Exhibition transforms Villa Carmignac's galleries into an underwater natural history museum

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Exhibition transforms Villa Carmignac's galleries into an underwater natural history museum
Michael E-Smith, Untitled, 2017. Fish, metal, plastic, 163 x 30 x 23 cm. Courtesy of Michael E. Smith and KOW, Berlin. Collection De Vleeschouwer - Pieters.

PORQUEROLLES ISLAND.- For its fourth season, the Villa Carmignac on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles presents The Imaginary Sea (La Mer imaginaire). The exhibition takes place indoors, outdoors and underwater and transforms the galleries into an underwater natural history museum that immerses viewers in the space and questions the interactions between humans and the underwater world.

This exhibition was conceived by LA-based curator Chris Sharp, the co-founder of the Lulu experimental art space that is now set to become a satellite of the X Museum in Beijing. For Sharp, The Imaginary Sea was inspired both by the aquarium effect of the Carmignac Villa's architecture – its spaces submerged under the villa’s vast water ceiling – and by iconic works from its collection, including Bruce Nauman’s fountain with a hundred bronze fish, Miquel Barceló’s aquatic fresco and Jeff Koons’s sculpture of a lobster perched on a chair, among others.

Several loans of works by French and international artists, such as Henri Matisse, Gilles Aillaud, Cosima von Bonin, Mathieu Mercier and Gabriel Orozco, complete the ensemble along with new works by Bianca Bondi, Miquel Barceló, Lin May Saeed, Kate Newby and Hubert Duprat, which were specially created for this occasion.

Thanks to a partnership with the local Port-Cros National Park, the exhibition extends this year to the island's Fort Saint-Agathe and the Villa Noailles on the mainland with a series of photographs commissioned from Nicolas Floc’h. His work explores the seabed between Porquerolles and its neighbouring islands, off the coast of Hyères, in the South of France.

With its ensemble of modern and contemporary works and site-specific installations, The Imaginary Sea celebrates the sea as a precious and evocative resource, swarming with known and unknown lives, open to wondrous, strange and unexpected things, whose immensity has always fed our imagination and whose richness we lose at our peril.

Immersion in art

After an sipping a tea made of local herbs and an introductory journey to the villa through the woods, visitors are invited to plunge barefoot into a dream-like sea of art, where they can discover intriguing creatures by Jean Painlevé and Jean-Marie Appriou, strange fish by Allison Katz and Michael E. Smith, not to mention Yves Klein’s surrealist sponges and a 'Whale-fall' created by Bianca Bondi, floating beneath the water ceiling. On the upper level, Miquel Barceló has just transformed the vaulted gallery into an organic underwater grotto, in which visitors are invited to lose themselves. The exhibition extends from the villa, through the sculpture park and forest to the nearby sea, where the artist Olivier Millagou has created an underwater art treasure hunt for scuba divers.

The Imaginary Sea encourages connections between art and the unfathomable, seemingly boundless depths of the sea: after all, 90% of the seabed and the species that inhabit it are still completely unknown to us. The sea remains, in large part, mysterious and enchanted, yet also at increasing risk.

The Imaginary Sea further explores how some artists have foreseen a paradigmatic change towards a world in which humanity is part of a broader community of living, non-human beings constantly interacting with other ecosystems.

The exhibition invites the visitor to flow through it as though in an aquarium, immersing themselves in this imaginary world, rather than observing from the outside.

This immersive approach connects to the ethos of the Fondation Carmignac Porquerolles, launched in 2018 as a place to connect with art and nature, where visitors encounter art slowly, away from crowds. No more than 50 people at a time are permitted in the Carmignac Villa, whose grounds and sculpture park are poised between the forest and the sea. The Porquerolles island, a French national park, does not allow cars. People arrive by boat and move around the island on foot, bicycle and by sea.

Beyond its critical component, The Imaginary Sea also has a resolutely elegiac, if not melancholic quality, which conveys the feeling of eco-anxiety that the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined in the term solastalgia, a sense of helplessness and homesickness for a lost place, caused by the inexorable loss of nature.

The Imaginary Sea also reminds us that a large part of the undersea world, which we still seek to comprehend, is now endangered. As this disappears, we face a world where many marine creatures and organisms may no longer have any other substance than in our imagination and that of artists.


Yuji Agematsu, Gilles Aillaud, Jean-Marie Appriou, Miquel Barceló, Bianca Bondi, Cosima von Bonin, Leidy Churchman, Julien Discrit, Hubert Duprat, Nicolas Floc’h, Camille Henrot, Adam Higgins, David Horvitz, Allison Katz, Paul Klee, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons, Jennifer J. Lee, Jochen Lempert, Micha Laury, Dora Maar, Henri Matisse, Mathieu Mercier, Bruce Nauman, Kate Newby, Melik Ohanian, Alex Olson, Gabriel Orozco, Jean Painlevé, Bruno Pelassy, Lin May Saeed, Shimabuku, Michael E. Smith

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