La Cité de Carcassonne (the fortified city and its castle) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Centre des Monuments Nationaux commissioned a major temporary work of public art. This work of art was just installed in April. Even though it will be in place only until October of this year, it has already inspired huge discussion and controversy.
The Toulouse newspaper, Le Dépêche du Midi, noted the arrival of the art on 7 April, including:
For its big statement to mark the 20th anniversary, the Prefecture of Aude [in which Carcassonne lies] … commissioned not just anyone, but a world-recognized star of contemporary art: Swiss artist Felice Varini, 66 years old. He was invited for this special event by the Center of National Monuments (public institution of the Ministry of Culture, which manages the activities of the castle and city walls in Carcassonne) and the 7th edition of IN SITU Heritage and Contemporary Art. Varini began his monumental installation on March 20th. And, since its neon yellow strips have started to appear, controversy has erupted! [my translation]
The journal Connaissance des Arts posted an article that included a statement of the intention of the art piece (27 April 2018):
Entitled Eccentric Concentric Circles, it is made up of circles, made of painted aluminum sheets, which follow one another from the Aude gate, building on the architecture. Similar to the artist’s previous interventions in the urban space, Varini’s work profoundly modifies the spatial perception of the historic center of Carcassonne, transforming it into a gigantic anamorphosis, activated by visitors’ wanderings. The objective of the artist is to propose a contemplative and dynamic reading of the medieval fortress by playing on the multiplication of points of view. [my translation]
There is a single vantage point from which all these forms coalesce and cohere. Here is the approach.
And a few more to complete the experience:
The journal Connaissance des Arts also reported about some vandalism of the newly installed yellow patterns as well as some of the community reaction:
Visible since the beginning of April, reaction to the work, as playful as it is spectacular, has not been homogeneous. For many inhabitants, this artistic gesture only disfigures the city of Carcassonne…. In addition to its garish color and gigantism, it has been criticized as an inappropriate taxpayer expense at both the regional and national levels. A petition, which currently has about 1200 signatures, has been launched on the Internet to urge the mayor to remove this “filth”…. Have these detractors decided to take action? This is at least what one might believe following acts of vandalism committed to the work earlier this week. After calls to tear the art down circulated on social networks, several bands of colors have indeed been torn off the lower parts of the walls, the flaps thrown on the ground. Amancio Requena, cultural manager of the Castle and the City Walls and co-curator of the exhibition IN SITU, filed a complaint against an unnamed person, this Wednesday, April 25, on behalf of the National Monuments Center. The damage, which occurred within a few days of the presentation of the work to the press, is being quickly corrected while an increased monitoring system is being put in place. New expenses therefore, which in the view of the detractors of the work of Varini, will only increase. [my translation]
Some personal reactions from our friends and acquaintances:
A number of expatriate friends are upset because of what they anticipate for visiting friends and families this year. Many have commented that these are loved ones who have longed to visit world-famous medieval Carcassonne. It is no small trip to come from the US and Canada. They are looking forward to being immersed in the ancient character of Carcassonne. Instead they will find huge distracting inscrutable yellow stripes.
A close French friend who gives tours of La Cité is struggling with how to show off his beloved Roman and Medieval town when half of the exterior is marked by this installation. He has been talking recently about having to cut his 90-minute tours down to 45 minutes in order to avoid the art-installation side of La Cité.
A friend of a friend shared a commentary image. In Carcassonne, there is a fountain with small depictions of the medieval ramparts. He dressed them up in emulation of the real installation:
The concentric arcs quickly inspired another connection. Perhaps there is WiFi throughout La Cité now?! We thought to add, in the middle of the night, yellow letters saying gratuit, meaning free.
Our French guide friend and others living and working in La Cité attended a presentation by the artist soon after the installation had begun. They reported that, when someone at the presentation asked the artist about his vision of how the work related to La Cité and the UNESCO anniversary, his answer was almost blank. They reported that he said that he didn’t know, that he just liked the forms and would have installed it wherever he had the opportunity. Our friends were taken aback by what they perceived as arrogance and indifference. They also reported that the commission of this public art came about without interaction or communication with the Aude and Carcassonne community.
In my years designing buildings in Hawaii, I had the good fortune to work with the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and local artists. We were able to incorporate and, in some cases, integrate commissioned public art into state building projects. I learned a lot about some artists’ approaches to creating public art, and about the commissioning process. These experiences color my reactions to this new ephemeral public art at La Cité.
The fact that the artist did not express any particular thoughtfulness about the remarkable location of his art surprised and hugely disappointed me. A fundamental aspect of design and art in Hawaii is its relation to physical and cultural place. The public artists, much like us architects, very often start the creative process with careful consideration about stories and meanings from the project, its users, and its location. Consideration blossoms into inspiration. It is remarkable that here in Carcassonne, with unparalleled tangible expression of 2000 years of history, the artist expressed no interest in the richness of the site of his work.
What a waste of experience and inspiration as well! Turning along the stone path to discover the convergence of the yellow circles is a fun experience. Or maybe a cute experience. A gimmick. How sad that we, the public, aren’t challenged or inspired to understand something about the history of La Cité through the experience of this bold installation.
One purpose of public art is to engage the public, to engender dialog, to use controversy to enrich public life. This work of art is strongly succeeding in inciting discussion. What we have heard is 90 percent outrage, and 10 percent discussion.
La Cité de Carcassonne is not a delicate monument. Its physical scale, materials and rich history, in concept, allow it to receive contemporary installations without diminishment. It even stands up to these giant bright yellow swirls. But now it is hard to gaze at the ramparts of La Cité and fall into one’s own romantic imaginings of what La Cité was like in the Middle Ages. There is an inarticulate screaming yellow beast between the observer and the history. This is a great failing of this art installation. It has taken the walls of La Cité purely as a giant canvas on which to force an artist’s selfish folly. How much better it would have been if the artist had created a large work that pulled you into a fresh and historical experience of La Cité. A work that opened up an experience of La Cité that provided a richer understanding and personal relationship with the monument.
I wonder if things would have turned out differently, even with the same art installation, if the local community had had the opportunity to participate in the commission. My experience as a designer was that we always needed to engage our clients and often the general public in order to reach approval of the proposed designs. In a bit more fluid ways, the public artists I worked with needed to engage a committee of the public as part of their proposal and development process. While opening up one’s creative vision to non-artists and non-architects can at times be frustrating and challenging, it always contributes to the quality of the final work. Even more importantly, the clients and participants come to understand the design and to some degree make it their own. Imagine a public process in Carcassonne to which citizens and students were invited. In the schools, students could have engaged in their own ideas for how to celebrate the UNESCO anniversary. They could have participated in competitions and developed exhibits. The commissioned public artist could have directly helped the students and citizens to understand public art and how it is made. The public would have likely challenged the artist, leading him or her to enrich the work. Of course, not everyone would applaud or even like the artist’s work. But they would have had the opportunity to undertand it. Imagine the day of final installation, with crowds of Carcassonne citizens celebrating their art work.