THE OPENING OF THE ART-O-RAMA fair in Marseille on the first Friday of September was a great way to ease into the swing of the coming fall frenzy, with only thirteen galleries invited to show and the glistening Mediterranean within reach. Many of the booths took the form of curated solo exhibitions, such as Antonio Rovaldi’s fractured landscapes appropriated from magazines, comprising a tribute to Richard Prince, at Rome’s Monitor gallery, and the Bendana Pinel gallery’s pristine presentation of Steven Le Priol’s striking black-and-white cutouts warning against the violence augured in the current return toward nationalism, showing along with a porcelain dead self-portrait of the artist and a photograph of the dealer as a zombie, just to lighten things up a bit.
At the center of La Cartonnerie, as the former industrial space is called, a collaboration between Bordeaux’s ACDC gallery and Kyoto’s Super Window Project consisted of a Japanese-inspired garden featuring an arrangement of potted plants by Pierre Labat. Nobody seemed terribly bothered about sales, although they were certainly being made. “I see our fair as a mini Artissima or a Basel Art Statements,” codirector Gaïd Beaulieu-Lambert explained. “Dealers can test out young artists they would not risk showing elsewhere.” La Friche La Belle de Mai, a former tobacco factory–turned–arts complex, was buzzing, and people smart enough to be furnished with fans were fluttering them furiously. Eventually the crowd escaped the airless space to drink the local pastis outside, where I ran into artist Lucy Orta, whose “Antarctica” project is showing in town at Galerie of Marseille, and curator Sylvie Amar, who is developing the new Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, set to open in 2013.
The next stop was dinner in the garden of the neoclassical Maison Blanche. After missing a run on some juicy local oysters, I chatted with dealer William West, who gushed over his exquisite digs at local midcentury icon Cité Radieuse, designed by Le Corbusier as a total lifestyle concept (still very much alive). His booth was also all about architecture, featuring Catalina Niculescu’s mesmerizing video Along the Lines, which portrays how modernism merged with the vernacular in Romania. “I wanted to honor the artist by making it a real exhibition, since it will be up for a month longer than the fair,” West noted. Coincidentally, I spent that night in a bohemian version of Le Corbusier’s own Côte d’Azur cabin, La Cabanon: a wooden structure that doubles as an artist residency and office at Galerie Où, presided over by the charming Axelle Galtier.
As it turns out, a number of the local galleries are operated by artists and even double as their own residences. The next day, Andreas Lange and I visited La Gad, opened about a year ago by exuberant artist Arnaud Deschin in a tiny space where he exhibits site-specific installations and sleeps and showers in rooms concealed behind sleek sliding panels. Nearby we checked out Porte Avion, founded by three artists including the current director, Jean-Jacques Le Berre, where Susanne Strassmann was showing photos from her new book Art People or Employees—all very amusing until you find one of yourself in a compromising position at an art-fair party, and on sale for €450.
That night was the fourth annual Triangle France gala at Château Ricard, where the forty works (authored by beneficiaries of the foundation’s artist residency) being raffled off were hung throughout the rooms. After drinking all the Ricard pastis one could wish for, followed by a dinner of quail, guests retired to the garden for the drawing. As Triangle director Dorothée Dupuis announced each number and the lucky ticket holder chose a work, performer Mathis Collins recited a composition written for each piece. The proceedings began to resemble an Éric Rohmer film, in which the interrelationships of all assembled were gradually revealed, when one contestant screamed, “Don’t talk to me, don’t anybody say anything,” as she deliberated her choice.
The next day I did the rounds with Marseille Expos’s Céline Emas Jarousseau and critic André Rouillé, stopping first at the Cité Radieuse to visit the 3ème Rue Galerie, where Portuguese artist Sara Maia’s exhibition “Born to Be Alive” comprises vivid dreamlike paintings. Our final stop was the newly developing neighborhood La Joliette and the inaugural show of Galerie Gourvennec Ogor, whose director, Didier Gourvennec Ogor, used to work at the Gallery of Marseille’s late éminence grise Roger Pailhas, as did Art-o-Rama’s codirectors Gaïd Beaulieu-Lambert and Jérôme Pantalacci, and La Gad’s Deschin. The group exhibition included a touching video by Emmanuelle Antille and photographs accompanied by their depicted objects, tracked down in a fascinating social-research process by artist Benoit Broisat. Chatting about the move down south from Paris, dealer Gourvennec Ogor quipped: “As the joke by a French comic goes, ‘What is the first African town on the Dakar route? The answer: Marseille.’ ”
When I met Nice native Philippe Manzone, director of the Galerie Chantal Crousel, at the fair, he had explained, “Down here we feel more Italian than French.” And the Marseillais always compare their city to the Italian port of Naples. So Beaulieu-Lambert insisted that we go out for pizza to see if it made the crust. I noted that the pies at Saveur were the best I had ever eaten. “But of course,” the waiter told us. “Pizza was invented here in Marseille.”
It seemed that all the passengers of the incestuous Marseille art ship were assembled the last night in American dealer and psychoanalyst Pamela King’s garden, for the inauguration of Max Charvolen’s aptly named painting show “Escaliers, Murs, Sol / Jardin” (Stairs, Walls, Sun/Garden) at her space the American Gallery, which commands a panoramic view over the city and out to the sea. It also became evident that many of the local collectors are psychoanalysts, such as Marc Gensollen, owner of the much revered La Fabrique collection. King noted that she was pleasantly surprised when three monochrome paintings offered at the fair by Paris’s Torri Gallery turned out to be by Olivier Mosset. “It is unusual to find works of that level in this market,” she explained. As we tried our best to avoid talking about art for once, Portuguese critic Pedro Morais could not help but comment, “I like the scene here because it is so informal.” To be sure, Marseille seems as intimate and sophisticated as it is unruly and diverse, but perhaps slightly more urbane than the southern Italian port. Vive la difference!