This past October, I spent three serendipitous days in Lyon, France where the 15th Biennale de Lyon Art Contemporain Là où les eaux se mêlent (Where Water Comes Together with Other Water) happened to be taking place. This extraordinary international art exhibition opened September 18th, 2019 and runs through January 5th, 2020. The Biennale became my guide to unique places and spaces within Lyon, introduced my senses to an extreme blend of 2-D and 3-D installations, and provided a lot of content to review in one article.
Lyon captured my heart. The city dates back 2,000 years as a strategic Roman crossroads. In 1998, Lyon became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is easily situated south of Paris, north of Marseille, and a quick 95 miles southwest of Geneva. While driving there from Annecy, my eyes drank in the Beaujolais wine region’s brilliant autumn gold vineyards. With the Côtes due Rhône vineyards to the south, I assure you that local wines and foods are plentiful and delectable. Indeed, Lyon is known for its gastronomy and world-renowned chefs such as Paul Bocuse. A multitude of restaurants and fresh food markets provide endless choices for your dining pleasure. Briefly, I recommend a delicious and affordable gourmet experience such as mine at Bocuse’ Brasserie Le Sud.
Lyon’s population and geography remind me of where I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. The metropolitan area’s population is around two million. The people whom I met were friendly, and overall the Lyonnais appeared to be relaxed, content. The city provides a comfortable mixed-use space of residential and commercial buildings, tree-lined streets edged by restaurants, cafes, bars, food markets, retail stores, schools, and offices. Its easy-to-use transportation system extends to vehicles, mass transit, pedestrians, bicycles and scooters with clear directional signage as shown in the photo below.
Lyon is importantly situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, an ever-present part of its infrastructure and spirit. Winding river parks, multi-purpose bridges, and European cruise barges line their shores. Notably, the contemporary Musée des Confluences (Confluence Museum) cannot be missed. Its exceptional architecture and exhibitions of scientific, technical and societal knowledge across Earth’s humanity, history and geography are fascinating. But, more importantly, the Biennale de Lyon 2019’s theme is based on these rivers – Where Water Comes Together with Other Water.
The 2019 Biennale links the main venue of the abandoned Fagor factories site to the rivers as “the constant flow of water is deeply intertwined with the flow of capital, goods, information and people to characterize the landscape we live in.” There were other Biennale venues throughout and nearby Lyon of which I visited three: Fagor, MAC Lyon (contemporary art museum), and the small installation at the Musée des Beaux Art de Lyon. I walked from Part Dieu to my first venue Fagor in the Gerland district. The signage was well-placed and visible, a road and tramway passed by the front of the factory for easy access. The painted image Warm in Your Memory on the building’s exterior felt welcoming. Overall, the Fagor installations would make a huge and important artistic impression upon me.
After I purchased my ticket, I entered a building with a space so vast, I could hardly see its bounding walls or ceiling. Then, I witnessed the first and smallest artwork that I would see in the exhibit. It was a washing machine wrapped in tufted pink silk, decorated with Swarovski crystals and black ribbons and surrounded by packing crates on the floor. As a limited-edition prototype, by the Fagor-Brandt Group Vedette and lingerie designer Chantal Thomass, it was one of the last remnants to be removed from the site. Although it was the only artwork which I saw directly related to the factory, many others that I viewed incorporated the building’s infrastructure or past activities into their design which fit the Biennale theme.
This international exhibition was an expansive undertaking. The 2019 Biennale includes 140 artists across generations, from around the world, and of many backgrounds. At Fagor I pondered how remarkable a feat to organize and install nearly 50 artists’ work within 300,000 square feet of exhibition space in four buildings. Additionally, as I walked through the venue and through various artworks, each artwork became distinct. Their selection and arrangement communicated how differences can share one space, maintain separate individuality, and succeed to pull viewers’ interest. The curators met their goal described as “a vast ecosystem where artworks and artists cultivate the art of permaculture, at the intersection of landscapes be they biological (all interactions with living organisms, whether plants, animals or bacteria); economic (all interactions with resources and the appetites they entail: producing, distributing, consuming) and cosmogonic (all relations with the world’s spirit and our awareness of our place in the universe).
To provide you a sense of the Biennale, I highlight a few artworks below. All of the art is very distinctive; I based my decision on how these captured my attention and fit the theme. Of the three, the first piece hovered in the distance while I viewed the pink silk washing machine, the second just grabbed me and I felt like it would not let me go, and the third lightens things up a bit.
The above photo shows artist Fernando Palma Rodriguez’ piece Tetzahuitl, 2019. Notice the little colorful objects dangling from beams. Rodriguez created his piece with 43 children’s dresses and a robotic system he engineered with wires and sounds. It seemed like a dance of little dresses, or spirits, attached to wires going up and down, never in a predictable way. The wires attach to a group of beams high up near the ceiling and remotely connect to a machine or computer on the ground. Unusual sounds project from the machine.
Rodrigues, who is native to an indigenous group in southwest Mexico, the digitized world creates an invisible frontier between humans and their environment. His piece shows a shifting landscape of a huge celestial coyote from which children’s dresses vibrate between heaven and earth. He writes, “Today more than ever, people are migrating around the world; ghosts attempt to represent that part of today’s landscape, which is usually faceless and voiceless, in motion.” In the photo above on the right, visitors are stopped in place, watching, and being like myself at this installation.
Of note, the brown cardboard stand in front of the viewers above, is how each of the artworks is described to visitors. They were simple and functional but sometimes difficult to locate in that vast space.
The second piece Saboteurs, 2019 by South Korean artist Mire Lee, really grabbed me. It was creepy – both difficult to watch and stop watching. She uses glycerin, steel, paper, resin, a peristaltic pump, motor, and more to create a machine, so-to-speak, that seemed alive as it slithered or steadily rolled on the ground in a chilly bath of liquid. I jumped when one of the tubes quickly moved over and slapped the ground.
As described at the exhibit, Mire’s work evokes a dysfunctional organic machine whose tortured movements induce a sense of discomfort. Mistreated and abused, it twists on the ground revealing viscous liquids that circulate and spread through the moving tangles of pipes and cables. She explores the tension between attraction and repulsion, love and hatred in this pit and the ultimate fetish act of swallowing or being swallowed.
The final piece provides a lighter feel than the previous. French artist Abraham Poincheval’s video Marche sur les nuages, 2019 projects onto an approximately 50 X 12-foot screen. I sat on a bench with others to watch Poincheval silently, somewhat whimsically, float through cool, moist clouds. He is known for performances that explore and experiment with the world and time through unique living conditions. In 2017, he lived inside a boulder for one week at Le Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris. Here he is suspended several meters into the air, surveying the cloud canopy. He explores the shifting landscape of mountains and furrows that are undone and reborn with every passing moment. He walks through a borderless territory consisting of water, terrestrial particles and celestial dust. It was a nice rest to sit and observe this artist suspending in air.
The three artworks described above not only left a strong impression upon me, they represent the Biennale theme about the intersection of biological organisms, economic interactions, and relationships with the world’s spirit and our awareness of our place in the universe. They reflect how rivers merge as in the city of Lyon. I mentioned that I visited three venues and do not have enough space to describe those here. Overall, the Fagor site I highly recommend. The MAC Lyon holds a quality exhibition also worthy of a visit. I was under impressed with the installation at the Musée des Beaux Arts. The exhibit was difficult to find, small, and basically lost among the wealth of European masterpieces housed in the museum.
–Deb Kittner Johnson