Around Town: Le Havre

Various venues, Le Havre, France

‘The culture industries are phantom industries. They announce death.’ So reads one line from Capture (2009), a five-screen video installation by Grégory Chatonsky. Here in Le Havre, a port city on France’s north coast, this is undoubtedly true. Chatonsky’s work is currently on show at Le Tetris, a multi-purpose arts space housed in a 19th-century hilltop fortification that overlooks the city. The arrival of arts spaces such as Le Tetris follows the slow decline of the city’s previous industries – oil, chemicals, cars. In that sense, the culture industries do indeed mark a kind of death. But could such initiatives promise new life, too?

2017 marks 500 years since King Francis I founded Le Havre as a royal port. Over five centuries, it has experienced radical upheaval: following extensive bombing by the British during World War II, Le Havre was rebuilt in concrete along wide gridded streets by Auguste Perret. A little later came Oscar Niemeyer’s cultural centre Le Volcan (Volcano, 1982) – a curvaceous contrast in the centre of the city. Today, the port is the sixth busiest in Europe, but elsewhere, as Naëlie Baudin details in her ‘Memoire: la politique d’attractivité de la ville du Havre’ (2016), the city’s industries have long been fading and its population in decline.

As in other cities struggling to carve out new economic pathways, Le Havre’s politicians turned towards culture and tourism. After sustained campaigning, the city centre was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. Perret’s understated neoclassicism has resulted in a place that seems designed to live in, not just to look at. ‘It feels here like concrete was a material, not an ideology,’ says architecture critic Dr Crystal Bennes (also my wife). In 2015, Le Volcan was beautifully converted into a library and theatre. 

2017-05_up3_lehavre_04.jpg

Lang/Baumann, Up #3, 2017, steel, wood, paint, 9 x 11 x 10 m. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: David Huguenin

I’m visiting for ‘Un Été au Havre’ (A Summer in Le Havre), a programme of public art, exhibitions and events spread out across the city over four months. The project is part of the city’s 500th anniversary celebrations, directed by Thomas Malgras. Malgras believes that Le Havre suffers from an unfair reputation, which such projects can help to change: ‘When art and culture are directly involved in our public space […] it will attract more visitors who will then understand how different this city is from what they imagined,’ he tells me. ‘Their opinion will change, they might even come back and, why not, stay for good.’

The emphasis on photogenic spectacle is therefore unsurprising: Vincent Ganivet has constructed a pair of rainbows out of multi-coloured shipping containers in his Catène de containers (Catena of Containers, all works 2017 unless otherwise stated); for Venus and Mars, Félicie d’Estienne D’Orves has installed pulsing lights on the twin chimneys of the EDF energy plant. Unfortunately, Chiharu Shiota’s huge installation of red yarn, Accumulation of Power, only succeeds in frustrating the magnificent concrete verticals of the St Joseph church, Perret’s one concession to grandeur. Much more successful is UP#3, a two-storey sculpture of interlocking white rectangles by Lang/Baumann that stands on Le Havre’s pebbled beach. Situated at the end of one of Perret’s long, Haussmann-esque visual axes, the piece is both an elegant structure in its own right and a kind of viewfinder that serves to reframe the seascape beyond.

10148.d8acd.huguenin.jpg

Félicie d'Estienne d'Orves. Courtesy: David Huguenin

Meanwhile, at the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, although the glossy photographs and installations by art duo Pierre et Gilles are, for me, entirely uninteresting, the pair have succeeded in linking their work – especially a series of beach hut dioramas – both to Le Havre and to the museum’s own collection. For example, standing out among the major names of impressionism (Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley) and a vast number of paintings by Eugène Boudin is a selection of works by local fauvist Raoul Dufy. In 1901 Dufy depicted Le Havre as a mud-dark town of hunched-over workers, smoke and looming slag heaps. Just 20 years later his Souvenir du Havre (1921) is a tourist-friendly montage of shells, streams and the French flag.

Such changing perceptions of place over time also inform the work of Julien Berthier, on show at arts centre Le Portique. Waterside Plaza splices together footage of New York edge-lands from an array of feature films; Cinq seconds plus tard (Five Seconds Later) consists of three landscape paintings purchased by the artist and apparently adjusted by a restorer in order to shift light and shadow by five seconds; and for Rien de spécial (Nothing Special) two near-identical drawings of an empty plot between two anonymous Paris buildings hang on opposite sides of a gallery wall. The drawings were produced a few months apart: graffiti and a new chain-link fence are the only visible changes; in the background the ornate St Ambroise church stands steadfast. In a city such as Le Havre, as indeed in Paris, time moves by at many different speeds.

Main image: Lang/Baumann, Up #3, 2017, steel, wood, paint, 9 x 11 x 10 m. Courtesy: the artists

 

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Paris, France. His first book, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, was published by Influx Press in April 2017.

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

Most Read

A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018