To Arles, famed for its Roman antiquities, and a shrine to Vincent Van Gogh, is now set to become a a vital new hub for art -in-the-making. The refurbished 15th century mansion that houses the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation has opened with Van Gogh Live, 'Colours of the North Colours of the South' , in which a dozen of his paintings are on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam alongside contemporary artists. While a new arts campus, complete with studios, archives, research centres, workshops, seminar rooms and a towering gleaming aluminium gallery;(that promises to be Frank Gehry at his best) on the outskirts of the town in an old railway depot, still in its infancy is due to open in 2018.
As I sped through the sunlit Provencal landscape I sensed something of the release that Vincent must have felt from the north, who, on a whim , in 1888, changed trains at the last minute and ended up in Arles, setting up studio in the yellow house .
I was deposited at the Arlatan hotel, 'po mo' decor down stairs, with a Tracey Emin embroidered eiderdown hanging in the hallway , while the bedrooms were pre-revolutionary with antediluvian plumbing. A fountain played in the courtyard where the press were greeted by the urbane P.R man, Pierre Collet while the hotel manager dispensed packed lunches. I strolled down to the Van Gogh Foundation for the inauguration of Vincent Van Gogh Live. 1000's of visitors every year, make a pilgrimage to see where Van Gogh reached his apotheosis, in just over a year, his output was protean, painting 200 canvases and writing 200 letters, even at night, he continued to paint in earnest, attaching candles to the rim of his hat.
The curator, Bice Curiger, began his guided tour, saying that at the onset 'he was not that talented', it was only by rigourous discipline, studying Delacroix's colour theories and copying old masters, making drawings and not touching oil paints for two years, developing a muted and muddy palate, that Van Gogh trained and transformed himself into the legend that is. Much has been written about Vincent's 'black dog' and many exhaustive biographies are annals of misery, people tend to over egg the tortured genius bit, but I think his intellect and zest for life and art gave him some recourse and flashes of euphoria, albeit until the end when he took his life.
Having chosen the colours of the gallery walls, deep purples, dove greys and maroon, Gary Hume's hues are a triumph, harmonizing with the Van Gogh canvases and other painters whom, Van Gogh admired and was influenced by: Corot, Pisarro, Courbet, Gauguin and woodcuts by Japanese artists. I was expecting to see more of Hume's luscious hues that were illustrated in the weighty catalogue, but I could only find his version of the sunflowers and some curious tomblike marble pieces, and not unlike the ancient Roman stellae in the town's museum of antiquities by the banks of the Rhone.
I strayed away from the tour, to inspect the living artists. Bethan Huws, a Welsh artist, wedded to Marcel Duchamp and his milieu, has launched fleets of Lilliputian boats that she made from reeds are displayed in museum vitrines, while a film of bird wild life, replacing the commentary with 'Zone', a mystifying and mystical poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, which to my mind, is the most compelling part of the contemporary offerings. The wild life film loop showing rare and migratory birds; herons, storks and ibises among many other breeds, may be a subtle reference that Haws is making to the benefactor, that has made all this possible.
The 11 million Euro renovation was funded by Luc Hoffman, who, as an avid ornithologist, bought up large tracts of the Camargue, and subsequently established wild life reserves in north Africa, and he then founded the World Wild Life Trust.The Van Gogh Foundation and arts complex in the Parc des Ateliers has almost been entirely funded by the patrons par excellence, Luc and his daughter Maja Hoffmann, via their foundation LUMA. The Hoffmann's fortune is founded on a vast pharmaceuticals empire including Roche pills; sometimes, the right people have all the money. The 'Parc des Ateliers' budget is 150 million Euro, and money from LUMA coffers pours in to the Tate and Serpentine Galleries and the Kunsthalle in Zurich.
Thomas Hirschhorn's chaotic 'Indoor van Gogh Altar' re imagines a Japanese girl's obsession with the cult of Vincent, in all its mutations from sunflower scent, to reproductions, postcards and posters, mugs, tiles and facsimiles of his ear; and as with most installations, the obligatory flickering t.v screens. In the top gallery, a new extension with a decked verandah overlooking the rooftops and spires of Arles, a group of Elizabeth Peyton's whimsical works on paper of pop legends, film stars and literary figures bear little or no relationship to Van Gogh, I do not see any any "fruitful dialogue" with Van Gogh, and I have no idea why these wishy washy insipid pastiche portraits are here?
'Van Gogh Live ', the first of many, may be a little flawed, as it aims to how Van Gogh's art resonates in art today? Judging by this exhibit, with the exception of Hirschhorn, this does not ring true, but then in the words of the curator "there is not need to defend - conceptualism." However the new extensions and gallery spaces flow seamlessly into the old existing building, a world UNESCO Site, it is a genius loci, embodying a protective spirit of place that unleashed Vincent's genius.
In the evening, Arlesiens mingled with the art crowd in a high gothic deconsecrated church, where trestle tables were laid out, not groaning with food, but delicate morsels of asparagus , aubergine caviar and lavender infused cake. Replacing the pulpit was a sound system booting up with heavy base for the night's rave. Among the throng I espied Sir Nicholas Serota, looking saturnine as usual, detached and shod in what, looked like Locke shoes, Luc Hoffmann, wheelchair bound and distinguished,who has made all this jamboree and the new art venues possible, and having paced round the church three times, Gary Hume and his wife Georgie Hopton, also an artist, rescued me and we repaired to a grand hotel for drinks. There we were joined by the glacial Barbara Gladstone, the editor of the Tate etc Simon Grant, Elizabeth Peyton, and the dynamic Sadie Coles, who astonished the assembled party when she revealed that recently she went all the way to Australia and back for eight hours, to attend the opening of one of her gallery artists.
The next day was round two, down at the Parc des Ateliers for the presentation of LUMA, the Arles campus led by Frank Gehry and Maja Hoffmann; he explained how this project is inspired by the Roman amphitheatre, taking the concept of the drum as his starting point, while the gleaming argent marquette, more resembled the chthonic mass of the cliff top fortifications at Les Baux rather than Roman engineering. " I was inspired to do something Roman, a circular foyer like an atrium." When a journalist asked him how the context of his building would relate to the existing post industrial architecture? he deflected the question, saying that he read "Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland to answer questions like these," I assume to keep a sense of the absurd. "I live in L.A, which is car camp, and when you come to Arles, the quality of life is so much better, and my wife and I ask our selfs could we move our offices here? This is a living city not an archeological dig, its seductive."
As the sirocco whipped up, visitors were practically blown down to the 'Solaris Chronicles', an immersive installation in the vast Ateliers des Forges, and plunged into darkness until blinding lights began to flicker on and off, in sync with the dissonant sounds of Pierre Boulez. As my eyes adjusted, I saw, Gehry's large-scale models of buildings, realized and unrealized, being trundled around in what aimed to be "a changing mise-en-scene exhibition" curated by Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno; (the lighting man) in collaboration with David Lynch, John Baldessari, Lucinda Childs, a choreographer, and Rirkrit Tiravanija among many others ); two many cooks..... Meanwhile Gillick was smoking furiously outside, and he is shortly to feature in Joanna Hogg's new film 'Portrait of a Marriage'.
As an encomium to Gehry's architecture, that includes The Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and Bilbao and the National Museum of China, in which the facade will be clad in a translucent stone, evocative of jade, 'The Solaris Chronicles' worked on one level, otherwise, it was an assault on the senses and I escaped to the Roman theatre. There I had an epiphanic moment when a chanteuse burst into Edith Piaff's 'Je ne Regrette Rien'', the strains of the guitar and the defiant verses rang out around the ancient auditorium proving the acoustics work perfectly. How much more beguiling this genius loci was, than Gehry and his entourage attempting "cross-disciplinary collaborations with musicians, artists, filmmakers, and writers"; we can still learn from the ancients and one cannot just simply jump wily nilly through hoops in artistic practices posing as artistic gestures and interventions.