Churches of St. Savinien and St. Pierre, Hôtel de Ménoc

Over the centuries, the tiny town of Melle (4,000 souls at last count) has accumulated an enormous history, crisscrossed, among others, by Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Vikings, Arabs, countless medieval pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela, English troops (in the wake of the Hundred Years' War), and Protestant Reformers (in the wake of Calvin's visit to nearby Poitiers). This particularly dense per capita past provided not simply the background but the backbone of “Proximités” a summer-long exhibition presented in three of Melle's historic monuments, with works by twenty-one international artists coming mainly from the vast contemporary art collections of the FRAC Poitou-Charentes and the FRAC Limousin. Admittedly, in France as elsewhere, there is nothing particularly original about the juxtaposition of contemporary creation and historical settings, whether churches, châteaux, or abandoned factories. But where most projects of this kind consciously or unconsciously play on the contrasts between present and past, “Proximités,” as the name implies, opted for a much subtler pursuit of parallels and echoes.

The high point of this encounter in space and time was Paysage ruisselant (Streaming landscape), 1998, a monumental installation by French artist Françoise Quardon, whose presence in Melle, via a public commissim for the town square, was the catalyst for the whole of this singular undertaking. Filling the nave of the Romanesque church of St. Savinien, Quardon's enigmatic orchestration of hanging and trailing forms—alternately sewn, embroidered, or painted by hand (the artist's) and digitized or cast in resin—metamorphosed a panoply of everyday objects into the stuff that dreams (and nightmares) are made of. In sheer physical terms, the luminous volume of the nave gave the work a dynamism that would be impossible in a conventional exhibition setting. But the style and spirit of the mid-eleventh-century structure, with its massive masonry and stylized decoration (including the little erotic reliefs that greet attentive viewers at the main portal), also served to liberate visitors' minds from narrow museum mentalities. Like the sinners, saints, and monsters that people medieval art, Quardon's flying serpent encased in folkloric upholstery material, her river of fishnet, fiberglass, and resin, and her silk-screened movie heroine crying crystal tears meandered with impunity between fact and fantasy. No matter how different the materials and the metaphors from those of their medieval forebears. the uncertainties and anxieties these visual vignettes expressed were uncannily similar.

Unobtrusively installed elsewhere in the church, smaller pieces by Martine Aballéa, Barbara Kruger, and others played on these same tensions between outward form and inner feelings. By contrast, the choice of works in the somewhat more grandiose pilgrimage church of St. Pierre was often too literal, with a few notable exceptions, such as Michel Blazy's Sans titre (Derviches tourneurs) (Untitled [Whirling dervishes]), 1993—plastic bags mischievously dancing their way between sacred and profane in the nave of the church—and Pierre Thoretton's hypnotic video loop Ciao Mama, 1996.

But the third site, a Gothic mansion rebuilt in the nineteenth century to serve as a courthouse, was again exploited with a judicious mix of intelligence and irreverence. In this curiously public-private, medieval-modern setting, the deadpan juxtaposition of photographer Patrick Faigenbaum's well-known portraits of Roman emperor statues and statuelike Roman aristocrats, to cite only one example, acquired both an emotional depth and an ironic patina they would never have on a museum wall. Indeed, apart from the sheer pleasure of the proximities encountered, perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the experience is that every work of art is site-specific. Before or after the fact.

Miriam Rosen