Louise Bourgeois’s monumental “Crouching Spider” rises from a serene lake, its watery reflection trembling in waning light. As the sky darkens, the broken timber planks of Frank Gehry’s exuberantly deconstructed “Pavilion de Musique” metamorphose into darting, dusky patterns and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s slim-tipped steel tower “Mathematical Model 012” tapers into the night. Everything looks as deliciously uncertain as the wavering affections of Dorabella and Fiordiligi that unfold, in a live outdoor screening of Così fan tutte from the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, against a backdrop of vineyards and olive groves.
This is sunset at Château La Coste, a wine domain outside Aix where throughout the summer eclectic crossovers of architecture, sculpture, film and performance are staged on a Roman site fringed by oak and pine forests. On my visit last weekend Mozart was followed by Chinese conceptualist film-maker Cheng Ren; forthcoming events range from a showing of Jacques Demy’s 1967 musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort to a night walk illuminated by Tatsuo Miyajima’s ephemeral cascade of white lights “Wild Time Flowers”.
La Coste is one of several venues established in the past decade between the small towns of Aix, Arles and Avignon that are creating a lively, culturally particular arena for refreshing, non-metropolitan approaches to showing contemporary art.
Modernism was born here, between Van Gogh’s Arles of “beautiful contrasts of red and green, blue and orange, sulphur and lilac”, and Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, and it was with the 2006 relaunch of Aix’s Musée Granet as a significant museum dedicated to Cézanne and his legacy that connections between nature, history and the visual arts began to develop.
The Granet is on top form this summer with Camoin dans sa Lumière, a delightful exploration of little-known Charles Camoin, the only Fauve painter befriended by the Aix master. Camoin’s shiny landscapes and interiors — Mediterranean harbours, slippery pine-clad calanques, Madame Matisse sewing — are gentle versions of Fauvism, underpinned by Cézanne’s emphasis on geometric structure: gridded masts in “Le Port de Marseille”, architectonic curves and horizontals of veranda, shutters, table in “Lola sur le Balcon”.
Camoin’s dramas of brightness and shade stay in the mind across La Coste’s hectares of rough unsigned pathways. Here visitors come haphazardly upon art deep in caves, such as Andy Goldsworthy’s walk-in inverted wooden bird’s nest “Oak Room”, or opening on plateaux like Liam Gillick’s brightly painted prison cell doors “Multiplied Resistance Screened”.
Tracey Emin’s “Self-portrait” of rusty platform, wine barrel and ceramic cat forms a tree house. Tadao Ando’s glass-encased drystone “La Chapelle” occupies a ruin. Each work registers immediate sensory experience of natural phenomena: hot/cool, light/dark, claustrophobic/expansive.
Minimalism reigns here — not sanitised as in urban white cube galleries, but rather as an acceptance that art never really rivals earth, water, air. Richard Serra’s corten steel plates “Aix” are buried into the hillside, three corners hidden, mimicking the land’s gradient. Lee Ufan’s “House of Air” is a curving woodland fairy tale cottage; inside are grey-white abstract paintings, outside a limestone boulder whose fake shadow of black pebbles contrasts bizarrely with the stone’s real shadow cast by the sun. Further paintings, executed by a single gestural stroke of a loaded wide brush so that a prism of colours, placed asymmetrically, shimmer on white canvases, constitute a temporary exhibition in a discreet gallery designed last year by Ando.
Why do the super-wealthy — Francois Pinault, David Zwirner — favour minimalism? Presumably because if you can buy anything, then less, exquisitely orchestrated, is more. La Coste, owned by property tycoon Patrick McKillen, is a rich man’s folly, but one exceptionally sympathetic to its environment, and offering a make-your-own experience of new land art accessible to all.
Across the Lubéron hills, the venerable theatre Festival d’Avignon has recently started to include visual art, but of a very different sensibility from La Coste. The history of European strife — rivals to the Roman popes ruled here in the 1300s — is embedded in this walled town, and intensely politicised contemporary works reverberate across Gothic churches, honey-stone mansions and the medieval Palais des Papes.
In its courtyard last week, Amos Gitai’s film about Yitzhak Rabin’s murder by an ultranationalist extremist was screened. The Israeli artist’s commanding installation “Chronicle of an Assassination Foretold” (2016) continues at Avignon’s Collection Lambert with extracts from the film dizzyingly projected on ceilings, black-and-white photographic fragments of instants of violence displayed in panels like upright tombs, and fragile ceramic figurines poignantly enacting how art, Gitaï says, “conserves memory when big powers want to erase it”. The Lambert, relaunched last year in the 18th-century Hotels de Caumont and Montfaucon, is disrupting its neoclassical façade with Adel Abdessemed’s “Coup de Tête”, a five-metre bronze of two brutal figures in studded football boots locked in combat, immortalising Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup. Ode to failure? At “Surfaces”, a superb festival show at the Église des Célestins, Abdessemed mounts wall reliefs in diverse materials — gold leaf, salt, camel bone — in dialogue with the carved angels and stained-glass tracery to explore how historical memory resurfaces.
In “The Travelling Players”, Camp David negotiators straighten their ties in white marble; in “Shopping” tanks roll into an aluminium Tiananmen Square as a young man passes with his groceries. “He became part of History — as himself,” says Abdessemed. “I made him come back up, like a witness: he was on the scene of the crime. As an artist, I’m on the scene of the crime.”
At Arles, the excellent Les Rencontres festival has since 1970 presented inaugural shows of many important photographers bearing witness to struggle, survival, discovery. This summer’s highlights are Sid Grossman: Du Document à la Révélation, the first European showing of the tender/sharp 1940s street photographs — “Jitterbugging in Haarlem”, “Coney Island” — of the American photographer blacklisted as a communist, and a memorial homage to “the eye of Bamako”, pioneering chronicler of 1960s Malian popular culture Malick Sidibé, who died in April.
For quality and independent thought, Les Rencontres soars above Arles’ latest offering, the Fondation Van Gogh launched in 2014 and so far showing undistinguished contemporaries, currently Glenn Brown’s pastiches “Suffer Well”. Arles, however, awaits its trophy moment: a Frank Gehry-designed arts centre, funded by collector Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation and controversially fronted by a 70-metre twisting metal tower, opens in 2018. Let’s hope that the town maintains the unpredictable edge of Les Rencontres, rather than succumbing to homogenised global fashion. For Arles, Avignon and Aix right now are the golden ticket: world-class new art in distinctive, authentic, historically resonant settings.
Photographs: The Easton Foundation/ADAGP Paris/Andrew Pattman; Florian Kleinefenn/ADAGP Paris 2016; Gehry Partners/Château La Coste/Andrew Pattman; Howard Greenberg Gallery