‘The culture industries are phantom industries. They announce death.’ So reads one line from Capture (2009), a five-screen video installation by Grégory Chatonsky. Here in Le Havre, a port city on France’s north coast, this is undoubtedly true. Chatonsky’s work is currently on show at Le Tetris, a multi-purpose arts space housed in a 19th-century hilltop fortification that overlooks the city. The arrival of arts spaces such as Le Tetris follows the slow decline of the city’s previous industries – oil, chemicals, cars. In that sense, the culture industries do indeed mark a kind of death. But could such initiatives promise new life, too?
2017 marks 500 years since King Francis I founded Le Havre as a royal port. Over five centuries, it has experienced radical upheaval: following extensive bombing by the British during World War II, Le Havre was rebuilt in concrete along wide gridded streets by Auguste Perret. A little later came Oscar Niemeyer’s cultural centre Le Volcan (Volcano, 1982) – a curvaceous contrast in the centre of the city. Today, the port is the sixth busiest in Europe, but elsewhere, as Naëlie Baudin details in her ‘Memoire: la politique d’attractivité de la ville du Havre’ (2016), the city’s industries have long been fading and its population in decline.
As in other cities struggling to carve out new economic pathways, Le Havre’s politicians turned towards culture and tourism. After sustained campaigning, the city centre was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. Perret’s understated neoclassicism has resulted in a place that seems designed to live in, not just to look at. ‘It feels here like concrete was a material, not an ideology,’ says architecture critic Dr Crystal Bennes (also my wife). In 2015, Le Volcan was beautifully converted into a library and theatre.
I’m visiting for ‘Un Été au Havre’ (A Summer in Le Havre), a programme of public art, exhibitions and events spread out across the city over four months. The project is part of the city’s 500th anniversary celebrations, directed by Thomas Malgras. Malgras believes that Le Havre suffers from an unfair reputation, which such projects can help to change: ‘When art and culture are directly involved in our public space […] it will attract more visitors who will then understand how different this city is from what they imagined,’ he tells me. ‘Their opinion will change, they might even come back and, why not, stay for good.’
The emphasis on photogenic spectacle is therefore unsurprising: Vincent Ganivet has constructed a pair of rainbows out of multi-coloured shipping containers in his Catène de containers (Catena of Containers, all works 2017 unless otherwise stated); for Venus and Mars, Félicie d’Estienne D’Orves has installed pulsing lights on the twin chimneys of the EDF energy plant. Unfortunately, Chiharu Shiota’s huge installation of red yarn, Accumulation of Power, only succeeds in frustrating the magnificent concrete verticals of the St Joseph church, Perret’s one concession to grandeur. Much more successful is UP#3, a two-storey sculpture of interlocking white rectangles by Lang/Baumann that stands on Le Havre’s pebbled beach. Situated at the end of one of Perret’s long, Haussmann-esque visual axes, the piece is both an elegant structure in its own right and a kind of viewfinder that serves to reframe the seascape beyond.
Meanwhile, at the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, although the glossy photographs and installations by art duo Pierre et Gilles are, for me, entirely uninteresting, the pair have succeeded in linking their work – especially a series of beach hut dioramas – both to Le Havre and to the museum’s own collection. For example, standing out among the major names of impressionism (Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley) and a vast number of paintings by Eugène Boudin is a selection of works by local fauvist Raoul Dufy. In 1901 Dufy depicted Le Havre as a mud-dark town of hunched-over workers, smoke and looming slag heaps. Just 20 years later his Souvenir du Havre (1921) is a tourist-friendly montage of shells, streams and the French flag.
Such changing perceptions of place over time also inform the work of Julien Berthier, on show at arts centre Le Portique. Waterside Plaza splices together footage of New York edge-lands from an array of feature films; Cinq seconds plus tard (Five Seconds Later) consists of three landscape paintings purchased by the artist and apparently adjusted by a restorer in order to shift light and shadow by five seconds; and for Rien de spécial (Nothing Special) two near-identical drawings of an empty plot between two anonymous Paris buildings hang on opposite sides of a gallery wall. The drawings were produced a few months apart: graffiti and a new chain-link fence are the only visible changes; in the background the ornate St Ambroise church stands steadfast. In a city such as Le Havre, as indeed in Paris, time moves by at many different speeds.
Main image: Lang/Baumann, Up #3, 2017, steel, wood, paint, 9 x 11 x 10 m. Courtesy: the artists