The 2023 edition of Galeries Nomades has just drawn to a close in the Drôme department of France. Every two years since 2007, this programme headed by the Institut d'art contemporain — Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes (IAC) has organised five solo exhibitions by recent graduates from art schools in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region across five different partner art spaces. The 2018 and 2020 editions also featured commissioned texts by writers which were published in La belle revue in print and online. Unfortunately, this critical accompaniment was absent from the most recent edition of Galeries Nomades following a funding freeze, though a series of interviews printed in the visitor guide offer the participating artists a space to discuss their work and intentions. The head of the IAC’s ‘ex situ’ programmes Chantal Poncet nonetheless acknowledges that this change in circumstances seems to point to the petering out of a model that was first launched in 2000 by Jean-Louis Maubant, founder of the Nouveau Musée de Villeurbanne (which later fused with the FRAC Rhône-Alpes to become the IAC) and a vocal proponent of cultural decentralisation. While all those involved are unanimous as to the success of this year’s edition, in some ways it appeared lacklustre compared to previous efforts, partly due to the use of exhibition spaces which were less equipped to present contemporary art. All this offers a strange echo of the various crises facing the contemporary world, which could be felt at low frequencies in most of the artistic practices on display in the hills of the Drôme, like a shockwave that was more or less perceptible and more or less threatening from one exhibition to the next.
Beginning the Galeries Nomade circuit from its northernmost point, we come face to face with a large pillow carved in lime wood (Organe officiel, quand le dormeur s'éveillera, 2023). Like a grotesque gallery attendant, or an allegory for attention (or for artisanal ‘making’), it stands guard at the entrance to “Ambient Aware (AmA)”, Antoine Dochniak’s exhibition at the Temple de Saoû. In the space, the artist presents about fifteen new works that are linked together by a series of hypotheses drawn from physics and mathematics, with the sculptures imitating musical instruments or measuring instruments whose potential activation (and secret activities) shroud them in an air of suspicion. Further evidence seemingly drawn from a work of speculative fiction or perhaps from a very real plot can be found in a text by Lou Ferrand included in the exhibition, which borrows the lyrical register of revolutionary youth to reconstitute what seems to be a series of secret communiqués between a group of activists and a nuclear power station employee. Yet more clues are worked into the very materials of the sculptures which offer a remarkable update to the practice of assemblage and to its critical function, from a Stradivarius varnish whose chemical formula was written by ChatGPT or documents relating to industry secrets slipped into gaps. Dochniak plays on the charms of ambiguity both in the exhibition and in its title, both a functionality of Bluetooth headphones and a nod to the sociological notion of “ambient consciousness” which describes the intensity of relationships within an organised group of individuals. Beyond this metaphorical level, a very real collaborative system underpins the artist’s production, something attested to by the long list of exhibition credits which point to an already well-defined methodology.
Were we to follow the geological faultline that runs alongside the Tricastin nuclear plant to the south, we would reach Amandine Campion’s exhibition at the Maison de la Tour de Valaurie. Here, the catastrophe has already occured, and it is the post-collapse era that the artist looks to anticipate through her work, the result of an original, years-long reflection on the appropriation of ruins as a common good. “Donne gravats contre bons soins” [Rubble free to a good home] is the title of the ambitious project which was begun in the town of Teil in the Ardèche department of France, the epicentre of an earthquake in November 2019. More literally, it acts as an address to the public, inviting them to help themselves to the titular rubble, some of which has been transferred to the exhibition space from the Rouvière neighbourhood where it symbolised the difficult reconciliation of questions of commemoration and reconstruction (Donne gravats contre bons soins. À venir chercher sur place, sacs fournis, 2023). This gesture takes up the legacy of land art yet adopts a more political bent through its explicit involvement of the public: the paving stone in a net sack that visitors could take away with them as they left the exhibition space resembles a kind of slingshot. A streak of rebellious humour runs through the last gallery, at the top of the tower, where a soft sculpture seems to invite our weary bodies to rest a while, forming a colossal seat from where we can survey the exhibition as a whole (Sit on my trash, 2023). Similarly made up of waste materials, it puns on (and indeed inverts entirely) the idea of “anti-installation” systems – the somewhat grandiose name given to piles of rocks and rubble intentionally left on open ground to defend private property and to prevent traveller communities from making camp there.
In Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, it is again a sculptural practice that occupies the three levels of the Angle arts centre. No mere coincidence, this is a sign of the times, since Zoé Chalaux also approaches her work within an economy of destruction as well through the circulation of residues and of “Chutes”, the title of her exhibition which can be interpreted variously in French as meaning “offcuts” or “falls”. In her first exhibition on this scale, Chalaux’s practice is perhaps more radical still. As she says in an interview printed in the publication accompanying this edition of Galeries Nomades, “the pieces in this exhibition are objects that seem good only for the rubbish heap, and yet they are still material.” These leftovers are also “materials mobilizable for art”, a label which reminds us that they were first mobilised for life. Indeed, the exhibition can only be fully apprehended when we learn that its production coincided with the moment that Chalaux was legally obliged to tear down a cabin that she had begun to build on a piece of agricultural land in the Lot region that she intended to live and work on. The list of works accordingly bears legends that break with convention to indicate the strata of personal history contained by each assemblage. If there is a large dose – too large a dose? – of melancholy here, the exhibition is nonetheless striking in the way in which it brings together the collapse of a personal utopia with labour history (whose presence can be felt in several works) as well as with the history of art, by way of intriguing citations to the heritage of modernism. And yet, as if things were already in motion, the final floor of the exhibition features a range of highly constructed forms, which, though just as strange as the others, seem somehow promising.
In terms of both aesthetics and humour, this exhibition finds its polar opposite in the experience proposed by Lucas Zambon at the Espace d’art François-Auguste Ducros in Grignan. His exhibition “Dans le jardin sauvage, les pollens sont marins” fills the décor with greenery and proudly displays a taste for lyricism and oxymoron, whose unchecked use in the poetry of the artist readily strays into a comic register. What is most arresting here is this slippery tone that oscillates between a sincere search for the sublime (in fauna, flora, and the everyday word) and a fiction infused with naivety that seems designed to blow off steam. However, this exhibition, which brings together the artist’s photographic work with sculptures by Romain Best and sound works by duo Les Orbiteurs (Joël Pestana and Lucas Zambon), seems to fall short of its environmental ambitions, even as some of its more rose-tinted aspects seem to stem from a point of view shared with the artists evoked above. This much is apparent in a sentence from the literary project Les dorades de la piscine municipale ont-elles des caries, whose title ponders whether or not the sea bream at the local pool suffer from cavities: “At the risk of slipping into melancholy, there is no escaping the feeling that our era resembles the end of a party where we need to gather our things, tidy up and leave”. We might ask whether the narrator of this novel in progress, a municipal employee who works as a “happiness manager”, is not in fact an allegory for the figure of the artist. Here as elsewhere, we can see an attempt by the artist to decentre himself, with a number of others invited to participate in the exhibition.
By contrast, Loïc Bonche seems to adopt a more solitary approach: his alter-ego would be closer to an outdoorsy, bivouac-loving fisherman than to a coach for sea bream confined to a swimming pool. Bonche’s exhibition at the Maison de la céramique at Dieulefit features several series of ceramics and textile works which foreground craft practices and express a singularly empathetic relationship with the landscape. It also marks a stage in an ongoing artistic research project that he is pursuing as part of an exchange programme between Saint-Étienne and Montréal, which centres on the motif of the lure (and its particular usages in fishing) and a theoretical approach to mimetism which gives the exhibition at Dieulefit its title, “La proie du temps rusée” – the tricky prey of time. In Greek literature, this phrase points to the inconstant nature of the human being, “who changes every instant, who experiences being as flux”, a condition that the contemporary era seeks to overcome. The artist’s research could nonetheless stand to benefit from a freer approach that would uncouple an undeniably original sensibility from a search for formal results and for scientific justifications that seem, for now, to be keeping it in check.
For Loïc Bonche, as for all the other artists involved in this edition, Galeries Nomades offers a significant professional experience. They are provided with a production budget which, at a total of 3000 euros, of which half is provided by the host space, is realistic for a first exhibition; each of them also receives a fee of 1000 euros, as well as a bonus provided by the friends of the IAC, which replaces a prize previously awarded to one laureate artist. Production is meanwhile further facilitated by a residency period funded by Moly-Sabata. When interviewed, all the artists acknowledged how precious these forms of support were, at the same time as they had no illusions as to the restrictions within which they are working. Several elements of context are important to mention here, in particular the policies of their art schools and their umbrella organisation1 with regards to support for early career artists: recently, the decision was made to discontinue a number of offers for recent graduates, including support for the publication of a first catalogue. Similarly, there is no escaping the precarity of the partner structures across the Drôme, and this despite the communication of the region’s government which affirms the promotion of culture in rural areas as its key priority – a position supported, for better or for worse, by the office of the new Minister for Culture.