LUMA Arles rises above vast Provençal fields and vineyards fed by the Rhône. It’s capped with a faceted Frank Gehry tower, the polished steel sides stepping down, reflecting the golds and yellows of the dried fields and parching sun. Prélude, as the name suggests, is one of the inaugural exhibitions of collector Maja Hoffmann’s long-standing project in Arles, LUMA. A secondary meaning of the word, to warm up, is appropriate as the work exhibited finds ways of accessing a growing feeling, that something disastrous is coming, things are heating up and this is just the beginning of our collective discombobulation.
The tower, as a way of entry into the Parc des Ateliers, houses, studios, libraries, exhibition spaces, and permanent installations like a variation of Carsten Höller’s Isometric Slides which elicits periodic cheers from visitors, punctuating the din of the central hall. Gazing up, a part of the wall on the third floor is cut away to reveal a mirrored spiral staircase, a momentary and whimsical glimpse of a M.C. Escher piece in real life that happens to be the work by Olafur Eliasson, Take Your Time. Wandering up the stairs and around the cavernous interior of the steel peak became disorienting until I realized the work I came to see lay behind the tower in a series of post-industrial spaces that once acted as National Company of French Railways (SNCF) workshops and repair shops next to the tracks that lead from Arles south to the Mediterranean ports.
Prélude, a group exhibition of works by Sophia Al Maria, Kapwani Kiwanga, P. Staff, and Jakob Kudsk Steensen, resides in La Mécanique Général, a large rectangular building near the center of the Parc. The buildings frame newly planted gardens designed by Bas Smets and full of native Camargue plants that rise up on mounds separated by serpentine paths like the eroded limestone of Les Alpilles with their attendant rivers that ripple down east of the Rhône from the Alps to the sea.
Sophia Al Maria’s Tender Point Ruin (2021), commissioned by LUMA for this exhibition, is a filmic meditation on art and being. There’s a feeling of being on the edge, of dropping into this place from elsewhere. The video essay weaves together fragments of postcolonial understandings, poems, provocations, skits, and a tattoo session. Opening with a color inverted close up of the sun, flares and all, the video work moves effortlessly through planetary scales, a rolling moon, and a rocky beach where the protagonist collects shards of ceramics and a curious piece of plastic with French and English script that prompts Al Maria to ask, “Is this from the past or the future?” to which comes the reply, “The present.” A refrain in the video comes from questioning what art is. Hafez’s answer: “Art is the conversation between lovers … True art makes the divine silence in the soul break into applause.” Another answers: “Art is two stones rubbing together and the detritus left behind, it is what’s left, what you don’t know what to do with.” Near the end in which Victoria Sin makes a cameo while applying their face, the artist gets a tattoo of a petroglyph of the sun. The shot lingers over a table where a rubber stamp laying upside down reads “The end is nigh.”
So in this moment, this prélude to disaster, what is art? Tumult will create more liminal edges, more cracks, more moments of conjunction. The leavings of these frictions will be many, but I hope some of us remain to allow what has been left behind to please the silence within.
By Joel Kuennen