Writing Residency Day 6:
But first I’d been invited on a guided visit of the contemporary art circuit in Arras with Alex, the cultural specialist at the mairie.
He was doing a special tour for Manoell Bouillet, who is going to use the circuit as a basis for a children’s writing workshop. This is an activity I’d love to offer, one day, so I was intrigued to see how Manoell built her project.
I’m a fan of guided visits, as I explained in my blog post Can I Waste Your Time?. At first sight, the exhibits in the village are pleasant to spot, but it’s not until you listen to a tour guide that you really look at and appreciate them. Unfortunately for non-French speakers, Alex doesn’t do the visits in English.
The theme of the circuit is the village’s heritage, and it is designed to make us think about what we have inherited – and what heritage we’re leaving future generations.
The visit began at the garden beside Le Kairn, which is NOT a private garden belonging to the bistro-bookshop. There are two exhibits here, and you can enter freely.
The first is a favourite with children. This pedal-powered ‘Carousel of Legends’ was created from scrap metal by local artist Pedro Frémy in collaboration with Richard Rewers. Richard is one of the members of La Machine, which is famous for its huge metallic animals that tour festivals in France and is based in Nantes.
Alex brought the legends to life with his storytelling. The Lake Isaby snake and Le Bécut (Cyclops) come from traditional Pyrenean legends, while the Ferme Andriu goat comes from a village legend. All of them feature local geography and monsters, and can be traced back to glaciation and the dangers of the mountains.
It’s interesting to see how legends change over time, each storyteller interpreting and modernising the story so that it appeals to new audiences. This is a form of living heritage, and Manoell had ideas of using Chinese Whispers in her workshop to demonstrate this point.
The next landmark is one you can’t miss: a marmot pushing (or retaining?) a rounded granite rock on top of a hillock, surrounded by circular beds of fruit bushes. You definitely need a guide to understand that this exhibit is all about what belongs in the valley and how long we should live in a place before we can consider we belong.
The marmot is a popular symbol of the Pyrenees – yet it isn’t indigenous; it was brought in from The Alps. Likewise, the Val d’Azun is largely limestone. The lumps of granite we can find – such as the Pierre du Balandrau in Argelès-Gazost – are erratics, dropped by the glacier when it retreated.
The Val d’Azun is a hanging valley, and was once under 600m of ice. And did you know that the Lac de Lourdes is the furthest glacial lake from this glacier?
Both the marmot and granite are ‘foreigners’ in the valley, yet they are so integrated that they’re often chosen to represent it. There’s a lesson there!
The visit continued along the route of the black signs. These 26 signs, in black and pink (pink is the extension in the lower part of the village) draw your attention, via a quiz, to diverse landmarks in the village.
If you are disappointed because some don’t highlight the most aesthetic features, this is a normal reaction. It’s deliberate. We’re being encouraged to look at objects we don’t normally notice, such as fences and old TV aerials. These pollutants are part of the heritage we’re leaving future generations.
I won’t describe all the exhibits, but I liked ‘Birth of the Globes’. These three works were created by three different artists on the theme of how man continues Nature’s work. We’re talking about buildings, here, which is why the materials used are wood, stone and clay. If you do the guided visit, ask Alex how the tree and the granite stone arrived here.
The visit finished at the labyrinth outside the church, where I learnt about some original uses of labyrinths in France.
One use was for people to take a meditative walk to the centre (there were no dead ends) and prepare themselves spiritually to meet God before entering church.
Another type of labyrinth was used by the Compagnons du Devoir (an organisation for developing manual skills, dating from the Middle Ages), who used a labyrinth to check the people entering a site. The bona fide workers would pass through in minutes, while imposters would be lost in the dead ends.
Many labyrinths have been destroyed – and the purpose of this one is to make us think about the heritage we don’t pass onto future generations.
It was great fun to work with Alex and Manoell. As we walked, we brainstormed ideas for exploiting the exhibits to create fun and meaningful writing exercises for kids. I’d love to participate in one of her workshops.
After such a thought-provoking morning I headed up to the Col des Bordères – the site of Pascal Gainza’s summer pastures – and took a delightful stroll with my protagonist Eole.
We went up to the Pic de Predoucet, where I spent the afternoon writing, mountain-spotting and watching clouds sneak in from backstage and dress the peaks…
…Which reminded me of costume designers Véronique Strub and Caroline back at the Maison des Arts. Now they’ve got rid of the two dead birds they found in the storeroom they’re busy with their pencils and mannequins.
But more about that tomorrow.