All Day in Marseille: A Date With the City-wide Contemporary Art Love-in

How do you fit 70 exhibitions, 85 partners, 150 artists, and the contents of more than 48 maps and leaflets into 24 hours?

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Critic's Guides | 21 MAY 18

Sometimes visiting an art festival feels like trying to solve an impossible maths problem. How do you fit 70 exhibitions, 85 partners, 150 artists, and more than 48 maps and leaflets into 24 hours (and save enough time for a glass of rosé)? Every spring for the past ten years, the city of Marseille has organized the Printemps de l’art contemporain (PAC), an 18-day festival of contemporary art that launches with a four-day-long vernissage. With 70 exhibitions across Marseille and nearby towns including Aix-en-Provence, Istres and Port-Bouc, the PAC landed on 9 May, a day of national train strikes, which made the first 24 hours a strictly local affair. Adding another layer of complexity to the equation, this year Marseille has partnered with Glasgow, one of its 13 official twin cities, to organize ‘Love Letters’, a series of exhibitions and exchanges between artists and galleries in the two cities. Two years in the planning, the trans-European partnership also involved an exchange between Marseille’s Beaux-Arts school and Glasgow School of Art, led by artist and curator Kirsteen Macdonald with Vanessa Brito. The students, who took part in a weeklong workshop at Glasgow School of Art with artists including Douglas Gordon, Ciara Phillips and Charlie Jeffery last January, weren’t having any of the saccharine-sweet ‘Love Letters’ theme, and, seemingly in anticipation of the overwhelming list of things to see as part of PAC, made a show about labour and exhaustion, which they pertly titled ‘What’s love got to do with it?’

‘What’s love got to do with it?’, 2018, featuring Gordon Douglas, Cicely Farrer, Charlie Jeffery, Ciara Phillips, Emmie McLuskey, Rosie O’Grady, Clara Ursitti, Alain Sonneville & Pierre-Claude de Castro and the students of Beaux-Arts de Marseille. Courtesy: © Kirsteen Macdonald 

Installed at Art-Cade Galerie Des Grands Bains Douches De La Plaine, a former public baths, the exhibition featured live performances by students, alongside work by Glasgow-based artists. The wry tone of the title carried on in Phillips’s punchy banners, including the Vanilla Ice homage Stop, Collaborate (2017), and Jeffery’s You can put them like this (2016), a funny video in which the artist holds up two pieces of cardboard to the camera in different configurations, repeating the title ad infinitum. Jeffery’s onscreen demonstration took a live turn at the opening, when he and Marseille student Erwan Badir played the same game with two metal table legs, perpetually re-arranging them for a packed audience, who watched while sipping drams of rhubarb-flavoured gin served by a student encased in an ambulant wheelbarrow-reception table hybrid sculpture.

Valérie Horwitz, 5 Years (An interval), 2017–18, film still. Courtesy: the artist

From noon until midnight on Friday, La Nuit de l’instant (The Night of the Moment), a sub-festival of moving image, showcased video in 18 art and non-art spaces around Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest neighbourhood. Now in its eighth edition, the event was inaugurated in 2010 under the directorship of Eric Gudimart, who has also run the Centre Photographique De Marseille since 2007 and will oversee its move into new premises in the autumn. With venues ranging from the fancy InterContinental Hotel Dieu, in a former 18th century hospital perched high above the port, to rented shops and private addresses, the video marathon staged some poignant encounters between a work’s setting and its content. In Doctor Pini’s waiting room, accessed from a door that opens onto the Panier’s main street, local artist Valérie Horwitz’s video 5 Years (An interval) (2017–18) animated the photographic project she embarked on after being diagnosed with a chronic illness that made her highly sensitive to light. In response to her ensuing confinement, she used her camera – itself a light-sensitive tool – to document her transformed body through a series of intimate self-portraits.

A few streets away, Galerie Polysémie showcased the work of artists involved with Project Ability, a Glasgow-based organization that offers classes, workshops and exhibition opportunities to people with a range of disabilities and mental health issues. Glasgow-based artist Tommy Kemp’s city-scenes, which feature detailed buildings drawn in thick lines and urban plant life, evoked the work of the celebrated Scottish outsider artist Scottie Wilson (1888–1972), which was also on display.

Rachel Maclean, Over the Rainbow, 2013, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Château de Servières, Marseilles

Further out from the centre of town, at the Château de Servières, a contemporary art centre housed in a former industrial building (and not a castle), a survey show covered the past five years of Glasgow-based artist Rachel Maclean’s output, and a new commission by French artist Nicolas Daubane. Daubane’s exhibition is the product of ‘MP2018 Quel Amour!’ (What a Love!), a residency programme that connects artists with local business and industry. Daubane was hosted in two resorts belonging to the Vacances Bleues holiday company, whose the serene atmosphere presumably lent his show its title ‘OKLM’ – a phonetic spelling of the French expression ‘au calme’, or ‘in peace and quiet’ – if not its content. In the middle of a gallery strewn with military surplus blankets stands a restored German air-raid siren, which is wired into the mains via a switch that will remain locked until the end of the show, at which point the siren will be swaddled with the blankets and set off in what the artist calls ‘my version of Munch’s “Scream”’. A series of iron filing etchings on glass, hung around the room, will likely shatter when the siren is set off.

Das Hund performing at Galerie Crèvecoeur, Marseilles, 2018. Courtesy: the author

The ominous tone of Daubane’s show was echoed by an independent programme, put on for the third year running by the Marseille-based collective Post-Disaster Residencies. Through a residency attended by some 15 artists from Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and France, and performances underground in Marseille and in an abandoned concert stadium in the nearby town of Vitrolles, Post-Disaster Residencies have set themselves the task of scratching beneath the shiny surface of the PAC and finding new ways of encountering art in Marseille. Set up two years ago as an informal collective of artists, architects and philosophers, Post-Disaster Residencies work with abandoned or disused spaces and cast a wide critical net over issues such as gentrification, neo-liberalism, architecture and art. For a gig last Thursday by Das Hund, London-based duo Samuel Levack and Jennifer Lewandowski’s performance project, the audience descended into the dusty basement of Galerie Crèvecoeur, which Post-Disaster Residencies had commandeered for the evening. Crèvecoeur is one of seven shiny new art spaces on the recently redeveloped Rue du Chevalier Roze, who are benefiting from rent-free leases offered by the property developers in a bid to make the area more desirable. But its basement was another world altogether: cramped and lined with raw concrete and insulation material, it was a world in stark contrast to the official PAC love-in upstairs.

Main image: Rachel Maclean, Over the Rainbow (detail), 2013, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Château de Servières, Marseilles

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.