[Notes] The Village
Paris 1972. Things had been going badly in the studio. Optimism, which had made transforming the closed-down hospital into a cutting edge complex of contemporary art workspaces such a collective joy, was fast evaporating. The government grant was spent. Nobody was coming to the private views, although the bus routes were clearly marked on all the invitations and a sense of futility hung in the air like bad aromatherapy. When the local junkies broke into Jean-Paul’s studio they took the broken tape machine, a mug without a handle and two rolls of masking tape, but they left the paintings. The public’s faith in the bourgeois attributes of line, form and harmonious colour combination remained stubborn. The roof leaked.
There was a big meeting later that year. It was the second Friday in July, with the traffic outside gridlocked halfway to Belgium and the heat enough to make Marie-Joelle’s wax casts of her naked body look like forensic shots of an acid-bath accident. Anything was better than this. ‘Anything is better than this,’ said Anton, when it was his turn to speak. ‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Dominique, when it was hers. Her plan was as brilliant as it was simple, and the artists adopted it immediately. It was true to the spirit of radicalism that had informed their project from the outset, and yet it promised considerable lifestyle benefits. It would be collective, but allow for individual freedom. Above all, it would represent the coming of the dream of the avant-garde – art and life merged seamlessly together.
They sold the hospital to a property developer and bought the tiny abandoned fishing village of Inutile-sur-Mer. They made the long journey south in a convoy of borrowed vans, dormobiles, hand-painted 2CVs. Each of the artists had conceived a project that would contribute to the whole. Marie-Joelle installed an oven in her cottage and, using only flour, water, yeast and salt, constructed exact replicas of loaves of bread. Henri, as a tribute to Joseph Beuys, opened a shop that sold dead hares, and also rabbits, pheasant and a range of cured meat. Anton, inspired by Tinguely, set up a small workshop in which he worked on a variety of strange machinery, but principally the old Peugeots of the local farmers. Jean-Paul painted ironic watercolours of the surrounding countryside, which he sold to tourists.
The winters were mild and passed quickly, the summers were hot and lasted forever and the tensions of metropolitan life melted into the heat haze like so many bad dreams. The days, the weeks, the months, the years went by. The project took root and nourished. The artists became skilled in their new media, but the pile of press releases, hand-set an printed on home-made paper by Dominique and Jacques in the excitement of the community’s formation lay yellowing and dust-covered, unsent.
The world’s ignorance of the artists’ groundbreaking activities remained profound. In the local bar (motto- ‘the act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art’) the debate strayed ever further from the need to dematerialise the object and refine the aims of social sculpture, towards love affairs, problems with the harvest, roof maintenance, the poor run of form of the local football team. Marriages were celebrated with non-religious rites, personal vows or pagan rituals. Soon the first children were born.
There were hard times too, of course, but the struggle had a meaning and what resources the villagers had were shared without bitterness. The artists ingenuity had not been dulled by their rural idyll, far from it. When things got difficult, Anton would sabotage harvesters or grain elevators on the surrounding farms and then turn up the next morning, toolbox in hand, asking whether by any chance they needed a mechanic. Angelique and Claude grew three acres of Morocco’s finest on their small holding. There was a wine festival for the tourists with the artists dressed authentically as peasants. They sold there 2CVs and got bicycles. They claimed welfare at false addresses. They got by, in fact they thrived.
One day a stranger came to the village, out of season for a tourist but dressed like a city dweller. The children laughed at him as he passed in his bright clothes, his impractical footwear. He wandered around for a whole afternoon, bought wine and cheese from the artists’ little shops and picnicked down by the disused harbour. He took photographs and wrote in a spiral-bound notebook. Two weeks later he was back, looking for a room to rent.
He was, he explained, a painter. He’d been working in Paris but had just received a grant and decided to spend a few months developing some ideas in isolation. Things hadn’t been going too well. He felt his work lacked relevance. He needed to examine his practice, perhaps rebuild it entirely. A room was found that easily doubled as a studio if the mattress was propped against the wall and the rent, by Paris standards, was very reasonable. He moved in at once.
Although the years of rural life had changed the artists out of all recognition – nobody would have guessed that the village had not always been exactly as it now appeared – the passing of time had not tempered their ideals. The stranger’s arrival, financially welcome as it was, stirred up old commitments, resentments, rebellious natures. They set to work on the young painter.
One by one they visited his studio, never letting slip they were anything but honest, country folk. Subtly, over time, criticising his successes, encouraging his mistakes, applauding his failures, they destroyed the young man’s work. Taking advantage of his obvious crisis of confidence, they turned him into a shambling parody of an artist and when, months later, he left again for Paris they laughed into their beer until the sun came up.
The rest, of course, is history. A few years ago, when his rise to fame was continuing, I saw his first one-person show. At the door there was a table with a book of newspaper clippings and a pile of catalogues. As I paused there before leaving I was cornered by the gallerist. Standing over the visitors book, she pressed a pen into my hand. Caught off guard, I wrote my name and then in the column marked ‘comments’ I wrote what I always write when I don’t know what to say – ‘uncompromising’.
From Fables of Deconstruction, by Will Bradley for Stopstop, no. 1, Glasgow 1997
Image: Emanuel Almborg, film still from Nothing Is Left To Tell, 2010-11