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Contemporaine de Nîmes: Une nouvelle jeunesse

by Valentina Bin
Reviews / Exhibition • 31.05.2024

The inaugural edition of Contemporaine de Nîmes, a triennial dedicated to contemporary art, is titled Une nouvelle jeunesse (A new youth). The project comprises four main strands: a large-scale, multidisciplinary exhibition that is staged across the city, a series of performing arts events, a residency initiative in three distinct ‘houses’ and an associated programme that involves local organisations. The central exhibition, La Fleur et la Force (The Flower and the Strength), is structured around twelve projects, which are dispersed across various locations. Each involves an intergenerational pairing of artists: a younger, comparatively emerging practitioner and an older, more established or historical one. This structure follows a widely accepted convention that equates ‘young’ with ‘up-and-coming’ and ‘older’ with ‘established’. Youth is indeed fetishised in the art world, but its fruits are often engulfed and discarded. On the other hand, many older artists are relegated to the sidelines unless they arbitrarily ‘emerge’ when a gallery sees the opportunity, in a vulturous fashion, for them to do so. It is worth noting, therefore, that the exhibition curators have missed an opportunity to problematise this dichotomy.

The dynamics of these couplings vary in origin and nature. Some manifest as homages or tributes, some are wholly collaborative, whereas others have evolved into forms of mentorship. The last is the case for Zineb Sedira (b.1963) and the photographer Alassan Diawara (b.1986). In many ways epitomising the central premise of the triennial, Sedira presents a series of works on familial and cultural transmission FIG.1. Her film Mother Tongue (2002), which is displayed in an unassuming room at the Carré d’Art - Musée d’art contemporain, comprises three videos: the first shows Sedira conversing in French with her Algerian mother, who responds in Arabic; the second captures the artist engaging in a similar dialogue with her London-born daughter, who replies in English; and finally, in the absence of a shared idiom, the third video records the breakdown of communication between Sedira’s daughter and mother. With poignant simplicity, this conceptual game of language slippage highlights the complexities inherent in intergenerational exchanges, especially for migrant families. It delves into the combination of blood, language, culture and emotion that constitutes familial identity.

Whereas Mother Tongue revolves around Sedira’s personal family history, Diawara turns his gaze to the community of Nîmes. Over several months, the artist explored the city and its surrounding areas, creating a new series of photographs that capture the connections between different generations in families and communities FIG.2. Presented alongside Sedira’s works, Diawara’s images seem to mark an ongoing relationship with the city: a sustained encounter that is an aestheticised yet genuine tribute. Diawara and Sedira’s installation, titled Partitions sédimentaires (Sedimentary Partitions), documents local residents, objects and bodies of water, with photographs hung at various heights, evoking the structure of a musical score. Diawara’s subjects often engage with the photographer’s lens, each other, or both, creating a dynamic interplay of gazes: Nîmes itself is peering back at the viewer, curiously and fiercely. Extending the community-driven nature of the project further, the photographs are also installed in the public realm, on the façade of the train station FIG.3.

In a posthumous tribute, the textile artist Jeanne Vicerial (b.1991) is paired with Pierre Soulages (1919–2022), who died in Nîmes at the age of 102. At the Musée du Vieux Nîmes, Soulages’s Outrenoir paintings are literally expanded and extended by masses of black thread, which physically connect his works with Vicierial’s enigmatic and feminine fabric sculptures FIG.4. Working in partnership with the mechatronics department at Mines ParisTech, Vicerial pioneered a robotic process for crafting bespoke clothing with zero waste. Through this technique, she has managed to weave garments from a single, recycled thread – some reaching lengths of up to 150 metres, creating an effect of infinite continuity. The most captivating room FIG.5 includes a sculpture of a supine figure, which resembles a creature somewhere between a catacomb saint and a chrysalis, placed beneath one of Soulages’s paintings. The black room conjures a womb-like experience: it is a liminal space, one defined neither by death nor by birthed life. Vicerial’s considered intervention – executed entirely on-site during a month-long residency – signals a bold departure for contemporary textile art. It is unashamedly existential, offering a quasi-mystical encounter, while being both aesthetically engaging and technically impressive.

In response to the Roman heritage of Nîmes, the film-maker Valentin Noujaïm (b.1991) has created a film centred on the enigmatic and controversial persona of the adolescent emperor Elagabalus. The three-channel video installation was filmed at the Temple of Diana and incorporates three masks FIG.6 created by Ali Cherri (b.1976). Installed in the seventeen-metre-high atrium of the Musée de la Romanité, which is set around an inside street that follows the traces of the former Augustan ramparts, each screen is strategically positioned opposite the corresponding mask worn by one of the three actors in the film FIG.7. In Noujaïm’s reimagining, Elagabalus, who reigned from 218 CE until his assassination four years later at the age of eighteen, emerges as the archetype for the suppressed potential of anarchy – with irony, rather than as a genuine claim to historical accuracy. The theatrical mise en scène, in which three masked actors discuss the protagonist’s legacy, evokes the subversive allure of power and youth and the ways in which they often intertwine. Its placement – not quite within the museum but not entirely outside it either – parallels its protagonist, who is both inside and outside of history, straddling a past and future that remain elusive.

One of the defining characteristics of the triennial is its emphasis on local engagement. This is facilitated in various ways, some of which are more visible than others. Vicierial’s project, for example, included the assistance of fashion design students from the nearby high school. A particularly interesting case is the collaboration between Feda Wardak (b.1991), Tadashi Kawamata (b.1953) and young people from the Compagnons du Devoir, an organisation of craftsmen and artisans that dates back to the Middle Ages and provides traditional, technical education. Working with the two artists, the Compagnons helped to construct Water Lines, a large-scale wooden installation in the Jardins de la Fontaine. It is formed of two distinct parts: a raised wooden gutter and a sculptural structure, the curved forms of which mirror the arches of the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct just outside the city. Although the two parts seem connected and give the impression of a single stream of water, they in fact trace different waterlines across the landscape and divert its course as it flows into the garden’s ponds.

Notably, the majority of projects on show avoid overtly political themes or current affairs, apart from a few references to youth-led eco-activism. A kinetic, interactive public sculpture created by Caroline Mesquita (b.1989) and Laure Prouvost (b.1978) is a notable exception in its synthesis of protest and play. As a whole, the triennial encompasses a wide variety of mediums: textile art, installation, public sculpture, video, architecture, photography and painting. However, it is striking that, given the titular focus on youth, only a limited number of works challenge the material traditions or conventions of their chosen medium, or incorporate new technologies. This is perhaps a result of the curatorial parameters. Barring works by historical artists, such as Soulages and the Algerian painter Baya (1931–88), or established artists who chose to contribute archival pieces, such as Judy Chicago (b.1939) and Sedira, all the commissions are responses to the theme of Une nouvelle jeunesse and the unique cultural landscape of Nîmes. The site-specific nature of the projects ties them to their surroundings, and it is perhaps this emphasis on local context that encouraged a departure from wider, sociopolitical themes and modes of material innovation, which are typical of traditional biennial models.

As Terry Smith has noted, the biennial has ‘become structural within the contemporary visual arts exhibitionary complex’ – in particular to contemporary art’s evidently ‘international character’.1 But such formats are also subject to increased scrutiny, their politics brought into question and their relationship to wider contexts of austerity and crises challenged.2 There are numerous reasons why vast art festivals are problematic: unsustainable air travel, a sprawling scale that overwhelms genuine contemplation, scarce meaningful engagement with hosting communities, anachronistic nationalist undertones and the perpetual ethical and political stances that cannot but reek of hypocrisy within the context of a dispendious spectacle catering to cultural and financial elites. At the same time, however, biennials can provide artists with an unparalleled international platform and an opportunity to engage in global dialogues; they are real-time sites of art-history-making and can simultaneously generate jobs and funding opportunities.

Within this landscape, one must ask: why launch a triennial? Nîmes’s connection with contemporary art was surely solidified with the construction of the Carré d’art – a museum designed by Norman Foster, which has stood facing the so-called Maison Carrée, a perfectly preserved Roman temple from the first century CE, for over thirty years. Now, local authorities aim to position the city as a hub for contemporary culture. The impetus of the triennial, therefore, is not solely to showcase works of art, but rather to draw unfamiliar audiences and to establish new narratives in a city renowned for its Roman heritage. The curators, Anna Labouze and Keimis Henni, and the majority of artists and staff, are based in France, suggesting a deliberate effort to minimise air travel. The lack of subtitles and the relegation of translated texts to a QR code system further underscores that the focus here is not on the art world at large, but rather on local residents and domestic tourists.

Contemporaine de Nîmes is a convention-defying debutante: an emergent new model of large-scale festival exhibitions, less concerned with the global and the timeless and more focused on the local and the contingent. Whereas the most renowned biennial of them all functions as an alien spaceship landing on Venetian soil, this triennial, branded by the curators as ‘a new and vibrant laboratory for the connections between art, territory and society’ acts as a kind of mycelium that activates the roots of Nîmes’s cultural landscape.


Exhibition details

Contemporaine de Nîmes: Une Nouvelle Jeunesse

Various locations, Nîmes

5th April–23rd June 2024

About the author

Valentina Bin

is a writer, translator and curator based in London. 


See also

The smoking mother
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Estamos Bien
Estamos Bien

Estamos Bien

18.06.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition