Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sept Fois Plus à l'Ouest: Yann Kersalé at the Fondation EDF

I have a new favourite artist. I'm lucky to have seen Yann Kersalé's exhibition at the Fondation EDF; I had heard of neither him nor the venue until I stumbled upon a blog mentioning it as a postscript and looked it up. I probably wouldn't have gone to see it (knowing almost nothing about the artist or the space) if it hadn't been both free and on a street I pass regularly. I'm so glad I went, though, and I'm certainly going to go back again before it closes on March 25th.


I don't even know how to describe this exhibition. It begins as soon as I open the door to the Fondation EDF; the space is pitch black. I follow swirling arrows suggestive of primordial winds, walk past text that could easily be poetry and enter the closest thing an art gallery can be to a wilderness. It's sort of more than a natural wilderness, too, because there's the sense that there could be otherworldly monsters lurking in dark corners. In the darkness, nothing but the works themselves are visible. I fear I'm about to bump into a stranger or trip on something.

Photographs don't really capture this exhibition; so much of it is about movement and sound and being in the space.


The shapes and textures vary. Jagged white shapes loom like icicles off walls; a large red rounded mountain dominates the centre of the space. On and in front of one wall blue and white shapes move on angular square posts. There's so much sound and movement in the work that everything feels unstable.


In the basement a tower of orbs, seen through rectangular cut-outs in a wall, has a myriad of different international media tapes projected onto it, colourful and noisy. Across a hallway whites and greys stream across a ceiling covered in strips of tape as if the canopy of a tree. Upstairs, there's a room filled with lights projected onto hanging strips of plastic and a room occupied by a long, thin stretch of moving blues that, up close, look like they're being drawn with crayons. 

These works are beautiful, but a bit perplexing to the uninitiated viewer. They're overwhelming and make you feel a lot, but it's hard to understand exactly what you're looking at. 

I don't think this is a bad thing; the works are enjoyable on more than an intellectual plain. They succeeded in transporting me to a different world more fully than anything I've seen or done in a long time. Nonetheless, I was intrigued and eager to learn more. 

Looking at the catalogue, I learn that Kersalé is known primarily for his site-specific works. He often collaborates with architects (especially Jean Nouvel) and his artworks use light in conjunction with their environments to create otherworldly experiences.

Some of the places he's worked with are pretty exciting. With Jean Nouvel Kersalé worked on the illumination of the Copenhagen Concert Hall, the Torre Agbar in Barcelona and the Hôtel de Ville in Montpellier. He's also done a project, L'Ô, at the Quai Branly, which I plan to see soon. In 2009 he did an installation in Briey to celebrate fifty years of Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse. In the 1980s and 1990s he lit the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais, the Opéra Bastillé, the eurotunnel and the Basilica Saint Denis. 

He kind of seems a 21st century version of André Granet, who I did a presentation and essay on for my MPhil. Granet worked on the illuminated fountains at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition and the lighting of the Eiffel Tower in 1937 (along with some other wonderful things -like the Hôtel Splendid in Dax- which are less in keeping with Kersalé's practice).

Kersalé's artworks at the Fondation EDF, I learn, were all originally presented outside gallery walls and are evocations of environments. The sounds that one hears -the crashing of waves, often, but also trickling water and wind- are recordings taken on site and the rooms in which video works are presented are attempts to evoke the original circumstances in which a work was presented. There's also a room of video showing the works as they were originally installed on beaches, lighthouses, in forests and even underwater. 

I'm surprised to realise, watching the video and thinking about the title of the show, that there are actually only seven works in the exhibition. Their impact seems so great that it's hard to think of them, collectively, as such a small number. But the videos of these works on their original sites illustrates the grandeur of each individual piece. Kersalé even has the ability to change the appearance of the sea, to enhance even the beauty of a forest.

These videos pretty much guaranteed my willingness to travel to any place that Kersalé has a project in future. I realise that the wall with blue and white shapes moving against square posts is actually a projection of a project on which he attached lights to long posts which were planted in a long serpentine line on a beach. Firm enough to stay in place but constructed of a material flexible enough to move, the lights danced with the movements of the wind. At high tide, the line of lights was surrounded by water. I imagine the original must have been spectacular; it's hard to display something so site-specific in a gallery.

That said, the exhibition does an excellent job of evoking the outdoors. I felt, before learning of the pieces' original sites, that the experience of Verticale Allongée: l'Appel du Large best compared to camping. Sitting there, watching deep blues that stretched (by virtue of mirrors) almost infinitely with a soundtrack of high pitched winds and rustling water, felt both peaceful and sublime in the same way as pitching a tent on an isolated clifftop might. As I mentioned earlier, entering the exhibition made me feel immediately as if I were entering a wilderness; it's the first thought I jotted in my notebook. 

Similarly, Profondeur de Lames: Le Prairies de la Mer really makes you feel as if underwater. You make your way, as if swimming, through a room of hanging plastic and foil walls to sit on a bench looking back. The light that reaches you is filtered and refracted through the strips of plastic.

I wish this exhibition was permanent. It's the sort of thing I'd return to whenever I felt the urge to escape daily life or the city. They say the average visitor to an art gallery spends three seconds on each work (though averaging things out like that is meaningless), but I somehow spent over two hours in the presence of these seven pieces. And, after that, I don't think I could have left if I didn't know I could come back again (at least for the next two weeks).

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