette, a contemporary installation artist, with a sound installation by Denis Savary, random sounds on an organ piped into the various rooms by little chartreuse trumpet thingies designed by Ramette. Ramette's work itself was without any unifying concept, and to be honest I've forgotten almost all of it less than a week later. I saw it as the curse of the state-supported avant-garde, although I've got to say that the CRAC facility is top-notch, and if anything interesting ever gets in there, it'll be displayed in style. This ain't it, though.
There's one more museum in Sète, the Musée Paul Valéry, which we saw as we went to the last sight of the day, the view from atop Mont St.-Clair, a huge hill on which the town is built, which gives a really panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, most of which is flat. In fact, although I didn't get a chance to really see, I think it's possible to see a bit of Montpellier from there. I'd have used my camera to figure this out, but the battery was on strike, which is why there aren't any pictures in this blog post.
Anyway, I'm glad to find out there's more to Sète than I'd thought, and since I've been introduced to an American photographer who lives there part time (but is in the States until late November) I'm sure I'll be back to check out what MIAM does next -- and get me one of those Paradisical tielles!
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MIAM, 23, Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, 34200 Sète. Open April 1-September 30 every day, 9am-7pm, October 1-March 31, every day except Monday, 10am-12 noon, 2pm-6pm. Entrance €5. Free first Sunday of each month.
Paradiso, 11, Quai de la Résistance, 34200 Sète. Products also available at Tielle Ciani, 24, rue Honoré Euzet, and the Halles Centrales (central covered market). Large orders and catering: 04 67 74 26 48.
CRAC, 26, Quai Aspirant Herber, 34200 Sète. Open every day except Tuesday 12:30pm-7pm, weekends 3pm-8pm. Entrance free.
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