Before she accepted her new post as director of one of today’s most energetic centers of contemporary art, Sandra Patron first dived into the CAPC archives in Bordeaux: almost half a century of exhibits since 1973 covering sculpture, video, found and fabricated objects and pictures in multiple mediums. “It was such a pleasure to discover all these amazing artists: modern art, conceptual art, minimalist art, all these avant-garde art pieces from the 60s, the 70s, even the 80s and the 90s.” She paused, made a slight turn of the head to signal what I already knew: her aim was to change the mission sharply at Bordeaux’s Center for Contemporary Art.
“It is one of the most impressive and creative collections in Europe. Still, like nearly all art centers and museums, about 90 percent of it was by men, mostly European and North American white men. And that was not a surprise.” She followed my eyes carefully for a reaction and went on. “Don’t misunderstand me. These are great pieces. Any museum would be proud to have shown them. But there is other contemporary work that hasn’t been here.”
So she explained her mission as the Curator of this year’s major exhibition. “Around the Day in Eighty Worlds,” a flip reference to Jules Verne’s masterwork, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” A French Victorian novelist, Verne opened his tale in a London Gentleman’s Club, where Philias Fogg bets his fortune that he can circle the entire world by ship and rail and return to the Club in 80 days to recount the cultures he would discover in Africa, Asia, India, and the
Americas whose people were regarded by British gentlemen as at best marginally civilized tribes held in check by the “civilizing” mission of the Empire.
Verne’s account is a work that most white people over fifty encountered in middle school geography classes, myself included. Textbooks contained photos of naked natives, princes and princesses in jade-beaded robes and gold necklaces, Sheiks crossing sand dunes on camels, cowboys herding longhorns through Texas, “Redskins” riding horses bareback and downing buffalos with bow and arrow. These visions and accounts may not have been fully false, but the angle of sight that Verne recounted was formed by proper English Gentlemen surrounded by spittoons or ladies and dandies sipping Pastis at the Café de Flore. They were Jules Verne’s readers; their romantic portrayals even up to the modern era reflected the elite’s outlook on their own world and on the life of “the natives” described by Mr. Verne.
Sandra Patron, the new director of the CAPC, aims to turn Jules Verne’s tale inside out. She insists that she has no intention of erasing European casting portrayed by Renaissance Realism, Romantic impressionism, or Symbolist upheaval. Rather she describes herself as having arrived in a creative aesthetic playground, an art space (normally called a museum) where the Euro-American telescope is turned backwards: where African women shrug as they weave the clothes of the master’s children, where a muscled red-haired albino paints himself in multiple colors revealing his own multiple identities, where light and dark transform an enormous wall-to-wall suspended scrim luring us into discordant emotional territories — seen from above as a snowy playground of colors, seen from below as a stormy shadow land of darkness and light. It is altogether an exciting and discomfiting visual and emotional experience. Patron describes her mission as both an artistic and an ethical shift in what museums must do and become. “In 2021 one of the new responsibilities we have as directors of contemporary art museums is to reinvestigate how our art history is made and to open the doors of the narrative.” Narratives: art, she insists, is not merely a visual distraction or amusement. Art tells a narrative story.
What the French call “the plastic arts” are at root narratives of our past and present lives, just as Jules Verne’s tales were in the 19th century; or as film, radio, video and now podcasts have become the electronic narratives of our world today. Each element in this year’s exposition addresses a series of human narratives by looking inside and around the sorts of stories most of us are used to.
The visitor’s first experiences after mounting the stairs above the light and shadow scrim is a video of a seemingly naked man. It’s part of a multiple-year project by Sylvie Blocher aimed at excavating the external and interior lives she has encountered among Latinos in Texas, aboriginal families in Australia and domestic outsiders in New York and London. Step into a small room: on the wall you watch what appears to be a pale, broad-shouldered white guy slathering himself with thick body paint. Then he daubs himself with glistening black body paint. Down his neck. Across his brow. Over his chin. Keep watching and you notice his lips are thick, the lips not often found on a white Nordic. His hair, reddish-blond, is kinky curly. He is what white people call an albino — a non-pigmented African male.
Blocher rarely films actual actors or models, but this man caught her attention as he recounted his story of being born to black parents in the Bronx and how his father panicked on first sight, terrified at how he had produced a monster creature, something of Satanic origin. The father fled. Mocked by black kids in school as a freak, as albinos frequently also are in sub-Saharan Africa. Later he was physically attacked by some. And then life changed. He studied dance, moving like a graceful feline. A modeling agency took him, captivated by his multiple presentations. His name is Shaun Ross. At age twenty-one he became an international fashion model flying between LA and Paris. And then a rock-pop singer. “Becoming a top model saved his life because it‘s the only place where they accept a freak,” said Blocher, who’s become a close friend.
“I’m interested,” she said, “in how to control your identity, how you escape your physical destiny, how you can emancipate yourself. It’s a new chapter in art now that we have to address.” She calls this piece, Change the Scenario. “Painted white,” Blocher elaborates, “he looks like some sort of aboriginal figure. Very powerful. As black, only his eyes show and he looks very fragile.” She added that he has been in a durable relationship for some years, and his lovers have always been black.
If Blocher’s video ~ alongside Samara Scott’s scrim ~ are the most provocative pieces this season at the CAPC, Caroline Achaintre’s wall hangings take a more intimate approach to turning ordinary realities inside out, as in her mounting of a color piece showing the backside of wool tufting, or a black stone head with dreads that might also be streams of chocolate, or a black and yellow hand “dripping” nerves or blood or strands of flesh.
Everything depends on who YOU are as you witness these pieces from all over the world, what lives within the catalogue of personal memory, and how daring you allow yourself to be as you fall into the multiple dreams and distresses each piece may provoke.
Frank Browning © 2021
Frank Browning, a former science correspondent for NPR, is the author of nine books including The Culture of Desire, The Monk and the Skeptic and The Fate of Gender.