BY Declan Long in Critic's Guides | 12 NOV 18

Time Interrupted at Toulouse’s Contemporary Art Biennial

This edition of ‘Le Printemps de Septembre’ was both an urgent, in-the-moment experience and unapologetic anachronistic throwback

BY Declan Long in Critic's Guides | 12 NOV 18

Springtime in September – the defining concept of the Toulouse contemporary art biennial – seems, right now, like an immensely pleasing prospect. At the blustery conclusion of a summer that has been, depending on your predicament or point of view, either a blissful heatwave haze or an unsettling foretaste of the apocalyptic climate to come, there might be few things more attractive than the impossible dream of turning back time, putting the weather in rewind, hitting refresh on spring. Such, it might seem, is the fanciful aspiration of ‘Le Printemps de Septembre’. Under the directorship of veteran curator Christian Bernard, this richly varied biennial once again invites us to share in an autumn-replacing printemps: an abundant flowering of art across a city and its environs – an offer that has, on the face of it, an upbeat, benevolent civic generosity. Art, we might presume, is like spring: with it comes revival, new life, more light.

But what if – to darken the mood – this bonus springtime doesn’t cancel the imminent autumn and instead coincides with it, complicating it? What if, in fact, the exhibition’s conceit implies a confused, congested sense of time: a strange simultaneity of spring and autumn. Seasonal awakening, births and beginnings, concurrent with decline and fall. Certainly, such an atmosphere of compression and disturbance would seem truer to art’s turbulent, changeable weather than any optimistic, cheerfully favourable outlook – and to reckon with a disorderly sense of temporality, a condition of things being out of synch and sequence, would feel apt in our own screwed-up times. (I’m reminded of a comment once made by Roni Horn: ‘Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong.’). Bernard’s introduction to the exhibition – making the customary biennial pitch for urgent present-day relevance – notes how ‘Printemps’ has been ‘inspired by the will [of artists] to position themselves in the midst of history’s conflicts and tensions’. The particular title of this year’s edition, ‘Fracas et Frêles Bruits’ (Fracas and Frail Sounds) declares a desire for art to make itself heard within the chaotic din of historical tumult and catastrophe – but among the featured artworks are quite a few that seem particularly suited to the wider, weirder festival context of an asynchronous spring. These are works that puzzle over what it might mean to be historically positioned at all, or that anxiously capture a sense of contrary, unpredictable motion in time’s passing.

Latifa Echakhch, Partition Pour Main et Masse, 2018, installation view, Centre d'Art Contemporain Chapelle Saint-Jacques (Sain-Gaudens). Courtesy: © Printemps de Septembre; photograph: Damien Aspe

So, for instance, an exhibition by US-born Parisian ‘punk muse’ Nina Childress, at the Musée Paul-Dupuy (one of over 30 venues used throughout the exhibition), messes impertinently with the chronological and typological orthodoxies of museum display – mixing the kitschy pop drollery of her own paintings with the antiquated styles of around 40 historical portraits from the Musée des Augustin collection. (The eclectic display format, faux-naif method and recurring focus on female subjects suggest comparisons with Karen Kilimnick, but the latter’s art has a singular, spellbinding charm not generally achieved by Childress.) An enthralling exhibition by David Claerbout at Les Abattoirs – the city’s premier contemporary art venue – is also concerned with revisiting and re-positioning past materials. Claerbourt’s ‘Dark Optics (Vision de Nuit)’ – which includes work made between 1997 and 2017 – is a beautifully solemn ten-screen meditation on the changing capacities of lens-based media to bring the world to life, or to hold it still. Found photographs become micro-detailed animations; appropriated movies are radically edited: these are revelatory, painstaking products of pixel-by-pixel re-touching, tour-de-force experiments in time-sculpting. A different type of temporal distortion occurs in ‘Partition pour main et masse’ (Partition for Hand and Mass) a dually creative-and-destructive, forwards-and-backwards installation by Latifah Echakhch, situated at the Centre D’art Contemporain Chapelle Saint-Jacques, in the town of Saint Gaudens (an hour’s drive from Toulouse). On the high interior walls of this historic building – a former church – Echakhch has painted an expansive fresco: a depiction of blue sky and scattered clouds that might be a grand elaboration on background details from a classical scene. With care and precision, however, the artist has chipped away at the painting, removing sections of applied colour to leave a patchy, substantially destroyed image. The overall effect – augmented by an accompanying video in which a piano is played and disassembled at the same time – is both powerful and pathetic. The capacious theatrical space promises a spring-like, bright-sky uplift, but in its profound ruination it also calls to mind the nihilistic opening lines from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016): ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.’

Sven Anderson and Gerard Byrne, A Visibility Matrix, 2018, installation view, Fondation d'entreprise espace écureuil pour l'art contemporain, Toulouse. Courtesy: © Printemps de Septembre; photograph: Damien Aspe 

Echakhch’s hopeful, fine-weather vision is laboriously realised then gradually picked apart. And despite its antique appearance, her work’s incrementally annulled optimism has a right-now feel, perhaps recalling the late Mark Fisher’s concern for what he called (borrowing from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi) ‘the slow cancellation of the future.’ Where we stand – and what we understand – with respect to past, present and future is also the conceptual crux of Gerard Byrne’s In Our Time (2017) shown at the Theatre Garonne. Originally commissioned for Skulptur Projekte Munster in 2017, Byrne’s long, leisurely film brings us into the cloistered, time-fixated world of a fictional radio studio. Moving between the ongoing, inevitably inane chatter of an avuncular middle-aged male DJ and the inconsequential comings and goings of studio musicians (either setting up or wrapping up, we’re never quite clear which), Byrne’s crafty, slow-moving montage of unhurried, uneventful scenes runs for an undefined duration, repeating in altering combinations. The setting is non-specific United States. The time is non-specific too. Or rather, it is unpredictably specific. Hourly news updates include apparently contemporaneous reports on events from the 1970s and ’80s, as if the closed box of the studio can leap, Tardis-like, from one time-period to another. But when the DJ provides a time-check – an insistently regular feature of radio broadcasting – the hours and minutes match the precise clock position of our current time. As with Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) this pairing of a diegetic temporality with our own present moment is steadily mesmerizing: we become, like the producers and presenters of radio shows, obsessed with the accurate managing and marking of time, while losing ourselves in its unending drift.

A second major work by Byrne, this time in collaboration with sound artist Sven Anderson, is also, simultaneously, an urgent, in-the-moment experience and a self-conscious, anachronistic throwback. A Visibility Matrix (2018) (shown at the Fondation d’enterprise espace écuriel pour l’art contemporain) is a mammoth montage of video drawn from footage provided by an extensive range of further collaborators. (It’s a mini-Biennial by itself: featuring contributions from Rosa Barba, Maeve Brennan, Duncan Campbell, Willie Doherty, Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Raven and dozens more.) Byrne and Anderson’s emphatically physical installation – multiple monitors, chunky display stands and a jungle of thick sprawling cables – is partly a nostalgic paean to pioneering, pre-internet media art, and partly a speculative, forward-looking proposition: a critical, contemplative model of off-line video sharing that offers temporary relief from the time-wasting temptations of online streaming.

Bruno Gironcoli, ‘La Grande Cavalcade’, 2018, installation view, Couvent des Jacobins, Toulouse. Courtesy: © Printemps de Septembre; photograph: Damien Aspe 

Elsewhere at ‘Le Printemps’ there were multiple attempts to newly appraise or promote influential figures from art’s recent past, alongside manifold explorations of how the frêles brut of art might represent, or rise above, the fracas of ‘history's conflicts and tensions’. There were, for instance, significant solo presentations by artists finding fresh ways to make visible the hidden histories of colonialism (Lisa Reihana at The Theatre Garonne; Vincent Meessen at Musée Saint Raymond) or seeking to critique handed-down hierarchies of art-making (a fantastic, ferocious display of feminist collage and water-colour painting by Béatrice Cussol at la Médiatheque des Abattoirs). There were strong selections of work by diversely trail-blazing, sometimes undervalued artists: a city-wide series of Alexander Kluge screenings; a first French retrospective of paintings and sculptures by former Situationist activist Jacqueline de Jong (at Les Abattoirs); a sizable display of the monstrous, ridiculous, machine-body forms realised by Austrian surrealist Bruno Gironcoli between the 1960s and the early 2000s: heavy-duty sculptures that might suggest prized historical relics in a museum of industry, were it not for the wild sci-fi absurdity of their oddly organic designs. These (and numerous other) solo displays felt generous and weighty.

All biennials warp time, in one way or another. Some, to varying extents, waste it. It’s hard not to be hassled and hurried while visiting dozens of exhibitions that demand patient attention, requiring quality time. But in general, time feels well spent at ‘Le Printemps de Septembre’. One factor is the considered profusion of one-person shows: a lot of artists are included here, but few contributions seem slight. Not all, inevitably, succeed. The five films of Ange Leccia’s installation Girls, Ghosts and War (2018), at Maison Salvan, combine archival footage shot over the past three decades in the US, Asia and the Middle East with dreamy images of solitary young women, in a style that seems superficial and manipulative. Backed by the drift and drone of a distorted, shoe-gazey soundtrack, Leccia’s films of conflict-afflicted landscapes depend heavily on a very stable, conventional standard of feminine beauty, using women’s faces and bodies as little more than symbolic-erotic props. It’s an exceptional case of jarring cliché in a context in which most of the selected art is, otherwise, both exacting and exciting – offering surprising, complex responses to the conflicts and tensions of our convulsive times. 

Main image: Sarkis, Mesure de la Lumière (Measure of Light), 2018, installation view, Couvent des Jacobins, Toulouse. © Printemps de Septembre; photograph: Damien Aspe

Declan Long is programme director of the MA course Art in the Contemporary World at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, Ireland.