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Lambert Collection opens an ambitious project housed at the Sainte-Anne Prison
The Collection Lambert occupies the cells, corridors and certain courtyards of the prison.

AVIGNON.- A few months prior to his death, on 1 February 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini published in the Corriere the «Firefly Article». This now famous text, tinged with nearly testamentary introspection, echoes the letter he wrote to his friend Franco Farolfi, member of the Eredi literary group, formed when Pasolini lived in Bologna 25 years earlier: «In the early 1960s, due to atmospheric pollution and, in the countryside especially, to water pollution (azure-coloured rivers and limpid canals), the fireflies began disappearing. This was a devastating, violent phenomenon and after a few years there were no more fireflies. (Today, this amounts to a rather heartbreaking recollection: a man with such a memory of the past is incapable of recovering his youth in the contemporary young people, and therefore no longer has access to the lovely regrets of yesteryear). So, this ‘something’ that occurred a decade ago we shall refer to as ‘the disappearance of the fireflies’».

This title has been adopted as the theme of an exhibition being held at Avignon’s former prison – an especially meaningful title upon rereading this founding text of the social, aesthetic and political culture of 1970s Italy. By choosing fireflies as a metaphor for a bygone society, P.P. Pasolini shed light on the world like some sort of night watchman bearing the final scintillating glimmers of a lost civilization, that of a culture that throughout Europe would eventually be devoured by The Society of the Spectacle, to borrow the title of the masterwork by Guy Debord, another «night watchman» and contemporary of the author of Teorema, Mamma Roma and The Gospel According to Mathew.

The year 2014 marks a watershed for the Collection Lambert in Avignon. Indeed, so as to offer an exceptional home to the important donation made by Yvon Lambert to the French state, comprising 556 contemporary artworks, the Collection Lambert must close its doors to the public until the summer of 2015 during the site’s extension.

The museum staff decided to take advantage of this imposed closure to pursue a unique, important project combining contemporary art, retrospection and the showcasing of heritage. Thus was born «The Disappearance of the Fireflies», an ambitious project housed at the Sainte-Anne Prison. An emblematic heritage site for the town of Avignon, located behind the Papal Palace, this edifice – closed a decade ago – is a rare example of a purpose-built prison dating from the end of the 18th century (rather than representing a reconverted convent, hospital or military barracks).

The Collection Lambert occupies the cells, corridors and certain courtyards of the prison, exhibiting works from the prestigious private collection of Enea Righi, with the ensembles of certain artists complemented by works from other great public and private collections. The title borrowed from the famous text published by Pasolini in 1975 in the Corriere impregnates visitors’ entire collection tour; indeed, this exhibition is meant to be a sensorial experience in which the memory-steeped locations and their hosted artworks come together and interact in the manner of the Italian director’s beloved fireflies. The theme of «imprisonment» is naturally evoked, as well as «the passage of time», «solitude» and «love».

So as to maintain an intense and meaningful dialogue between the edifice and its housed oeuvres, the decision has been made to leave the Sainte-Anne Prison unaltered. Exhibited within its cell, each work of art thereby becomes a firefly, a poetic element of soft resistant light, offering spectators the possibility of experiencing a novel experimental field.

The passing time, the passing weather
The experience of passing time – «Suspended time», «The hours ticking by», «Time at a standstill»… – is naturally the leitmotiv of this exhibition, like the hours, days, months that passed by so slowly here within this prison world. The videos by Guy de Cointet of each hour frozen on the clock face are projected at each passage from one floor to the next. The annual watches by Boetti are associated with the postcards that On Kawara sent to Yvon Lambert, daily noting the time at which he awoke. The portrait by Francesco Vezzoli reworking a portrait by Ingres to cry limp watches by Dali, a painting of time by Opalka, and the two clocks by Felix Gonzales-Torres entitled «Perfect lovers» and borrowed by Yann Sérandour, are juxtaposed with poems by Paul Verlaine imprisoned in Mons following his attempted murder of Arthur Rimbaud. The poet served out his time by writing his loveliest works comprising the Cellulairement collection, the original manuscripts of which would be presented with the famous poem «Le ciel est par dessus le toit, si bleu, si calme»

The French word temps means both «time» and «weather», and the inmates were especially sensitive to meteorological changes in this northeast-facing prison lying in the shadow of the Rocher des Doms: a ray of sunlight like a reflected diamond with Trisha Donnelly, a shower of stars with Kiki Smith or soft lights with Spencer Finch, the saturnine, melancholic lamps of Loris Gréaud, the painted skies of Markus Schinwald, a «Pluie pourrie» («Rotten rain») on a neon by Claude Lévêque or «Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles» («The dark light that falls from the stars»), a constellation of sunflower seeds on a large sheet, by Anselm Kiefer…

The exhibition ends with a film by Melvin Moti projecting lights cut up like medieval stained-glass windows: the mental and cognitive representation of an inmate who, after having spent a long period in isolation, finally re-experiences but is blinded by sunlight.

The archives
This reflection on time also entails recounting the history of the prison, an emblematic site situated in the heart of the papal city. Three cells present incredible archival documents borrowed from the departmental library: two centuries of notebooks, plans, registers, objects, handwritten letters and other official or secret texts and files. The first cell focuses on the prison’s origins up until the 1980s. The second cell continues on until the prison’s closure in 2003. Finally, the third cell concentrates on the edifice’s darkest years, those of the Second World War, during which the prison was used to imprison Jews prior to their being sent to the death camps. A firsthand account of this period is provided specially for the exhibition by Marceline Loridan-Yvens, director and wife of Joris Yvens, who was imprisoned in Avignon before being sent to Auschwitz where she shared the dormitory of a certain Simone Weil.

This historical presentation is complemented by works by Christian Boltanski, as well as the video installation by Miroslav Balka commissioned by Artthur Nauziciel during his staging for the Avignon Festival of the famous text by Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter who after discovering the existence of the Warsaw ghetto tried in vain to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to intervene against the Nazi regime. Marthe Keller lends her voice to Balka’s filming of a map of the ghetto, to produce a moment of pure emotion.

«Isolation» is another recurring theme of this exhibition, with works directly linked to the world of prisons or the idea of imprisonment: Mathieu Pernot illustrates with his «Hurleurs» («Yellers») the men and women who come to the prison to yell their messages over the wall, Xavier Weilhan installs policemen carrying out an investigation at the end of a corridor, and Douglas Gordon carries out his «Punishment exercise», repeating a detail of his face with a scar resembling the «mark of the Devil». The Clairefontaine collective was inspired by the practice of throwing socks filled with money, cigarettes or telephone cards from the overlooking Rocher des Doms towards the courtyards of the Avignon prison – airborne packages that didn’t always land at the right place or before the right «addressee»; here, dozens of haphazardly thrown tennis balls litter the ground, cut and filled with secret messages. Kendell Geers creates a star made up of truncheons, while Jean-Michel Poncin has found a former Avignon inmate who accepts to relate his 20 years behind the bars via a moving retrospective narrative: each of his incarcerations corresponds to a specific location which he duly describes, thereby recreating a complete mental and geographic map of Sainte-Anne; a modest yet very moving narrative process makes for an invaluable firsthand account.

More allegorical, Mounir Fatmi films a man sleeping next to a ticking clock. Incapable of filming the writer Salman Rushdie, in hiding since the 1988 publication of his Satanic Verses that resulted in an international fatwa being issued by intolerant Islamists, the artist has recreated a nearly immobile portrait of the writer, in reference to the famous Andy Warhol film «Sleep», in which the «Pope of Pop» filmed his friend, John Giorno, while he slept on a sleeper train: for Salman Rushdie, the entire planet has become an open-air prison.

Eroticism and solitude, voyeurism and melancholy are themes to be found in the magnificent snapshots of the graffiti series by Brassaï, the burnt drawings by the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka and the famous photographs by the Czech Miroslav Tichy (1926- 2011), images made using a camera cobbled up by this immense artist whose talent has been belatedly rediscovered, a pure voyeur with an eye for the legs of pretty women despite a difficult life which included eight years of prison in communist reinsertion camps.

The women’s quarters
Female artists are accorded an important place in this exhibition, for the prison maintained since its creation a special area set aside for women and which has been opened to visitors. Last year’s leading lights form the heart of this section, with works by Berlinde De Bruyckere, who so intrigued the public, as well as Jana Sterbak, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith, with new works never before exhibited in France. Collection Lambert works by Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Nan Goldin are juxtaposed with works by giants long held by Enea Righi: Roni Horn, Zoe Leonard and Joan Jonas, as well as Barbara Blum and Trisha Donnely, not to mention artists from the 1970s whose talent is being rediscovered: Anna Mendieta and Ana Maria Maiolino.

An audio oeuvre by the French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster acts as a minimal, yet oh-so-symbolic focal point: within a cell, a simple drop of water evokes the passage of time, boredom and madness lying in wait.

Murmurings of the outside world
The prison also echoes the worries, conflicts and dramas of the outside world. Mario Garcia-Torres sets out thirty years later to follow in the footsteps of the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, who in the late 1970s created works centred around war, by setting up his legendary «One Hotel» in Kabul, in the heart of Afghanistan, and collaborating with local women weavers. Walid Raad proposes his vision of September 11th, with 100 images of New York in which only the blue sky is shown during the fall of the Twin Towers, while Mona Hatoum installed in a dark cell a magic lantern projecting the shadows of soldiers marching through the night. Yesterday’s wars in Vietnam and today’s conflicts in Iraq are evoked in the incredible photographic collages by Martha Rosler, or the row of soldier’s boots pinned up by their laces in «Holy War» by Deimantas Narkevicius.

Another muffled sound heard through the prison walls is the discourse of racism, of «liberated speech», of intolerance and the fear of others, in which assertions of one’s identity are becoming louder and louder. The exhibition dives right in, with Andres Serrano’s portraits of Ku Klux Klan commando leaders: it’s difficult to imagine a more violent confrontation than that between a notorious masked racist posing anonymously before an artist whose voice over the phone when setting up the meeting didn’t reveal his black skin or origin.

Via his paintings of a disappearing text, describing the vision of a Swiss mountain dweller encountering his first black man, Glenn Ligon proclaims the Black Power that Malcom X radicalized in the 1970s, while the Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou reinterprets the famous sculptures that had such a profound influence on Picasso and the Cubists, by turning away from such noble materials as rare woods, shells, feathers and precious metals and opting instead for pieces of plastic, glass beads for tourists and found objects from a Yaoundé bazar. Tayou’s work strangely yet silently evokes the cheap junk transported by French and English ships during their slave trading voyages to Africa.

The two videos by Yael Bartana fit perfectly into this section linking past memories and current affairs: the first video, entitled «Rosemary», presents a young Polish politician yelling out a speech within an empty, weed-filled Warsaw stadium, where he beseeches the 3 million deported Jews to return «For we need you in our country», while in the second video, «A Declaration», the artist films a man swimming off the coast of Tel Aviv and attempting to plant an olive tree, symbolic of peace, on a rock which might be claimed by either the Jewish state or the future Palestinian state…

Freedom recovered and the return of the fireflies
The one and only film by Jean Genet, Un chant d’amour, is torridly, intriguingly erotic. Sensually poetic scenes (love through a wall via a straw blowing shared cigarette smoke) alternate with violent scenes between a voyeuristic prison guard and inmates condemned to suffer his humiliations. This «love song» is a hymn to freedom, as proposed by all the artists gathered together in this last section of the exhibition: François Xavier Courrèges films 19 portraits of young suburbanites saying «I love you», Jori Kovanda presents minimalist performances from the end of an era during which even a kiss in the street was banned by communism, and Jonathan Hororitz takes up the famous song by Gainsbourg with Jane Birkin singing over and over «Je t’aime» while a cigarette burns itself down in the background. Nan Goldin illustrates her friend’s refound freedom with a big party: Joey blows out her cake’s candles upon her release from prison. Everything here is topsy-turvy: beautiful Joe is in fact a transsexual friend of Nan’s for thirty years, the number of candles, rather than representing her age, equal the number of months passed behind bars for prostitution and drug dealing... With Nan Goldin, joy is ever confronted with the hard reality of life.

The return of the fireflies is represented by thousands of balloons suspended along a 100-metre-long corridor by Philippe Parreno: in his «Speech Bubbles», each balloon is like a cartoon bubble, a silent text enclosing the contents of a dream. The silent projections by David Lamelas from the 1970s, the luminous installations by Kuri and Spencer Finch, those by Loris Gréaud and Massimo Bartolini once again pose the question: are the fireflies gone forever, or could they return if humanity proved itself less violent? Miroslaw Balka offers an answer with his installation «Heaven»: simple strips of suspended, twisted plastic that spin and shine in the light and wind, like so many tears or bursts of joy.

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May 26, 2014

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