Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Disappearance of the Fireflies - Avignon

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
84000 Avignon

Running until November 25th
Open everyday
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,


  1. and suddenly it looks like blood on your toe nails

    my first reaction, after just a photo or two: is it still patina if created by fingernails, a cracked head?

    if a group of us had not booked a NYC week of Mark Morris to Matisse, as well as hotels, flights, I'd be very tempted to fly over to experience this. If okay with you, would like to share with friends in France and artists elsewhere.

    1. By all means, Joan. Share away. It was an incredible experience, about as as thought-provoking and inspiring as one could ever hope an art exhibition to be.

      And oh, how I would love to steal you from my old stomping grounds for a visit to Provence but not this time...
      PS. Good question.

  2. Wow. While reading your words and viewing the photos, a little frisson of apprehension crawled up my back. I can imagine the actual exhibition would be powerful, indeed.

  3. Thank you for guiding us through this exhibition. I wish I could go myself, but 'following' you around through this post helped me see and feel what its like to be there. Giving us the facts the sights and the feelings all together is no an easy task, but you did it with great skill. Bravo.

    Wishing you a safe trip home -- this weekend? I hope so.

    1. Thank you but nope! My flight is now resceduled for NEXT Friday...if the strike ends! I miss my Honey and the boys.

  4. What a wonderful exhibition....stories within stories! Thank you for showing us a little glimspe of it! I went to a Biennale exhibition earlier this year held on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour which was a little similar in style. Cockatoo Island began as a convict prison barracks and later evolved into shipbuilding can imagine the eclectic collection of aged buildings housing all sorts of curious artworks...great fun :-)
    (PS I also share your birthday date!)

    1. Gretel! You do?! We are Leo Sisters! :) Mine is for 1969. A good year to be born in, I think. Happy belated Birthday and may your year ahead be full of good Health, sparks of Joy and a touch of Adventure...hooray!

      Wow, the exhibition on Cockatoo Island sounds amazing...somehow the act of taking a boat to get there - and to leave! - might have made it even more impressive...I was so relieved to be immediately surrounded by the rush of downtown Avignon in leaving this show.

  5. What an amazing post, the images are amazing, I can imagine that it could be overwhelming to take all of this in. I think I'll be over to Eze in October, maybe I'll cruise up. If not, I feel I had the next best thing reading this. Well done.

    1. It would definitely be a loooong day trip from Eze but perhaps worth it? Or you could just visit the Fondation Maeght for happier times instead. :)

  6. Your photos and narrative so captured the bleakness of this building - the ghosts and their echos - what an amazing staging area for an art exhibit. Where art and life meet~

    1. Perfectly put Jackie...but what a hard, hard life...

  7. It is an amazingly interesting and challenging week at "Lost in Arles"! And I like that challenge a lot!

    I must admit when I got the email and saw the first line and image my hands where shaking but then I remembered your birthday post (;

    Immediately, I looked at the duration of the exhibition but unfortunately I will not be able to make it to Avignon until the end of November.(Or would I ?) Because this is an exhibition I would have liked to experience sur place! Not without a feeling of anxiety. I already had that feeling looking at your photos. Incredible!

    Those interiors are charged with their ghosts. You can almost feel them breath.
    Now, what is this context doing to the art and vice versa? Uncomparable to any other exhibition space, be it the Biennale or the Miami Artfair. I was immediately thinking what it would have been like to show there.

    So which Curator had the genious but simple idea to just move the collection to the prison? (I looked it up): "Just" the "museum staff". It can be so easy.

    And I LOVE the unframed Cy Twombly!

    I am thinking a lot about imprisonment these recent days. Not being able to travel without a strong risk is a form of imprisonment too! Whereas Poverty, Discrimination and Terror are also imprisonments.
    Travel savely Heather!

    1. Yes, yes, yes...these are challenging times. Silke, I can't remember if I told you this already (I might have) but despite how much I love to travel, I was afraid taking the plane to come here...on September 10th...with everything that is happening in the world. Remi and I were just talking yesterday about how much travelling is changing by sad, terrible necessity.

      You would have loved this exhibition. And something tells me that you would have been stronger through it than I was - as you would have been analyzing and not just being thrown all over the map, emotionally. Because, truly? These are the nice photos! I couldn't even photograph some of the work. And it was never anything obviously horrific but came at me sideways. I was blown away.

      Glad you could see the Twombly too. ;) There are quite a few of his pieces in the Collection Lambert and he did a show there - that I missed!!! - a few years back. You might enjoy googling it.
      Bon Weekend...

  8. Wow, Heather, this is both freaky and fascinating. It must have been an unforgettable experience. And happy birthday!

  9. Dante will congratulate you Heather for going through the whole exhibition.
    Now you ready to go to the higher spheres.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

    1. Let's hope that you are right about that one, Edgar. Certainly for the moment I feel as if I am in something of a purgatory waiting for the Air France strike to end...or would be if I wasn't being so spoiled and loved on by my family in the States.

      Wishing you a wonderful weekend as well.

  10. Wow. Disturbing and powerful exhibit. I'm simply speechless.

  11. watching this prison through your eyes was a very nice journey! Useful topic for my students! Thanks a lot.

    1. Oh good, Emilia. If anything interesting comes out of the discussion, please let me know. :)

  12. Only just viewing this now (bad/busy sister!) - wow. I might have been one of the people who left after the first floor, so intense the experience of prison!! It really is beautiful, though, and amazing, the juxtaposition of the pieces with the surroundings. Sad but uplifting - haunting! I can see how it would stay with you, and I love not only the artwork but your photos of them - again, WOW.


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