THE DAY I LANDED for the Printemps de l’Art Contemporain, outgoing and incoming French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande crossed paths on the red carpet at the Elysée Palace in Paris, national politics took a left, and the headlines read: “Le Bling-bling, c’est fini.” Yet the Côte d’Azur was aglitter with stars farther east as the red carpets were rolled out for the Cannes Film Festival, demonstrating the perennial glamour of France. As the car radio started to announce the newly appointed government ministers, our driver summed up the European state of affairs: “My brother is camping near the city in a tent and a tux so he can meet producers.”
We arrived at L’Estaque industrial port for the premiere of Le Box, a former slaughterhouse turned showcase for Marc and Marie-Hélène Féraud’s collection. “The bling-bling is just starting here,” yelled an enthusiastic man scurrying up the ramp, and indeed, Marseille’s “spring of contemporary art” is just a prelude to the city’s reign next year as European Capital of Culture. Inside, the white walls were hung with understated compositions and the spacious center was sparsely inhabited by sculptures such as Oscar Tuazon’s spiderlike Orphan and the scrunched aluminum Hors Gabarit, by Pugnaire and Raffini. Opened under the auspices of the collector’s M-ARCO Foundation, the space is located far from the city center, surrounded by his company warehouses, in the hopes of exposing contemporary art to an unusual audience. Newly a Marseillais, the young director of Galeries Lafayette St Ferréol, Alexandre Liot, has the same idea: “We are going to dedicate most of an entire floor to art exhibitions,” programmed by members of Marseille Expo, the association of local art organizations. That night at least, the entire art entourage of Marseille, not to mention Aix-en-Provence, was there in full force, and the artists, curators, and critics were finally swept down the ramp with the empty glasses just as the door closed.
The next morning was a tour of the Friche la Belle de Mai, a converted match factory with exhibition spaces, a restaurant and skateboard arena, and the Astérides artist residency program. Director Alain Arnaudet led us around the site, where cranes were working full speed ahead to finish a $27 million expansion for the big year, to include a gigantic terrace with a panoramic view over the city for performance and projections. There was a palpable feeling of something on the edge of becoming. A real cultural playground, the complex will be the nexus of the 2013 activities. Nearby at Galerie Porte Avion, artist Paul-Armand Gette was exposing “Autour du point 0,” a history of his “0m” project on the nature of landscape (including a certain fertile female region) since 1970. Hanging out in the courtyard, the artist took some flower-embroidered panties from his briefcase. “We collaborated on an underwear Christmas tree in the early ’90s,” curator Hou Hanru explained. If I hadn’t already figured it out, critic Pedro Morais noted: “I know him from Paris; he’s a fetishist.”
That night the openings were in the hilly Le Panier quarter, where the local Mafia still quibbles over such things as gelato-selling rights. Triangle France had mounted the group exhibition “Les Possédé(e)s” at HorsLesMurs, curated by Dorothée Dupuis; next door Jérémy Laffon was showing video and sculpture at Vidéochroniques. After an atmospheric walk through the Place Sadi Carnot with curators Hanru and Evelyne Jouanno, I arrived at La Compagnie for an exhibition of Myr Muratet’s raw and intimate photographs of Romani living near Paris’s Gare du Nord. Then it was time for a delicious Egyptian shish kebab on a backstreet near the Cours Julien, the only dining establishment to be found open at midnight.
On Friday I hit the galleries with Marseille Expo’s Caroline Coignard, starting with Galerie Gourvennec Ogor. Madame Naïla Saadé, whose family company owns Marseille’s striking new Zaha Hadid–designed tower, arrived in her black limo and we exited to hit the streets downtown, which were heaving with people having a good time. “In Marseille you get the impression that nobody ever works because they are always sitting in cafés,” Coignard explained. At Fondation Vacances Bleues, resident artist Karine Rougier had produced delicate dreamlike drawings based on the souvenirs of other people’s vacations; David Scher’s show at the American Gallery comprised drawings resembling cryptic landscapes populated by strange creatures that were actually expressions of sensorial perceptions.
After an obligatory stop at Brasserie Les Danaïdes on Stalingrad Square for a demi-citron, we were ready to confront the weekend culture marathon “48h Chrono” taking place at Friche la Belle de Mai. It was already filling up with people, some of them watching butterflies emerging from chrysalises, part of artists Gethan & Myles’s The Last Swallow. In the corner was a pile of beer cans taken from a derelict beach by the old port. “It is a wonderful spot to watch the sunset, and nobody really goes there except the homeless,” Gethan explained. The next day the artists planned to go and clean it up while enjoying the evanescent moment. “Marseille doesn’t give a fuck,” Myles noted. “It’s like Brixton on the Med.”
Down the hill in the Longchamp neighborhood, the organized chaos of a street party was heating up around Où gallery and La Gad, where the installation “Battle” had been created with the fractured, sparring work of artists Francisco Da Mata and Véronique Rizzo. A striking geometric composition, by Rizzo, was being projected on the black grid of a facade, accompanied by composer David Merlo’s electric guitar. Artist Olivier Zol was producing tasty bites out of a van. “We are having explosions of the mouth, the ears, and the eyes!” dealer Axelle Galtier exclaimed, beckoning a man in a window. “I like the way they do things here,” Quebecois artist Guillaume Clermont observed. “Just set up on the street without permission, and the neighbors don’t seem to care.”
Later the festivities migrated to the club L’Embobineuse, where artist Alexander Grube and Assétou Koné would perform as Ideal Corpus, warming up the stage for burlesque artist Lulu Devine Dupré. We arrived and went directly upstairs, through the costume storage of the former theater, to a large salon where Dupré was getting a fake tattoo and a cook was offering up some chow. By the time the cool kids started playing their brand of “house minimale–UK garage–kuduro–baile funk–cold wave,” the place was thumping and smoking, a dude with a mohawk was stirring up the mosh pit, and Ecstasy was being passed around. As people here say without fail whenever things, well, happen: “C’est Marseille!”