A La Vie Délibérée: Une histoire de la performance sur la Côte d’Azur de 1951 à 2011
To Deliberate Life: A History of Performance Art on the Riviera from 1951-2011
20 Avenue Stephen Liegeard, Nice, France
July 1–October 28, 2012
After five years of research, the Centre National d’art Contemporain located in the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art, known as the Villa Arson, in Nice has mounted an exceptional exhibition that demonstrates the role that performance has had in the region over the past fifty years. In fact, it manages to successfully argue that performance maybe the single continuous thread in a region with a diversity of artistic directions beginning in the post-war period and numerous assertions as to the logic of continuing the legacy of an École de Nice that has become increasingly nebulous and worn out in the present than in its brief historical heyday from the mid-1950s until around 1971. Following the 2011 exhibitions dedicated to “50 Years of Art on the Côte d’Azur” that marshaled nearly all of the region’s cultural institutions in a clear demonstration of the depth and breadth of artistic activity in the region, this exhibition acts as a focal capstone threading together the roles of historical figures such as Jean Cocteau and Isidore Isou with central figures in the 1960s such as Arman, Ben Vautier, Robert Filliou, and George Brecht, key figures that emerged in the 1970s such as Gina Pane, Michel Journiac, Orlan and through the 1980s to the present with Jean Mas, Bruno Mendonça, Philippe Perrano, Elizabeth Morcellet, Jean-Luc Verna, Eric Duyckaerts and more. This exhibition further demonstrates that it is performance that has attracted artists from beyond the region who have staged or participated in events in and around Nice such as Paul McCarthy, Paul-Armand Gette, Jean Dupuy and Fred Forrest. Those familiar with some of these artists will recognize that within performance—as defined by this exhibition—the terrain is broad, leaps across generations, employs sites in and around the region as minimal staging, is tied to the region as a socio-geographic space, and captures a sense of artistic intervention that challenges, rebels, and relishes in a sense of liberty and humor.
With scores of artists, the curator Eric Mangion introduces the exhibition with a brilliant installation in which mounted images and short biographical information project out from the wall in a triangular formation with image on one side and the text on the other arranged alphabetically by name from end to beginning. This installation was based on the introduction of the first exhibition of Dada at the Beaubourg in Paris wherein each artist was shown in a photo with documentary information, according to Mangion. He then altered this idea by taking the photos and biographic information off the wall and interjecting them into the space of audience, a subtle but effective means of suggesting that performance as conceived by the artists in this exhibition, is an interjection into public spaces. This picture file approach also serves to diminish hierarchy, histories, and group affiliations, giving each individual a place within the broad genre of performance. Mangion defines performance as a generative activity associated with artistic interventions and liberation within the confines of cultural streamlining and boredom. It is an activity that traverses various contemporary histories and sustains within inter-generational links that challenge and critique the region’s very terrain of artistic activity.
While the introduction of three hundred artists is alphabetical, the exhibition itself aims to stay free of the same hierarchies and categorizations by arranging the documentary materials based on topologies of places where the performances occurred, thus underscoring the range of locations from the Cannes Film Festival where Isidore Isou screened Traité de bave et d’Éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity) in 1951 and Ben Vautier’s Cannes Ville (1963), in which he presented and signed the city as a total work of art to Bruno Moncença’s performance at the pilgrimage site Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, known for its relic of the skull of Mary Magdalene.
Each room is dedicated to over a dozen locations: bars, restaurants, hotels; historical places and places of worship; commercial spaces; countryside and villages; theatres; the street; cultural and sports complexes; municipal galleries; experimental spaces and artists’ studios and homes; museums and foundations (Orlan’s Documentary Study – the Drape – the Baroque in the Musée des Beaux Art Jules Cheret, Nice, 1980); administrative, community or educational sites; city parks and squares; galleries; the Villa Arson; and the seaside. The installation is divided by category with each location given a room hung with copies of photographs, documents, signs, letters, announcements, and news coverage arranged in no particular order salon style, but with an exceptional catalogue freely available to the viewers with location and catalogue pages noted in each room. In addition, two rooms are dedicated to providing the viewer with access to primarily archival documents in the form of artist interviews primarily conducted by Eric Mangion but also earlier interviews with artists as well as a screening room running videos of performances.
As Mangion writes in this valuable catalogue (in the form of an arts newspaper), the aim was to gather and sort primary documents that attest to the significance of performance art along the French Riviera over the past fifty years. And, in fact, given the documentary evidence, he has already substantiated the claim that this genre of art (rather than a style, school or individual) is a major characteristic of the region. Given the scope and depth of the material, this presentation opens up a field ripe of analysis. The fluidity of the spaces and the shifting thematic of performance are well documented while avoiding historical determinism. In effect, it is the form that has sustained given the contingencies of the fifty-year period and strategies of individual artists or groups. This exhibition is also a call to reflect on what it means to live in a region where for a half century, a certain form artistic action sustained locally, nationally and internationally involving hundred of artists. The curator has issued a challenge by providing extensive data on this artistic genre to study this phenomenon and analyze its complexity and depth, and has generously provided evidence freely for scholarly, critical or public consideration. Given the limited duration of the exhibition, Mangion and his team have created an extensive website organized in parallel to the exhibition layout concept. The pdf file of the catalogue is also available with this article.
Photo: Bruno Mendonça, Permits of All Types, June 1982. Performance at the Ancient Convent Royale, Basilica of Saint-Meximin-La Saint-Baume.