I’m off to France. At least that’s the idea, but my plane is kept waiting for access to the runway for so long that a piece of art comes to mind: ‘Runway’ by Louise K Wilson. For the making of that video, she persuaded the authorities at Newcastle Airport to close the main runway to planes for an hour or so. In the aeroplane-free slot, several off-duty air traffic controllers bicycled up the runway in V-formation, guided by the voice of an on-duty colleague. Amongst other things, the resulting film is a tribute to human communication and co-operation, so often taken for granted. But if the artist is doing it again here at Luton Airport then I am not at all impressed, and nor, I’m sure, are my fellow Easyjet travellers. Suddenly the pilot tells us we’ve been given clearance by ATC, and we’re off. The tremendous power of the engines blasts frantically pedalling cyclists to the edges of my mind and beyond.
The plane lands at Charles de Gaulle airport from where I’ve got four hours to make a cross-Paris journey. So, to make it more of a challenge, instead of using an ordinary map of the Metro, I’m using In Transit by David Michael Clarke. It folds out like an Ordnance Survey map, but the only symbols printed on the paper are groups of words. I am near the top of the map: ‘An International Bright Young Thing’. I’ve got to get from there to ‘Accepting That The Wild No Longer Exists, But Realising That The Awesome Still Does’, and I’ve got to do it via ‘A Revolving Restaurant’. The latter turns out to be Chatelet and before I know it I’m sitting in a TGV in Montparnasse Station ready to blast south to Tours.
I meet David Michael Clarke when I get to the gallery CCC (Centre de Création Contemporaine) in Tours. I tell him that I found his map useful in that it reassured me that I’m not the first person in the world to find myself in a foreign country faced with language barriers and identity problems. He’s not part of the show Panacea, but he and Neal Beggs, both of whom did an MA at Glasgow School of Art a few years ago, have travelled from their present base in Nantes in order to attend today’s event. I first met Neal Beggs in 2000 at Glasgow’s CCA, where he installed ‘Corridor’, a work which juxtaposed a list of the Munros with a list of the city’s multi-storey tower blocks, an installation which encouraged the viewer to more fully explore his or her surroundings. My only previous experience of the French art world was when I stayed for a week with Neal in 2003 when he was doing a residency in Saint Nazaire. On the last day of that visit, we went for a walk, which culminated in a non-conversation with three French boys. I don’t speak French despite having sat through the standard five years of French lessons at school, and I didn’t have a clue what was being said to me. But I sat there and responded as best I could, because I knew Neal was filming the interaction from a few yards away. Later, in the comfort-zone of a gallery, watching the video-piece ‘Adidas Kids’, I realised that what most outraged the boys was my inability to understand an international brand name no matter how insistently—A-di-das! A-DI-DAS!!!—they shouted it in my face.
After a chat, I look round the CCC. The show Panacea is dominated by ‘Friendly Frontier’, an inflatable range of mountains that starts in one gallery and divides the main gallery into two. Orange chutes that descend from the white-topped mountains, on either side of the range, are what make it friendly, I guess. They remind me of how I’d have got out of the Easyjet plane if it had crash-landed this morning. Looking at it now, the shiny plastic facilitates easy—nay, magical—movement from the skies above Luton to the fertile plain that is the Loire valley. Zoë Walker first made an inflatable mountain for a dinghy, which she paddled up the River Thames, filmed by her regular collaborator Neil Bromwich. That piece, ‘My Island Home’, hand-sewn following a residency in Orkney, reflected both on her Scottish background (she grew up close to Ben Lomond) and the year she spent in London doing an MA at Goldsmiths. The inflatable mountain cropped up a year later in ‘Somewhere Special’, a film in which Walker walks into the Australian desert, surveys the wilderness, then erects her mountain range, the saltire emerging from her backpack betraying loyalty to the place she’s chosen to be temporarily displaced from. So what’s going on? What’s all this about taking your own mountain with you wherever you go? Is the idea that the mountain—self-imposed burden or source of inspiration—in the end becomes a motivator and possible means of escape for other people?
It’s a good time for the scheduled talk to start. Around the table are the three British artists responsible for the show Panacea and three French architects and journalists. The Brits start the ball rolling. Scottish-born Michael Pinsky tells us how he met Neil Bromwich and Zoë Walker while they were all working on an NHS commission in Bristol, which was when the idea of producing together an ambitious Health Park began. The initial idea has become an evolving, expandable and travelling artwork designed to function—in part ironically, in part optimistically—as a universal formula to cure social, economic, political and personal problems. As well as the large-scale individual pieces in the show, there is a detailed maquette made from medical refuse—packaging, pills and bandages—showing the Health Park. It’s like a town, complete with friendly mountain range on the outskirts, and is packaged within a single wheeled crate so that it, as well as ‘Friendly Frontier’, can be dropped into any environment at a moment’s notice.
When the three Brits stop talking—every word having been translated into French for their co-panellists and the Tours audience—the French-speakers take over. From that moment there is no pause for translation, though that was supposed to be the idea, leaving some of those around the table, and certainly Neal Beggs and I in the audience, unable to follow what’s being said. How long can you sit listening to a language you can’t understand? After five minutes I take out my portable CD player and extract from my bag the new CD that David Michael Clark has given me. It says on the disc: ‘Multiple Artists found for Love’. I insert it and press play. ‘Love,’ says a male voice. ‘Love and a bullet,’ responds a French-accented female. ‘Love and sex,’ says the Anglo Saxon man. ‘Love and a French woman,’ purrs the second voice. The CD goes on in this vein, and it prompts me to think that, yes, Dave Michael Clarke’s partner is French, and an artist. So is Neal Beggs’ partner. And the reason that Panacea is showing here in France, and is moving on to other French venues, is that with Stephanie Delcroix—Michael’s French partner—at the negotiating helm, the artists quickly had success in selling Panacea to French galleries. The Panacea project will tour to John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, and Cornerhouse, Manchester, but the first showing is here on the continent. ‘Love on a branch line,’ says the Gallic voice in my ear. There must be a huge market for contemporary art in France, commensurate with the size of its population. Artists who have benefited from the excellent art education that is available in the culturally confident, switched-on UK are in a strong position to take advantage of this market. That is provided they have the love—cum language skills—of a good French woman behind them. ‘Love fellowship tabernacle,’ says the British voice in my ear, tenderly and gratefully, it seems to me.
But why are British voices and visions needed in the French art world? Several reasons, I suspect. But one illustration of why they certainly are needed is being played out in front of me. When the French threesome finally stop talking there is not one single question from the substantial and French-speaking audience in the CCC, the primary venue for contemporary art in this regional capital city. Everyone has become bored, by the looks of things. Just because you can talk the same language as your audience doesn’t mean you have anything to communicate.
After the talk there is a meal laid on by the CCC. But there might as well be the River Loire flowing between me and, for example, the director of the gallery, because of the lack of a common tongue. Stephanie Delcroix creates a bridge to some extent. But I find that it’s tiring and dispiriting to talk timidly via a third party. I make the effort for five minutes then accept the visiting artists’ invitation to go to a party in some caves. It’s full of friendly French faces, but the Brits are noticeably the most relaxed creatures on the dance floor. No doubt because our relationship with the British and American produced pop-rock-dance music is so much more direct.
The next day, five of us drive to the house of Cécile Pitois, who is showing next at the CCC. We are late, partly because we don’t take a map with us—not even In Transit —and partly because Michael Pinsky chooses to navigate in a foreign land largely by hunch. Eventually we pull up beside a local man, and Stephanie asks for directions. She gets them, translates for Michael’s benefit, and we’re off again. We are more than an hour late when we finally roll up for lunch, but Cécile doesn’t mind because she gets to practise her English and enlarge her knowledge of the British art scene for the rest of the afternoon. Actually, I discover she too is an Enid Blyton fan, and I learn a useful new French word: in France Noddy goes by the name of Oui Oui.
On our last day, I turn up with my bags at the gallery and see that there is a meeting going on with the director about the possibility of a Panacea publication. Zoë Walker is sitting in on the meeting, but I know it is Stephanie who must be doing most of the talking. Similarly, there is a meeting going on in an adjacent room at which Neil Bromwich is contributing, concerning the show’s educational possibilities with city schools. Sophisticated communicator though he is, for sure the presence of gallery assistant Sandra, who speaks exquisite English, is essential to the meeting’s smooth running.
I have the gallery to myself. ‘Friendly Frontier’ comes into its awesome own. My eye lingers over details, tiny fir trees cut by hand into the fringe of material jutting out at a seam, then my gaze sweeps over the whole smooth nylon width of the mountain range. By stepping over some pegs and straps that you’d normally find on the bottom of tents, I find myself in a corner of the gallery. I feel on the far side of the mountain now, and I’m not sure I should be here. It’s a good thinking space though, so I stay put.
Much of Neal Beggs’ work focuses on climbing and mountains in a gallery context, and his new monograph is called ‘Move Sideways’. He’s been in France for three years now, and he doesn’t speak much French. However, I’m sure he’d be disappointed by my analysis of his situation the other day. He doesn’t so much rely on his partner to communicate, but for his work to do that for him. He, as much as Zoë Walker, goes around with his own range of mountains for baggage, and other people seem to get inspiration from it. I for one do. That’s the real reason Neal’s work has found favour in France. That’s the reason he keeps communicating effectively in a land where he can’t speak the language.
OK, how do I get back to my own side of the mountain range? I unfold In Transit and spot exactly where I am: ‘The Other Side Of The Mountain’! All I need do is take ‘A Scenic Route Through An Industrial Wasteland’, and then I’ll be back where I belong, in ‘An Artist-Run Space’.
On my way out to meet the others, I stop at Michael Pinsky’s installation, ‘Life Pulse’. There are four columns with flashing lights on the top. If you grab a column it will register your pulse and the light will adapt its speed of flashing accordingly. On the maquette the interactive piece of art-architecture is located close to the running track so that you might test your heartbeat both before and after strenuous exercise. I grab a column and to my dismay the light begins to pulse very quickly, for all the world as if I was holding a distressed gerbil up against the reading apparatus. I can only conclude that despite the friendliness of the artists, and the hospitality of the gallery, this has been a stressful few days for me and I could do with my Easyjet home.
Duncan McLaren is an author and arts writer