I love France. As a child we visited Eurocamp sites from Brittany to Biarritz and plenty of places in between. I studied for a year in the Alps in Chambéry and spent a summer as a campsite rep in the Pyrenées. We’ve started indoctrinating our girls into the joys of l’Hexagone through both the Tour de France and by taking them on holiday ourselves, including a fabulous trip to Paris in April. Our holiday in France this summer was terrific, and it was while visiting the remarkable châteaux and gardens in the Loire for a few days that I was reminded of a couple of the amazing foibles of the French, a contrast between
- what my (fab) sister-in-law Kate labelled “pretentious guff”
- an obsession with obscure details and figures, about the most mundane or seemingly inappropriate things, to three decimal places
To illustrate this, let me take you to Le Château du Rivau. Its main attractions are in the gardens, where a whole series of eclectic sculptures and landscapes have been created in collaboration with artists and designers. The planting is inventive and interesting. Amongst this, there is a meadow full of beehives and wild flowers; a beautifully natural spot, yet the information boards go on interminably about the chemical composition of the honey, its molecular structure, and the peculiarities of the local pollen.
Just around the corner within these gardens is an orchard, beneath whose spreading branches truffles are carefully cultivated and harvested traditionally by pigs. Again there are imposing information boards: but instead of waxing lyrical about the richness of the truffle and its exalted role in French haute cuisine, there’s an enormous amount of detailed text and graphs about the soil conditions, its acidity, the underlying geological environment, average yields per acre and the specific types of mould spores that help to create the truffles.
On the other hand, within the same gardens are several examples of the aforementioned “pretentious guff”. This could perhaps be more charitably called a reverentially poetic, philosophical worldview, but faced with some of the examples we saw, it’s hard to make that case.
Under an archway that leads from the gardens into the castle courtyard, there is an ‘installation’ that consists of two wheelbarrows, stood upside down against the wall, with their handles placed into wellington boots like legs. Really. Bear in mind that elsewhere in the gardens there are giant wellies and a giant watering can, each over 10 feet tall. I thought all of these were great fun, quirky ideas that we all enjoyed. But then I read the description on the wall next to the wheelbarrows, that sought to ‘explain’ them…
The panel is in French and English. Of course in its original it reads poetically. I even shrugged my shoulders, gesticulated with my hands, added a few “bof”s and other such interjections for effect, and it sounded great (to me). But when you actually read what it actually says…
Out of such everyday things as wheelbarrows and wellington boots, the artist Pierre Ardouvin has managed to create compelling human figures.
Oscillating between two extremes of the human condition – dreams and pessimism – these inanimate objects become characters tasked with two missions: they greet the visitors and tell them about the hard work that has to be done to maintain a historical building and its grounds.
The work is of course very “down to earth”, but it also has a sublime dimension, because these two wheelbarrows speak to all cultures. Viewers from all backgrounds relate to them and understand their message.
Ardouvin’s use of ready-made objects reaches out to all, without any judgement or knowledge required of contemporary art. This is where the strength of his work lies.
I thought they looked quite cute.
This unapologetic, unironic use of flowery, high-falutin’ language is only natural to the French. It occurs in radio show discussions, it’s apparent at many tourist attractions. The French aren’t embarrassed by it; quite the reverse. They are embarrassed for those who can’t relate to it. Of course they’re not just wheelbarrows with boots on. What sort of Philistine are you?!
I love France.