While the gargoyles installed all around the dazzling cloister of Musée des Augustins (a convent until the French Revolution) were gulping down pouring rain on the opening day of the Festival International d’art de Toulouse, aka FIAT, my jaw literally dropped upon entering the 600sqm room of Romanesque sculptures that is the site of Jorge Pardo’s latest intervention. In an effort towards better exposure and mediation of the museum’s unique collection of twelfth-century architectural capitals and bas-reliefs, the Cuban-born artist was commissioned by the Augustins and FIAT – the annual festival directed by French artist Jean-Marc Bustamante – to train new light onto the medieval relics, as he did for instance with the pre-Columbian galleries of LACMA back in 2008.
That light consists of, if my count is correct, 64 twisted, vividly red and purple and green designer lamps hanging from a 15m-high ceiling and dispersed all over the vast exhibition space, each right above one carved capital (Untitled, 2014). Asked to preserve the original display of the precious Romanesque sculptures to avoid heavy lifting and ensuing disaster – the capitals are all mounted atop concrete circular columns arranged across the length and width of the room, the bas-reliefs on pedestals against the walls – Pardo didn’t restrict his radiant expression to lights. He also designed an entirely new tiled floor with a clear grey and pink arabesque motif, and painted waves of blue, orange and burgundy, spreading from the columns to the side pedestals, to adorn and unite the space and its collection in an illusion of vertiginous depth.
Bad taste? Be assured, not only did my eyes not bleed, but also those antiquities didn’t appeal as much in their previously austere scenography: “I wanted to create an eccentric frame to make them more present,” the artist said during the opening. (The conservators were delighted.) That said, if Pardo’s intervention is a success (the installation will remain in place until the 2016 edition of FIAT), an ingenious eye seems to be lacking in committing the seven other solo shows of the festival to the architectural wonders of the city they inhabit. Indeed, in a noble attempt to ‘put the artists first’, Bustamante thought out the festival as an ‘archipelago, the islands being the artists’, and sketched out no curatorial thread.
Yet, if the dedication is pure and the words poetic, it caused me to wonder if many exhibitions occurring at the same time and in the same area are sufficient to comprise a festival. And since Bustamante orchestrated FIAT as a sightseeing promenade across historical Toulouse, it should be at least partly about illuminating the sites, no? Anyway, this year Manon de Boer installed three films exploring performing bodies in relation to music at Les Jacobins (also a convent); Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci had gestural performances serially executed at Château d’Eau (a water tower); Franz Gertsch inaugurated a retrospective of his stunning hyperrealist paintings and woodcut prints at Les Abattoirs (a slaughterhouse that became a contemporary art centre in 2000), next to Susan Hiller, who presented video installations questioning the gasps between image and speech; Thomas Huber hung a series of paintings depicting geometric mise en abymes of exhibition spaces at Espace EDF Bazacle (a hydroelectric plant); and last but not least, French artist Elsa Sahal was invited to show work alongside small earthen figures of sleepers and urns by Georges Jeanclos, who died in 1997, at Hôtel-Dieu, a UNESCO world heritage site and former hospital.
Not to detract from the interest of the other exhibitions, let me conclude with Sahal’s series of clay sculptures, Nus couchés (2014), also commissioned by FIAT and verging on bad taste, like Pardo’s colour palette, to my greatest joy. Laid on large and low pedestals that force viewers, bending their necks, into voyeurism, these are four ensembles of magnified and dislocated body parts, realistic enough to be easily identified – a curvaceous behind, a rising phallus, humongous feet, thighs and breasts, the whole described in skin tons (black, pink, ochre, white) – yet grotesque enough to draw your imagination past sexuality and eroticism. The use of real hair extensions emerging from unlikely parts adds up to the organic sensation of whimsical abnormality the series conveys. For this, a gigantic thumbs-up.