Mathieu Mercier’s “Cage à Oiseaux.”
The French city of Nantes is one of the last destinations you would consider for a safari, unless you were on the hunt for works of animal-themed art, currently the …
Mathieu Mercier’s “Cage à Oiseaux.”
The French city of Nantes is one of the last destinations you would consider for a safari, unless you were on the hunt for works of animal-themed art, currently the subject of four exhibitions in the city.
The main show, “Safari,” is being held in a lively cultural center housed in a former LU cookie factory in the heart of town. Called the Lieu Unique (get it: the initials are “LU”), it is pure kitsch on the outside, with a multicolored tower that is visible from afar, while the cavernous, warehouse-like spaces inside are used for all kinds of activities, including art exhibitions, concerts, plays and even circus performances. The center also houses a restaurant, bar, bookstore, boutique and, in the basement, steam baths. Visitors can also climb to the top of the tower and enjoy a 360-degree view of the city from the rotating “Gyrorama” platform.
This successful cultural space might serve as an example for Paris’s even more cavernous Centquatre cultural center, which still seems to be trying to figure out what to do with all that space and how to attract visitors; unlike the Lieu Unique, however, Centquatre is handicapped by its location on the fringes of the city.
Back to the entertaining “Safari” exhibition. The first thing visitors see is a gigantic yet very realistic sculpture of a cockatoo, “Le Grand Cacatoès Blanc” (2009) by Sylvain Rousseau, which “talks” through the huge stereo speaker it sits on. Nearby is a disturbing piece, “Spaghetti Man,” by Paul McCarthy, an artist who often uses animals in his work: a standing rabbit-headed human figure wearing only a lime-green T-shirt, its penis extending onto the floor like a huge piece of flesh-colored spaghetti – or spilled intestines – evoking all kinds of sexual and scatological associations.
Paris-based photographer Franck Gérard, who always has his camera with him and has the wry wit of a Martin Parr, has searched through his archives to find images referencing animals. A whole wall is covered with his often-funny, sometimes wrenching photos caught on the fly: a toilet (unflushed) adorned with a large, kitschy image of a poodle; a couple kissing passionately on the street while their little dog on a leash prepares to pee on a motorcycle tire; an elegant, life-sized stuffed Afghan hound standing proudly in a garbage dump, and so on.
While “Ali Kazma’s “The Butcher” and “Slaughterhouse” are more documentary films than works of art, it is fascinating to watch them side by side: in the first, a Turkish butcher speaks with passion of his work while animals are being butchered in an abattoir on the screen next to it.
Live animals animate Mathieu Mercier’s “Cage à Oiseaux,” a sculptural birdcage containing two live birds hanging from the ceiling and casting a beautiful shadow on the nearby wall.
The second room of the exhibition is plunged in darkness, the better to show videos and dramatically light other pieces. Among the notable works in this room are Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel’s “Mammoth and Poodle,” a monumental tapestry, and Pierre Vadi’s “Pedigree A-BA” and “Pedigree A-BB” (2005), two alarming sculptures lying flat on the floor that resemble the decomposing cadavers of unidentifiable animals.
A short walk from the Lieu Unique, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes has rehung its permanent collection to spotlight works featuring animals, identified with special labels bearing the orange “Safari” logo. This show is also well worth visiting, as is the museum itself; like many of France’s provincial fine-arts museums, it owns plenty of good works by little-known local artists as well as some world-class treasures.
The museum’s itinerary shows how the role of animals in art changed over the centuries from symbolic figures to subjects in their own right, starting out with lovely 16th-century works by Bernardo Daddi and Mariotto di Nardo (a marvelous “Last Supper,” vertical rather than horizontal), in which birds and lambs stand for Christ’s sacrifice, and progressing through art history to Orazio Gentileschi’s lovely full-length depiction of Diana the Huntress with her greyhound (before 1631), Ossias Beert’s undated still life in which a monkey who is stuffing his face with the goodies surrounding him serves as a symbol of human greed; and 18th-century hunting scenes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry; Jacques Raymond Braccasat’s attempts in the mid-19th century to raise the status of animal paintings with such powerful monumental paintings as his “Lutte des Taureaux” (“Bullfight,” 1837).
This part of the show ends with Emmanuel Frémiet’s dramatic monumental statue of a gorilla kidnapping a woman (1887), which inevitably conjures visions of King Kong. The animal theme continues with a show of contemporary art in a separate space on the ground floor, including works by Maurizio Cattelan, Rebecca Horn, Fabrice Hyber and others.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts has also invited the artist Orlan, famous for mutilating her body in the name of art, to create an installation for its Chapelle de l’Oratoire. Called “Un Bœuf sur la Langue,” it deals with words and the difficulty of expressing oneself, and features a group of statues that are all-black when viewed from the front and covered in brightly patterned (with virus and bacteria motifs) fabric when seen from the back.
For those who want to continue the hunt for animal-themed art and are willing to make the trek (by car or tram and bus) to its handsome modern building in the countryside, the Frac (Fonds Régionaux d’Art Contemporain) des Pays de la Loire, one of France’s network of government-sponsored regional contemporary art centers, is holding an interesting show called “Animaux-Animots,” which includes works by Miquel Barceló, Joyce Pensato, Xavier Veilhan and more.
One of the most intriguing pieces here is Oleg Kulik’s “Tolstoy and the Chickens” (1998), made when the iconoclastic Russian artist was an artist in residence at the Frac. A life-sized wax-museum-type figure of Tolstoy sits writing at a desk inside a large cage, which is topped by another cage – separated only by chicken wire – housing three chickens, so that the great Russian writer and his surroundings are covered in feathers and droppings, which build up every time the work is put on display and will presumably cover them completely one day.
The last leg of the safari can be found at the Zoo Galerie in Nantes, which is showing only one work, a conceptual installation, “Devon Loch,” by Emilie Pitoiset, revolving around the famous eponymous racehorse, owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and jockeyed by writer Dick Francis. The cause of Devon Loch’s spectacular and mysterious fall at the Grand National in 1956 is still a subject of debate.
Nantes is another one of France’s oft-forgotten provincial cities that has much to offer visitors, not the least of which is that it is only a half-hour drive from some excellent beaches along the coast. It is located in the Loire-Atlantique department, which was part of Brittany until the Vichy government incorporated it into Pays de la Loire region in 1941. Some residents are now reclaiming their Breton identity and have called for a referendum on whether the department should be reattached to Brittany.
Le Lieu Unique: Quai Ferdinand-Favre, 44013 Nantes. Tel.: 02 40 12 14 34. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 1pm-7pm; Sunday, 3pm-7pm. Admission: free. Through September 4. www.lelieuunique.com
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes: 10, rue Georges-Clemenceau 44000 Nantes. Tel.: 02 51 17 45 00. Open Wednesday-Monday, 10am-6pm, until 8pm on Thursday. Admission: €3.50. www.museedesbeauxarts.nantes.fr
Fonds Régionaux d’Art Contemporain des Pays de la Loire: La Fleuriaye,
44470 Carquefou. Tel.: 02 28 01 50 00. Admission: free. Through September 25. fracdespaysdelaloire.com
Zoo Galerie: 49, chaussée de la Madeleine, Interphone 8, 44000 Nantes. Tram 2, Delrue stop. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 3pm-7pm. Through July 16. www.zoogalerie.fr
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