Pierre Ardouvin, Virginie Barré, Massimo Bartolini, Olivier Beer, Anna Betbeze, Pierre Huyghe, Pierre Joseph, João Pedro Vale, Virginie Yassef Curators: Gilles Baume, Laurent Fiévet, Silvia Guerra
I don’t know Snow White
by Silvia Guerra, co-curator of Histoires sans sorcière
‘Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.” Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony; and she was therefore called Little Snow-white. And when the child was born, the Queen died.’
Beginning of the English version of Little Snow-white by the Brothers Grimm
Why is this exhibition about the imaginary world of fairy tales ‘without witches’?
Because the only witch that we come across here (the one from Pierre Joseph’s Grand Bleu) has fallen because of an accident: she didn’t see the blue wall and crashed to the ground.
In this exhibition, there are no witches because they are dead. Although fairy tales usually have happy endings, is it not their very wickedness or cruelty that has always made them so appealing? One of the reasons for this is their power of exorcism. They bring our deepest darkest secrets into the light of day. Surely everyone would like to transform a prince into a frog or break that same spell with a kiss.
Blood features heavily in fairy tales: one simply has to turn to the opening pages of Snow White to see red drops falling on the immaculate whiteness of snow. Even the exemplary Countess de Ségur found good reason to have Madame Fichini whip disobedient little girls in Les Malheurs de Sophie.
How have children’s fairy tales survived to this day? Are they still part of our imaginary world and that of children? How many children still read fairy tales today? Deep down, are they not frightened by them? Perhaps this is the reason why they take refuge in their video games while granny goes to her yoga class.
Yet the stories live on. They continue to be translated, revised, adapted, re-appropriated, and transformed into Contes à l’Envers (like those of Philippe Dumas and Boris Moissard), or anti-tales by authors such as Robert Walser.
As Pierre Huyghe reminds us with I DO NOT OWN SNOW WHITE, he cannot claim ownership of Snow White. Fairy tales belong to no one. They are part of an oral tradition which seems to be slowly but surely disappearing. However, contemporary art has taken hold of their intrinsic ability to radically transform reality.
Fairy tales provide a framework, just like the ebony-coloured window-frame at the beginning of the Grimm Brother’s narrative. In this exhibition, the works act as a gateway onto a whole host of other possible stories to be imagined. They present themselves as paths to be followed, doors to be opened, giant pillows, voices to be listened to, characters to be discerned, stories to be retold…
We all have the right to rejoice at the death of the witch and the victory of good over evil. However, we don’t know Snow White, we only know her footprints in the snow, or the black screen of the eponymously-titled film by João César Monteiro. We may not own fairy tales but we reinvent them every day.
(Tales without witches)
1. Extract taken from the 1884 translation by Margaret Hunt of Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall
by Laurent Fiévet, co-curator of Histoires sans sorcière
It is a rather unusual exhibition when visitors may discover giant beans in a perpetually growing installation, a flying tepee, an untrustworthy mirror placed at the bottom of a red plastic basin, multicoloured landscapes eaten or eroded away by acid, and a joyous spider suspended from the ceiling. A fantastical tale featuring a motley collection of incongruous objects which seem, almost nonchalantly, to make reference to the familiar figure of Snow White, following in the footsteps of Alice from Rewind—Lab’Bel’s inaugural exhibition at La Maison de La vache qui rit in the spring of 2010.
On one of the walls of the exhibition space, Pierre Huyghe’s neon art piece refers to Snow White. In brightly-lit letters, we find the somewhat enigmatic phrase: ‘I Do Not Own Snow White’. Indeed, this princess with the red lips and ebony-coloured hair makes a number of notable appearances within this exhibition Histoires sans sorcière, such as in Oliver Beer’s riotously psychedelic film, Reanimation 1, inspired by Walt Disney’s famous version of the fairy tale. Although some of the artworks refer directly to the character of Snow White, others do so in a more covert fashion. The title of the piece Dis-moi by Pierre Ardouvin for example, contains a more implicit reference with its evocation of the enchanted mirror consulted by the Queen, which results in the young Snow White being led into a forest by a huntsman to be killed. Indeed, this same forest seems to be have been recreated at the centre of La Maison de La vache qui rit exhibition space with João Pedro Vale’s Feijoeiro, an abundant tangle of vegetation. A mirror placed in a basin at the foot of a strangely scorched landscape by Anna Betbeze—evocative of a land cursed by a spell—brings a disturbing dimension to the fairy tale, just metres away from the soap bubbles escaping from another of Pierre Ardouvin’s pieces: Abri. Through its allusion to the famous laundry scene from the Walt Disney animated film version of the tale, Pierre Ardouvin’s work, along with João Pedro Vale’s and Anna Betbeze’s oeuvres conjure forth a series of resonances, akin to a form of maleficent counterpoint or contrast. The dwarves meanwhile, seem to have disappeared. Perhaps they are working in the mine hidden behind the stone ramparts that constitute Virginie Yassef’s work, Passe Apache. Found in one of the nooks of the exhibition space, this kind of secret passageway provides access to a hidden treasure which, like a pearl concealed in a hand, lies patiently waiting to be unearthed by the visitor. But keep this under your hat. As the title of another one of the artworks suggests: Silence is golden. We will say nothing. Unless the tale, as suggested by the empty table in front of which seven seats are meticulously aligned, was abandoned by Snow White’s cheerful associates, at least for a few days until Oliver Beer’s film managed to bring the princess back to life, once the witch came crashing to her demise against the wall of Pierre Joseph’s Grand bleu. During the dwarves’ absence, a spider was able to spin a web on the ceiling of the exhibition space. At least so the story goes, as this cunning CCSpider created by Pierre Huyghe is not so easy to spot.
Dis-moi. (Tell me). All of the artworks in the Histoires sans sorcière exhibition are the pretext for a story. In the disorderly layout of this rather curious exhibition, visitors are invited to take possession of what they perceive, in order to forge their own story. Not just a story but a series of different stories like the many objects scattered throughout the exhibition space by the artist Virginie Barré. By giving children the task of redrawing one of the frames of the Walt Disney film, Oliver Beer highlights this process of re-appropriation at work within his oeuvre. Furthermore, in the film Reanimation 1, the compilation of various versions of the song sung by Snow White, in different languages, allows the artist to cleverly illustrate the presence of the fairy tale on a geographical scale, thereby highlighting its universal dimension. Here, parallels may be drawn with Pierre Huyghe’s neon artwork which reminds us that the fairy tale character does not belong to any one of us. Interestingly, dispossession is also the theme of Huyghe’s 1997 short film, Snow White Lucie, which recounts the experience of an actress, Lucie, who claims to have had her voice stolen. This echo of a distant voice, disconnected from the body, is not without reference to the oral nature of storytelling and resonates deep within us—something which Oliver Beer directly evokes in his work.
Similarly, Anna Betbeze and João Pedro Vale do not merely provide us with imaginary landscapes to be explored in Histoires sans sorcière. Like Virginie Yassef’s Passe-Apache, their works are clearly pathways to utterly intimate and secret spaces: our imagination and our thoughts. As quickly as in the enchanted mirror held up by Pierre Ardouvin in Dis-moi, the visitor may come to gaze at the reflection of his/her face at any moment, while letting his/her dreams float upwards, rather like the soap bubbles from L’Abri. For as the house which attempted to contain them, obviously pushed to the side to rest on its roof, the constituent elements or building blocks of these stories are simply brought to our attention in order to be overcome and forgotten. Working like Pierre Huyghe’s spider that has taken up residence on the ceiling of La Maison de La vache qui rit, the visitor’s mind only relies on such building blocks so as to better weave the connections between stories, thereby allowing even more terrifying witches, dastardly traps and valiant princes to be conjured up by our imagination.
Indeed, everyone is free to grasp, like the building blocks of a story, the coloured modules exhibited by Virginie Barré, so as to organize them at will, or to put on the bathrobe left by Anna Betbeze to embody the hungry ogre who will come to haunt it. The blue wall of Pierre Joseph’s Grand Bleu fatal to the witch is the secret passageway in cinema to a myriad of possibilities and montage effects, capable of propelling the film in new directions. This blue wall also mirrors the capacity of human thought to endlessly construct stories.
If the fairy tale appears as the thematic concern of Histoires sans sorcière, it is also a means for us to reflect upon our relationship to Art and its propensity to resonate in such an intimate fashion with each and every one of us. Indeed, similar to the fairy tale, the work of art throws up our own reflection, and has the ability to speak directly to us. This is just one of the fabulous stories that this unusual exhibition aims to construct. Miroir, mon beau miroir [Mirror, mirror on the wall], show me works of art and dis-moi [tell me] who I am.
Tales against the clock / Contra tales
by Gilles Baume, co-curator of Histoires sans sorcière
The encounter or junction between the visual arts and fairy tales refers to numerous questions, whether these concern the relationship (or connections) between popular culture (the origins of the tales) and academic cultures, or the relationship between literature and the image, with, on the hand, the codes and rules to follow (or not) of the genre, and on the other hand, the power of the image. If Art, in its foundations, refers to the experience of reality, the fairy tale deals with the imagination and the fantastic, thereby allowing all kinds of possible inventions. Furthermore, these connections evoke the tradition of illustration, where the artist-illustrator is at the service of the narrative in accompanying, even transcending interpretation. Gustave Doré (1832-1883), amongst others, masterfully concentrated or condensed the intensity of the narrative over the pages of the books he illustrated (Perrault’s Tales in 1862, being just one example). His images did not simply reflect a stream of words: they were condensed cauldrons of the situations, spatial contexts and characters described. The evocative power of the images aroused the imagination of the reader and invited him to linger over the story in his mind, rather than simply locking it into a fixed form. Such images have helped shape a shared cultural heritage, in Europe and elsewhere.
Today, if artists remain interested in fairy tales, they do not consider them merely as a repertoire of motifs and symbols from which to draw. By intentionally freeing themselves from restrictive frameworks, in terms of narration (respecting the story) and in terms of form (the pages of a book), they have succeeded in translating the experience of the fairy tale in the exhibition space, in several different ways.
Some of the works in the Histoires sans sorcière exhibition succeed in refreshing memories of childhood tales: places, faces, even accessories, such as the giant bean from Jack and the Beanstalk, here transformed into an abundant textile installation (Feijoeiro, by Joao Pedro Vale), or indeed the mirror belonging to the witch in Snow White, transformed into a sculptural object, rich in triviality and humour (Dis-moi, by Pierre Ardouvin). Therefore, while deploying plastic or visual vocabularies of their own, the artists knowingly open a window onto a shared or communal memory and invite the public onto familiar ground. Forms generate fragments of stories as if these are brought back to the present moment. The images become living experiences to be felt in all areas of the exhibition space.
Other works, even if they do not intentionally refer to specific fairy tales, refer to a multitude of fantastical situations which generate shifts in relation to reality, as if motivated or ‘occupied’ by the springs or mischievous essence of the fairy tale. L’Abri (le vent nous portera), by Pierre Ardouvin therefore confronts the visitor with a modest garden shed turned upside down, appearing as a kind of living creature lying on the ground, resting, and beginning to ‘bubble over’… Indeed, small bubbles really do escape from the shed in an endless stream, symbolic of idleness and daydreams. The bubbles soaring into space embody the notion of a wandering imagination and recall modes of transportation common in fairy tales—teleportation or flying carpets—also evoked by the presence of a secret passageway (Passe-Apache by Virginie Yassef), by the somewhat incongruously uninhibited movements of a spider through the exhibition space (CC Spider by Pierre Huyghe), or by a hanging basket, as if waiting to whisk passengers off on a celestial journey. Virginie Barré’s cabinet of curiosities—and its range of forms and colours, floating or buried—unfold or reveal the vocabulary of a fragmented and mysterious story, alluding to childhood and magic, a story which everyone is invited to tell. The vibrant colour in Anna Betbeze’s paintings—here symbolic of excess—explode in the exhibition space and make use of unusual media such as carpets and clothing.
Finally, other works in the exhibition rely on fairy tales in order to develop a dialectic criticizing the dominance of entertainment, television and the theme-park culture prevalent in western society. Noting the ubiquity of fairy tales in contemporary imagery (in advertisements, film or even on stage), and the impact caused by Hollywood, Walt Disney and their descendants on the collective imagination, artists can only regret that dreams have become somewhat of a commodity, at the risk of moulding, even indoctrinating, the collective consciousness. Therefore, Pierre Huyghe’s phrase I do not own Snow White, written like a slogan in neon letters and declaimed as a manifesto, captures the irreducibility of fairy tales with their characters and motifs. Meanwhile, as for the witch in Pierre Joseph’s Le Grand Bleu, she has literally crashed into the wall of illusion that is the blue wall, a medium traditionally used on film sets, upon which images are affixed as decor. Following the series Personnages à réactiver, the witch exists both as a photographic image and as a performance, with an actress replaying the scene in the here and now of the exhibition space. Finally, we should note that criticism does not exclude the possibility of re-enchantment. The operation of Reanimation orchestrated by Oliver Beer consists in redoing a sequence from the film Snow White with the participation of hundreds of children, drawing image after image, thereby reviving the story in a dynamic fashion, demonstrating that everyone can take ownership of fairy tales and create his/her own version of them. The transmission of a fairy tale from one individual to another through the oral tradition (as was originally the case), through books, or through images, somehow transcends the generic nature of the fantastic and allows everyone to connect to his/her own imaginary experiences.