Sunday, February 12, 2012

Miettes of Bleak Midwinter

I've been a bit remiss with the local news, both because there hasn't been much and because I've been busy launching my weekly arts and culture blog over at realeyz, which has been dogged with technical problems. I've also been getting ready for my annual trip to the States, and, like most everyone I know here, hunkering down inside, away from the arctic temperatures and the occasional windstorms which push the wind-chill factor down, down, down. Damage to the fruit, wine, and olive crops is being bruited around, but I don't have any solid facts to add to the rumor. There were, however, some hapless flamingoes down on the shore near Narbonne, which is about an hour southwest of here, who died when their legs froze in the water they were standing in and couldn't get away to eat or seek warmer places to hang out. I feel like I should be typing with gloves on, but instead I'm just watching the weather map, hoping the Ukraine doesn't have another gift of frigid air for us.

Not that there's a valid basis for complaining, of course: not long ago, all we could say was that it was chilly. One did feel sorry for the intrepid campers out by the Fountain of the Three Graces on the Comédie, a half-dozen or so hardy souls who comprised Occupy Montpellier. The sunshine was something of a compensation during the day, but they must've been cold at night. They'd first appeared in the bandstand over on the Esplanade, then camped out in neat tents in the nearby park, then been rousted over to the Com, where they set up by the fountain, competing with the Christmas tree.

And there they stayed. It was hard to figure out exactly who they were, let alone what, besides the spreading of the 99%/1% meme, they were doing. Some days they appeared to be idealistic youth, others they appeared to be the usual run of street people with dogs and beer. So it was only a slight surprise when, one day, I went to do some errands and ran into the final moments of Occupy Montpellier as the garbage trucks hoisted lawn chairs and signs into the maw of their compactors and one guy with a shopping cart, dreadlocks, and a can of beer that he was careful to keep sight of railed at the cops and sanitation workers. It looks like in the end, the 99% was undone by the 9% -- the quantity of alcohol in the nasty beer the street people favor.

*  *  *

I live on what is probably the most dangerous street in Montpellier. Oh, sure, there's the odd drug deal going down on the corner, or, late at night, the occasional raving drunk in the street, but that's not what I mean. It's mostly dangerous during broad daylight owing to two factors: 1) it's pedestrianized and 2) there are two driving schools around the corner from each other. During the day, people walking down the middle of the street, which is their right, are constantly menaced by terrified teens, gripping the steering-wheels of their cars, heading straight into a mass of humanity. I haven't heard of any disasters yet, but the potential is sure there. 

So imagine my surprise when, on my way to the supermarket a month ago, I walked into a nest of bristling automatic weapons. This wasn't in my neighborhood, but, rather, at one of the subterranean entrances to a shopping complex called Le Triangle, underneath the other shopping mall, the Polygone. This is a rather deserted area, adjacent to, but invisible from, a café which is, I believe, called Le Cappuccino, and it's a place where occasionally a mentally ill man hangs out, eating out of cans and playing with plastic bags, which he sometimes ties around his hands. Other times, teenagers congregate to smoke joints, breakdance, or make out. 

There's almost always someone there, so it wasn't a surprise to see people as I climbed the stairs, and, as always, I was probably miles away, thinking about something I was (or wasn't) writing, or what the hell I was going to make for dinner. It wasn't until I'd stepped into the tableau that I saw what was going on. Against the wall were two muscular young North African guys, feet spread, hands clasped tightly behind their heads. About a foot away from them, a soldier aimed an automatic rifle at their chest level. One policeman was in the process of conducting a very thorough body-search on one of them while another policeman watched, and behind the soldier stood four more soldiers, guns at the ready. 

My instincts, I think, were correct. I just walked behind the soldier, and carried on into the plaza. Once on the escalator up to ground level, I looked back, and things were much as they had been. I have no idea what was going on, what those two guys were suspected of (because after all, being Maghrebi in public isn't exactly headline news in a city with a higher concentration of Algerians than any other in France), or what the outcome was. I gotta say this, though: those two dudes weren't sweating, and they were perfectly cool with five machine guns pointed at them. I'm not sure I could pull that off. Not that I have any intention of trying. 

*  *  *

And thinking of the crazy guy with the plastic bag fetish who hangs out there reminds me that last year's sudden disappearance of pink plastic bags from Monoprix was apparently a trial run. The chain has announced that as of Feb. 15 -- yikes! That's Wednesday! -- there will be no more free plastic bags available. I've stashed a bunch of them to use as garbage bags, since they're strong and hold two or three days' kitchen refuse -- just enough time before it starts smelling bad in the summer -- and, like almost everyone else around here, that's what I reuse them for. Now, it appears, we'll all have to buy our garbage bags. Bad advertising for Monoprix, and another expense for us. Grrr. 

*  *  *

It's been a while, but the E&J Express is back on the road. J has been waylaid by dental issues (which I'll soon be confronting), and I've also been busy with some paying work (!) (not highly-paying, mind you, but paying), and when that hasn't been a problem the weather's been awful. But this weekend the Swiss Visitor was in town for a whole day, a friend of theirs from their previous residence, and J was itchy to go back to Sète to see new shows both at the Centre Régionale d'Art Contemporaine (CRAC) and the Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM). Plus, there would be lunch. Who could say no to that? 

Not me, so I blasted off on foot at 11:30, and we hit the road. The Swiss Visitor has been here before, but never out of town, and even though the scenery between here and Sète is pretty mundane -- for around here -- he was awed. And I had to admit, it was nice being out in the country again. We got lost looking for a restaurant E and J had eaten in, and then, after driving out of town and discovering that the long stretch of beach highway was closed, decided that that wasn't where the restaurant was anyway. We eventually found it and three of us had Rouille Sétoise, which is the little cuttlefish known as seiches and a sauce which is warm saffron-infused mayonnaise, alhtough this version also had a tomato sauce. J did something smart and ordered a whole dorade fish, grilled on a griddle, in the form known here as à la plancha. I wasn't awfully impressed with the Rouille, but the other guys liked it. 

Now it was museum time, so we headed back into town, parked under the canal, and fought the cold wind to MIAM. In keeping with their reputation as the most eccentric art museum in France, the current show is called My Winnipeg, and features 250 works by no fewer than 70 artists, all from this rather obscure provincial city on the plains of the Canadian midwest. If you think this is a mixed bag, you're right, but if you're inclined to sniff and dismiss it you're wrong. Winnipeg stands at the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River, and has a considerable Native/Indian/First Peoples population as well as a number of strong immigrant presences driven by its importance as a railroad center and a place where the grain grown on the surrounding prairies was processed and shipped. All of this has its echoes in the art in this show. 

Which is not to say that all the art is good. Far from it: I began to wonder, as I looked around at the various displays, if there weren't some sort of center for outsider art or some art-therapy movement going on in Winnipeg. Nonetheless, there are some standouts. Diana Thorneycroft's photos of toy figures in strange circumstances from her series Group of Seven Awkward Moments are enjoyable, but are trumped by her sculpted tableau Early Snow with Bob and Doug, showing America's favorite Canadian stereotypes steated at a picnic table surrounded by snow-covered cases of beer  and wolves prowling through the landscape. Hauntings, an installation by Guy Maddin, purports to show lost bits of films by famous early directors, and makes for an interesting few minutes' viewing, since they're all on loops and running simultaneously, and, with their blurry black-and-white images, all look like they could well have been what Maddin says they are. I'm not sure whether the color film that purports that Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi are buried next to each other and shows a woman with bright red lipstick cavorting with the corpse of a white wolf is by him, but it's borderline disturbing. So is Sarah Anne Johnson's House on Fire and its surrounding installation, a sort of dollhouse with stylized fire coming out of its roof, and rooms you can only slightly see into, with furniture knocked over, maybe a dead person, and fire damage, surrounded by treated photographs which were inspired by her grandmother's treatment for post-partum depression, in which she was hospitalized and used by CIA-funded LSD researchers. 

Much of the rest of what's on display is either silly or dull, but the silly pieces do provoke a chuckle, like Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Milian's exploration of lesbian stereotypes (that's them on the poster for the show, ready to show you around a Canadian national park somewhere), the Royal Art Lodge's long stretch of pairs of little square paintings which are compositionally identical, with wildly varying content, and Jon Pylypchuk's weird assembly of dolls relating to a comic strip character he's invented. Finally, there's Kent Monkman's eerie diorama The Collapsing of Time and Space in an Ever-expanding Universe, which plays on a lot of Canadian and gender stereotypes, as a transsexual Indian, seated in an overstuffed Victorian parlor equipped with a record player, a wolf, and a beaver (who is chomping away at the piano bench) stares out a window, tears streaking his/her mascara as s/he stares at a kitschy painting of a noble Indian on horseback surrounded by buffalo in a forest. (Buffalo? In a forest?)

But the show doesn't stop there: MIAM founder Bernard Belluc, whose obsessive collages of objects arranged around a theme were the highlight of our last visit there, has replaced most of the ones we saw last time with...more weird assemblages! Of course, as a co-founder of the museum, he has every right to have his own floor, but with work like this, he's earned it. 

Thus refreshed, we hiked to the other end of town, where CRAC was filled with two exhibits, one of the winners of some local art prize for young artists, the other a "dialogue" between Martine Aballéa and Patrick Sorin. The juried show was just unbelievably sterile and devoid of content, although I kind of liked a piece installed by the stairway in which digital drops of water dripped down the surface of a painting made up of colored stripes. I'd credit it, but I can't find it on the map they handed us. 

The dialogue was even stupider, since here we have two apparently established artists. Sorin is one of those irritating artists who thinks people want to watch him do silly stuff. He spits colored ink at a camera on a loop, cavorts around holographically in a fish tank in his underpants, has a multi-screen installation in one room called Une vie bien remplie (A really full life) which is a bunch of loops of him doing silly things on a bunch of different screens, and some documentation of a visit to an invitation art show in Tucson in 1994 with his lover, Pierrick et Jean-Loup, which will dispel any stereotypes about gay men having taste that might have lingered in your stereotypticon. 

Ms Aballéa's contribution was three entire gigantic rooms filled with windows and doors placed sparingly around with lights making them look dramatic. La maison sans fin (The endless house), it was called. People get support from the state to produce art like this. I suppose it's better than letting them starve. 

"Next time, we have to do this in the opposite order," J said after we got out. True: it's like eating your spinach before you can have dessert. There's definitely a feeling of empty calories around MIAM, but that's a guilty pleasure. Thin unseasoned broth like CRAC offers isn't even fun. 


  1. Thank you for yet another good read. I live in both California and France, and have an idea for a blog post. Could you please let me know how to contact you?

    1. Post a comment with your e-mail. I can read it and not approve it and contact you privately. That's worked before.

      However, I should warn you that this is my blog, and is about my own impressions and so on. Still: cuirous to hear your idea, which I won't be able to implement until April.


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