Published in the Witte de Witte Review for the Marseille Desk, May 2017.


Central Fantasies

Marseille—the ineluctable port city that is perpetually threatening to fall into the sea and join Africa—is something of an outpost for the art world in France. Three large institutional structures, funded by the municipal government (the MAC, Musée d’Art Contemporain), by the regional government (the FRAC, or Fonds Régionals d’Art Contemporain), and by the national government (the MuCEM, or Musée des Civilisations de l’Euro-Méditerrean), hold the most direct responsibility for bringing what is happening from the rest of the world to the local scene. (1)

In 1982 the FRAC system was founded as part of a national initiative to decentralize the French state’s contemporary art collections, or to distribute the resources necessary for the acquisition and exhibition of art to institutions outside of Paris. In 2013, the FRAC for the region around Marseille moved into a new location built as part of a development project to transform La Joliette, a neighborhood near the commercial port that used to be full of maritime warehouses. On its interior façade, the building juts into what must once have been a commonly held open lot that the museum still shares with the neighboring older and noticeably working-class residential buildings. The glass walls of the FRAC’s galleries cut a diagonal across the block plan so that at the narrow angle of the resulting triangle a viewer can stand literally 3 or 4 feet away from someone’s balcony. A generous reading of the effect this produces is that the museum is embedded within the fabric of the city, its architecture collapsing the distance between art and its public. A less generous one might be that the museum functions as a viewing device: come and watch people put their laundry out to dry two stories above as you drink espresso on the museum’s deck.

“D’une Méditerranée, L’autre” [“From One Mediterranean, the Other”] was the latest exhibition at the FRAC and it ostensibly addressed the relation of one part of the Mediterranean to another: the north to the south, Europe to Africa. The exhibition was full of longing for an easy companionship between Mediterranean communities that has always been illusive and is growing more so as the refugee crisis polarizes public opinion in France and elsewhere on the sea’s northern shore.

In Fikret Atay’s video Theorists (2008), for example, a group of thirty young men cross and recross the thickly carpeted prayer room of a religious school, each reciting a passage from the Koran. The young men speak and walk slowly at first, but soon their movement and speech rise to a cacophony of rustling, murmuring sound. Together they express longing analogous—though not identical—to that of the exhibition: let us be together in the word, let us be together in the disorder of language, let the sound of language be enough to bind us.

Mohamed Bourouissa’s photographs—part of a series entitled Périphérique (2005–09)—offer a darker view: a figure in a light sweatshirt sits on a television in the middle of a park in the morning light, slumped to the point that his head is obscured by his shoulders. Two-dozen more televisions and the odd computer monitor are stacked on a low cement wall in front of him. There are small, rounded, chrome-framed TV sets that could be from the 1960s or 1970s and big, black, plastic box televisions from the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. They face in every direction and each is blank except one in the foreground on which a line of static bisects the screen. There is no signal here, in this place where there are so many screens and one man dressed in beige jersey knit; here on the periphérie, in the suburbs of a city that could be Paris or Lyon or Marseille.

What was missing from the exhibition is part of what is so inescapable about the city: a physical relationship to the sea, as a metaphor and as a body of water, as an organic yet organizing spatial logic. Even in its metaphoric sense, the sea does not occlude systemic poverty in Marseille, and not everyone has an equal access to it, but its presence in the imagination and daily life of the city is overwhelming. “D’une Méditerranée, L’autre,” by contrast, represented the Mediterranean as a symbol for ideological conflicts often involving Islam, something nevertheless capable of uniting “them” and “us.”

The MAC has a kind of gravity in an otherwise irreverent city. It is an institution with no relation to the sea whatsoever, a modernist villa-like structure built in the mid-1990s on an isolated plot on the outskirts of the downtown area. It has an abandoned air about it, as though it were built to be a timeless expression of culture but has, instead, found itself simply outside of time.

In May 2017, the MAC will open an exhibition dedicated to the golden age of American hip-hop, which it considers to have been between 1970 and 1995, but in the meantime what is on view is the MAC’s eclectic permanent collection. Both the current install and the collection as whole (which is handsomely presented in a book published for the 2013 Cultural Capital of Europe municipal celebration) seem ebullient, ludic. According to the catalog, the collection hang was intentionally centered on the figure of the animal and on the momentum of the machine in contemporary art.

An example of this focus is Annette Messager’s Nameless Ones (Anonymes) (1993), which is installed in a small room toward the end of the permanent collection galleries. Messager’s effigies are made from taxidermy birds whose heads have been replaced with those of comparably scaled stuffed animals. The quasi-birds are trussed onto long sticks, which are anchored to the floor with clay bases. The small room is dark and secluded, and in this setting the work can be read as the intimate collection of some eccentric hunter/explorer/scientist/colonist. Strange, violently hybrid beings perch awkwardly, but not without a certain tenderness, in the gloom at the edge of a city on the edge of Europe.

Chris Burden’s installation The Twist. Moonette °5 (1994) is equally ominous yet suffused with an excessive attention that borders on delight. The work is a meticulously constructed toy train set installed as a loop around a bulbous moon rock suspended from steel cables in the center of the room. Tiny, model paraphernalia of a mining colony—wooden shacks with tin stovepipe chimneys, rubble from some dynamite blast, industrial machinery—wind around the moon rock along the train tracks. The thing’s aesthetic is a cross between the classic edition of The Little Prince and William Kentridge’s gruesome political animations from roughly the same period. But the work is also ambivalent in the sense that it manifests the acquisitive desire of eight- and nine-year-olds obsessed with toy train models, together with the joy of recreating systems of movement on a scale that allows for control.

Cool, gray-toned marble floors give a subliminal sense of luxury to the succession of rooms in the MAC, but without betraying the modest material register that characterizes the city more broadly. This is a place to escape the sun and the sea and the roiling, multivalent disorder of Marseille’s downtown. This is a place to stumble upon one of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard box collages from the 1970s. It is a peripheral space in that it marks the outer limit of a discourse, but because of its ex-centrism a different quality of attention is also possible.

The MuCEM is the museum dreaming itself. A giant block of postmodern graphite-colored coral perched on the old docks at the entrance to the port of Marseille. The coral structure covers a multistory glass cube, with a rooftop café open to the sky and film theaters nestled in the basement, below the waterline, literally in the sea. The MuCEM’s exhibition program may lack the political edge of the FRAC or the gravity of the MAC, but the building is of the city. Surrounded by water on two sides, during the summer months the promenade around the building functions like the deck of a public swimming pool for those undaunted by the runoff from the small pleasure boats and ferries that pass by all day and into the night, heading to the open sea. Teenagers run past tourists soaking in the sun to cannonball into the deep water that used to be a shipping channel.

The building understands its relationship to the city, but the curatorial programming vacillates: there was an exhibition about Jean Genet that failed to address his homosexuality with any depth; another on the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Middle East from a historical perspective; a show about the coffee bean that in no way addressed the legacy of colonialism or slavery in its commercialization over the past three hundred years; and an exhibition on the state of language in the age of translation that had no reference to online translation engines or the role of social media in the use of common languages such as Arabic. There is a valid defense to be made for populism in museum exhibition making, but my sense is that the problem with the MuCEM is not that its programming is simplistic or reductive but that—in a general sense—it does not yet know to whom it is addressed.

That said, as with any enormous institutional structure, there are grave limits to generalization. The film and public performance departments of the MuCEM mark such limits: in March 2017, for example, Rasha Salti and in-house film curator Geneviève Houssay presented a series of screenings entitled “Palestine: Territory, Memory, Projections.” The program extended over several weeks and included a range of material, from Shuruq Harb’s experimental film The White Elephant (2016) to the short film the Lumière brothers made in Palestine in 1896. The project is part of the film department’s broad commitment to the cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, which is not only in keeping with the demographics of the city the MuCEM is meant to represent but it also acknowledges the actually existing aesthetic and cultural interdependence between Mediterranean shores.

Hito Steyerl and Rabih Mroué’s collaborative performance Probabilité Zéro (2017) is another example of programming that lands. The performative lecture about spaces of temporal or ideological contradiction was the second commissioned performance in a series about the relationship between memory, the archive, and the museum. Actors replaced Steyerl and Mroué, role-playing in French with a subtitled slideshow in the background.

The split identity between the MuCEM’s main institutional exhibitions and its performance and events program can be accounted for, in part, by its historical mandate. In 1881, France founded the Ethnographic Museum to collect popular expressions of culture from all over the world. This collection was split, in 1937, between those objects issued from popular traditions within France and those from elsewhere. The National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions collected and documented primarily the material culture of rural France as this culture was disappearing in the massive push to modernize and urbanize the country after World War I. In 2005, a decision was made to move these collections to a new national museum in Marseille, what is now the MuCEM, which finally opened in 2013. As a result of this move, the MuCEM also began acquiring traditional material culture from other Mediterranean countries, leaving their collection criteria institutionally vague.

The MuCEM’s collection is composed of nativity scene architecture, popular ceramics, huge hand-beaten copper watering cans, and elaborately carved wooden trunks. It is the place where all that has been lost through the centralization of power and resources in Paris throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be cataloged and preserved, at least in theory. The collection is also very much in keeping with the French view of Marseille as a poor city with a large migrant population and few cultural resources—France’s ultimate margin, in other words, both geographically and socioeconomically.

The FRAC, the MAC, and the MuCEM should be seen as structures that allow audiences to come into contact with different kinds of culture. Their responsibility is not necessary to support local artists’ work through financial subsidies or to foster dialogue within the local scene, their responsibility is to provide the city with a portal to what is happening elsewhere. The question that lingers is why art from elsewhere is shown in the major institutions in Marseille and art from Paris is shown in the major institutions in Paris. This is also a question of how the center-periphery dynamic is maintained by the major sources of institutional funding and support. But then, those are also the questions that underpin the very idea of centralized, elite culture versus decentralized, democratic culture. Perhaps the real question is this: What would a large collecting institution in Marseille look like, one that assumed that Marseille was the center, and thus that the center is organized around the sea?


(1) There are other institutions funded by various strata of the government—like the Musée Cantini and the (fabulously interesting) municipal history museum, not to mention the Opéra de Marseille and the Theatre de la Criée—but the three listed above collect contemporary visual art and so provide the most sustained engagement with the national and international art scenes.