I spent my birthday in prison.
Now hold on there, before you hit "delete" and then "unsubscribe", let me explain for it is not what you think.
I have mentioned that I like to see an art exhibition on my birthday whenever possible. It is just one of the things that gives me the most sparks for the year ahead. And while summer is often the time for many big shows in Provence, I was most intrigued by "The Disappearance of the Fireflies," which came about as a means to transfer elements of the truly amazing Collection Lambert (each a donation by Enea Righi) during the museum's current renovations into one of France's oldest prisons, the Prison Saint Anne.
I felt my skin prickle as I passed the entry, shielded with thick glass riddled with bullet holes. Even though I was walking into prison on my own decision, I immediately felt Barbara Kruger's demanding, "Who do you think you are?" destabilizing me and challenging my will.
The Prison Sainte Anne is located in the heart of Avignon, directly behind the Palais des Papes - aka the Pope's Palace - and is an unusual example of "purpose-built" architecture from the late 18th century.
This building was not a conversion of another site. It was created from the ground up for the specific use to be a prison. There is no respite in the architecture.
It was only closed down in 2003. The ghosts are recent. For the exhibition, nothing of its condition was altered.
At the entry, signs clearly warn that a thorough visit can take up to three hours as there are numerous video and sound installations. Remi and I plunged in willingly, giggling nervously at first and then quickly falling silent.
Art can be found throughout the prison, lining the corridors and courtyards but it was in peeking into the over 200 cells that held specific works that I was especially moved.
Each contains a little world...
...just as it had for the prisoner's that had inhabited them.
Both direct and indirect expressions of the themes are presented.
The patina on the walls, the history present was at times quite beautiful but was also capable of invoking in me a feeling bordering on fright or disgust.
The currencies of darkness and light clank and ching...
How deeply they must have been both cherished and detested.
The name of the exhibition was taken from a quote by the Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini in which he used the disappearance of fireflies in the countryside as a metaphor for both the fading light of a bygone society and a past sense of "youth" that can't be conveyed to the "new" generation - or of as a lost youth, if you will.
Each piece presented is meant to be a firefly, a fragment glowing tenuously and yet with determination. Within its resistance can be found something akin to a feverish hope.
Walking through the halls, I was chased by the sneaking suspicion of a whisper evaporating two steps ahead of me...
...and yet was also confronted with the solidity of being forced to endure. The day after day, the year after year, the decade after decade. Without choice and yet evolving or sliding, slowly.
Several different worlds are presented over three levels..
...representing not only "imprisonment" but also "the passage of time", "solitude" and yes, "love."
I have visited the Collection Lambert several times before in its original location but seeing such works as Andy Warhol's "Electric chair" was an entirely different experience in such an environment. One that heightened meaning...
...and shocked my vision into seeing anew. In another cell, my eye drifted between a framed Cy Twombly and "another" that I could also see traced into the wall. The two were nearly indiscernible.
The exhibition has been conceived to play on the senses and it does, strongly. Despite the fact that the prison had been cleaned for a month before the shows opening, the odours were at times very strong, the sounds and lack of horizon stifling.
Although we started out together, Remi and I eventually and wordlessly separated, each in our little cells of thought and emotions.
By the end of the exhibition, I felt utterly exhausted. I mentioned it to one of the guards and he told me with a short laugh that, "Many people turn straight around to the exit after the first floor!" But I was glad that I pushed through the sense of chaos, past the ragged strips of pinup girl posters and scratched graffiti, to understand so poignantly what it must have been like to have been imprisoned, in the many senses of the term...
...all the better to finally step outside under the great open sky and appreciate what it is to be free.
The Disappearance of the Fireflies
Prison Sainte Anne
55 rue de la Banasterie
Running until November 25th
Until Sept. 29th from 11am to 7pm
From Sept. 30th to Nov. 25th from 11am to 6pm
Last entry is one hour before closing time
Admission: 10 Euros
I know that it has been kind of a heavy week here at Lost in Arles but I really wanted to present this before it closes, in case there are those of you in Provence that haven't seen it yet. For Remi, it was perhaps the most important exhibition that he has ever seen and I can't stop thinking about it. I am so glad that we went. Plus, I feel like it is fitting companion to my previous post (thank you so much for your amazing responses!) as when it comes down to it, both are ultimately about the importance of finding freedom, something never to be taken for granted...
Have a wonderful weekend,