Sunday, 30 June 2013

Helpless: Pierre Ardouvin at the Centre Régional d'Art Contemporain, Sète, France

Of his small town childhood in the north of France, Pierre Ardouvin recalls a family circus. No lions or elephants; its animal performers numbered just a cat, a dog, and a pony. The Ardouvin family would go every year, and something of this sense of small town festivity has made its way into the works on display at CRAC in Sète. But Ardouvin's work is no mere autobiography; his memories are filtered through sedimented layers of popular culture and the collective imagery of myth. 

This play of memory and fiction, of melancholy and celebration, is perhaps best summed up in one of the last works in the exhibition, La roue de la fortune (2013). This room-sized installation hosts a spinning bandstand cloaked in carnival colours, circled by the classic white plastic armchairs of countless school sports days. Two small gaps in the file of chairs, roughly corresponding to the room's entrances, seem to invite you to join in. Completing the mood of tragic surrealism, a tape plays a haunting refrain for musical saw, faintly audible throughout the exhibition and lending an eerie disquiet to all the works on show. 

Music pervades many of the works in this exhibition, and it is from a song – by Neil Young – that the whole show takes its name. So as we enter the very first room to find the eponymous Helpless (2013) – a vast curtain flecked with stars, a stuffed fox poking its nose inquisitively through the curtains into a spotlight – it is Young's voice that we hear as a silent refrain in our mind's ear, singing of “dream comfort memory to spare”. It's poignant (if a little kitsch); still it welcomes us into a world both strange and familiar. A provincial uncanny.