A review by Chloe Stead
Stretching from St Tropez to the Italian border, the French Riviera has long been known as the playground of the rich and glamorous. F. Scott Fitzgerald – renowned for his obsession with how “the other half” lives – was staying there when he wrote his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, and his tale of romance and betrayal is punctuated with evocative descriptions of this famous coastline: “Fifty yards away,” he wrote back in 1933, “the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine; below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive.”
Nearly 90 years later and not much has changed. The Provence-Alpes-Côte D’Azur, the administrative region that encompasses the French Rivera, is still one of the most expensive places in France to buy property, making its capital, Marseille – despite its reputation as being a bit rough around the edges – a sensible place to locate an art fair. Enter Art-O-Rama. Now in its twelfth year, the fair is still quite low-key, with just 30 “curatorial projects” on show, but as one gallerist pointed out this just means more face time with collectors.
Not unlike the nearby Paris Internationale, Art-O-Rama is the place to go to see what young (mainly European and North American) galleries have to offer. After adding a new location in Paris this year, LA’s Freedman Fitzpatrick presented at the fair for the first time, as did the artist and curator Cory Scozzari. His booth continued the program of his Vienna-cum-Barcelona-based project space, Cordova, and featured individual and collaborative works by Jaakko Pallasvuo, Anni Puolakka, Tarwuk and Viktor Timofeev. I first encountered Timofeev’s ink, graphite and watercolour drawings in a creepy Latvian basement earlier this year – so I was pleased to see that even in the bright lights of an art fair booth they still looked as angst-ridden as ever.
Elsewhere, I liked the presentation by Paris-based gallery Joseph Tang, who showed a series of collaborative paintings by Olivier Foulon and Alexander Lieck, which rather entertainingly revealed their own limitations as paintings through A4 pieces of critical writing stuck unceremoniously onto their surfaces. “Continuing with painting seems more futile than ever,” one section read, “but once one has accepted this futility it itself can be a positive even liberating experience.” Quite. Generally, though, with so many “emerging” galleries in the same place, I was expecting to see bit more experimentation. In 2016, Critic Hili Perlson wrote that Art-O-Rama had one of “the most relaxed art fair previews in Europe”, and while that’s probably a nice for overworked gallerists just before the glut of more high-profile fairs happening in October, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the pieces were chosen because they were uncomplicated to transport.
The real star of Art-O-Rama, though, is Marseille itself. France’s second largest city is the kind of place that’s described by travel blogs as “edgy” (e.g. there’s glaring economic inequality) and its closeness to Paris combined with its relative cheapness makes it an attractive location for artists. In 2013, Marseille was the European Capital of Culture, which pumped millions of euros into the city, and as a few people told me, rendered parts of it so transformed as to be unrecognisable. Two of the biggest and most architecturally impressive museums, LUMA Arles and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, both opened in 2013. I skipped a scheduled trip to the latter institution after asking myself whether I needed to see another exhibition by Ai Weiwei (the short answer is no) – but I did visit Friche la Belle de Mai, a sprawling former tobacco factory turned culture centre. As well having a basketball court, a play area and a skate park, all of which are often used by the local community, the complex is home to a number of art organisations and artist studios. The international residency program Triangle France is based at Friche and their director Céline Kopp and coordinator Marie de Galejac curated my favourite of the four shows at the venue. Titled ‘Vos désirs sont les nôtres’, the exhibition looked at desire and unruly bodies and featured paintings, sculptures and a number of striking videos by young artists. Most notable of these works were Roee Rosen’s The Dust Channel (2016), which is described as an “Operetta for a vacuum cleaner”, but will forever be remembered (by me) as the only funny work at Documenta 14, and Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela’s series Beyond Guilt: three morally ambiguous documentary-style films set mostly in nightclub toilets in Tel-Aviv that positions the artists as provocateurs in an increasingly uncomfortable set of social interactions.
Alongside the fair and these large institutional shows there were a host of openings from various galleries and off-spaces based in and out of Marseille. I walked for thirty minutes down the side of a highway to get to SM, a collaboration between Sans Titre and four European galleries based in a working shipyard. Later, I bumped into an exhausted Than Hussein Clark explaining his work to a throng of journalists before the vernissage of his solo exhibition – which was beautiful as ever – at Galerie Crevecoeur and zipped through a typically enigmatic show by Michael E. Smith at Atlantis Lumiere.
I also met the duo behind South Way Studio, a project that encompasses exhibition making, a residency and a print magazine. In the basement of their office, they presented the group show ‘Sacra conversazione’ with works they’d produced together with artists under the banner of neo-medievalism, which hints at the pairs’ art-history background. My companion and I had never heard of neo-medievalism before and couldn’t for the life of us understand why you would want to celebrate a time when the bubonic plague was happening – but I looked it up on Wikipedia when I got home and apparently it’s a thing. But jokes aside, the show looked great and reminded me how unusual it is to see well-researched, cohesive exhibitions of this size that don’t rely on irony to be interesting. Unsurprisingly, South Way Studio’s interdisciplinary approach is starting to get them noticed outside of Marseille: they were just nominated for the Ricard Foundation prize, usually reserved for artists.
There’s about to be an even bigger spotlight on these homegrown projects, though. Marseille has just been chosen as the next next location for Manifesta, which will open in June 2020 and is clearly already on people’s minds. I was asked often over the weekend by those that live and work in the city what I thought of Marseille. It wasn’t just politeness; the art scene players have their sights set firmly on international recognition – they want to be more than an other beautiful city by the Mediterranean sea.