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Grapefruit in Toulouse – A celebration of performance art

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-09-30

The 20th edition of the Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse, France’s “pink city”, brings to mind Yoko Ono’s 'Grapefruit'; a part-orange, part-lemon blend of different art forms that explores the relationship between performance art and the public.

As the autumn kicks in, bringing an untimely chill over south-western France, the city of Toulouse plays host to the 20th edition of the curiously-named Printemps de Septembre (September spring), one of France’s leading contemporary art festivals.

This year’s theme – performance art – is designed to fill a gap in France’s artistic landscape, as yet deprived of an equivalent of New York’s Performa festival. Its declared aim is to restore the discipline as an art form in its own right, rather than a mere animation or “artistic complement”.

Toulouse's suggestive Pont Neuf at dusk

A key concern for the festival’s organisers has been to bring the local population on board; or, as one Toulouse-based Irish artist put it, making sure the festival does not become “yet another event catering for a Parisian clique”. The Printemps de Septembre, which runs between Sept. 24 and Oct. 17, certainly makes the most of the urban landscape on offer, employing refurbished historic spaces in the city, as well as the local art school, commercial galleries, cinemas and bookshops. Self-styled as both “cutting-edge” and “open to the largest numbers”, it is also entirely free.

This year, the programme offers a mixed bag of exhibitions and live events ranging from conceptual art and sound poetry to choreography, street action and hypnosis. Set in a city famed for its prevalent pink hues, it brings to mind Yoko Ono’s 'Grapefruit'; a part-orange, part-lemon hybrid mixing different artistic genres and ways of approaching the relationship between performance art and the public.

Defining performance art

In a festival where exhibitions are at least as important as live events, the focus on performance was always going to involve a delicate balancing act. Part of the difficulty lies with the definition of “performance art”, which, in France more than elsewhere, is historically linked to plastic arts, and distinct – however indefinitely – from the field of the “performing arts” (eg. dance or theatre).

In the words of Eric Mangion, the festival’s artistic director, performance art involves a confrontation with an audience, an attempt to destabilise aesthetical conventions and to cross boundaries between disciplines, and the conquest of a space. The latter point is what distinguishes it from, say, theatre, which is contained and constrained by a given space, namely the stage.

The fact that most of the performances on show were created over the last 10 years is designed to challenge the notion that this art form nurtured by the subversive spirit of the 60s and early 70s has lost its means and its purpose – that of changing society.

Questioning its longevity

The history of performance art is the topic of a highly instructive exhibition at Toulouse’s beautifully preserved water tower. Named 'Ce qui perd forme' (meaning “that which loses shape” but pronounced in the same way as “that which performs”), the exhibition curated by Frenchman David Zerbib reaches back to Hugo Ball and the Dada movement to narrate the development of performance as a form of art that loses its boundaries and its faith in objects and frames, while acquiring the ephemeral character of daily life.

Contemporary artists’ debt towards their predecessors also forms the subtext of 'Child's Play', an intriguing work by French artist Guillaume Désanges, on show at the Toulouse art school, in which Romanian schoolchildren reproduce, on paper and on video, a series of famous performances from the 60s and 70s.

Among the new crop of performance artists on show in Toulouse, Berlin-based French artist Nicolas Puyjalon presents a composite work that illustrates the festival’s concern with the “retranscription” of a performance and its durability.

His exhibition 'Le rêve d'une île' (Dream of an island), on show at the Gallerie lemniscate, is a reconstruction of a past performance in which the artist laboured across the vast court of the Toulouse art school in a giant toolbox with paddles made of bed frames. The “traces” of his effort include the toolbox itself, musical scores picturing his progress, and a video of the artist paddling away endlessly.

Walking like an artist

While the Printemps de Septembre as a whole is hardly short of live performances, some of the exhibitions hosted by the suggestive Musée Les Abattoirs, a former slaughterhouse tastefully converted into a vast art gallery, leave one with the feeling that the performance is altogether missing, replaced only by barely legible traces.

The exhibit ‘Walk like an Egyptian', named after a song by The Bangles, stands out in so far as it succeeds in bridging the gap between exhibition and performance. Designed by London-based curator Charles Aubin, it compiles a selected choice of event scores, tasks and assignments produced by the likes of Ben, George Brecht and Tim Etchells.

A page torn and crumpled, and a booklet tossed away, following the instructions of American artist Christian Marclay. Part of the exhibition 'Walk like an Egyptian', on show at the Musée Les Abattoirs.

In the words of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, whose 'Song of your choice' is part of the exhibit, “like a musical score, event scores can be realised by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation”.

Part-puzzled, part-amused, visitors are invited to scream repeatedly, to act as though they are carrying a weapon, to furiously scratch a wall, or to “be like it was the last minute of [their] li[ves]”. By following accessible instructions, the spectator is able to apply the level of concentration usually given to a work of art to the small details of everyday perceptual experience.

The result is an intriguing artistic hybrid, much in the fashion of Yoko Ono’s 'Grapefruit'; an experience that can be both deeply moving and liberating, and remains true to the festival’s raison d’être.


Date created : 2010-09-29