Artists France

Pistoletto rethinks Bordeaux

City biennial explores issues of identity and citizenship

William Kentridge (above, "Black Box", 2005) is one of the artists selected by the Italian

bordeaux. Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto is being given carte blanche over Bordeaux in his role as artistic director of Evento, the city’s biennial cultural festival (6-16 October). The arte povera artist is developing a new vision of the city based on his belief that art should be a catalyst for social change.

In conjunction with the Cittadellarte foundation (Pistoletto’s organisation that seeks to inspire social change through creative projects), the artist has invited international and local artists to create a city-wide network of installations, shows and performances exploring citizenship, inclusion and difference—all highly controversial topics in France where President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of pandering to far-right nationalists as a vote-grabbing ploy to win a second term in next year’s election.

Adding to the controversy is that Pistoletto was granted a free hand over Bordeaux by the city’s mayor Alain Juppé, who also happens to be France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Juppé has repeatedly distanced himself from Sarkozy’s anti-immigrant politics which have come in the form of police attacks on gypsies, quotas for immigrant expulsions, and the closing of France’s borders to refugees from Tunisia following the recent revolution.

Bordeaux, like many port cities, has a large immigrant population. This may explain why Juppé invited Pistoletto to curate the biennial. “Juppé doesn’t come from art, but he understands the importance of the artistic phenomenon in the dynamic of the life of a society. He has a humanistic vision,” Pistoletto says.

The artist says the biennial is apolitical, commenting that “art is neither left-wing nor right-wing… it’s a humanistic phenomenon,” but the event comes at a politically charged moment with the Arab Spring in full swing in North Africa. “The revolt in the Mediterranean is for me a very important one,” Pistoletto says. The region has been a focus of Cittadellarte’s activities and research since 2002. “I’m worried because I don’t know if those behind the revolt have the capacity to govern. A city has the same problems: it is a microcosm and the problems of the world are concentrated in every city.”

In Bordeaux these problems are particularly concentrated in the district around the Saint-Michel Basilica, one of the oldest and most ethnically mixed sections of the city. It is here and in neighbouring areas such as the Grand Parc council estate that Pistoletto has been working with local associations to draw them into a “re-evolution” of the city.

“When a public body decides on a project, it’s important that people be able to respond, to participate in defining the concept and seeing it through,” Pistoletto says. “But people aren’t able to participate and they revolt when they aren’t satisfied. They have to be taught how to understand, to work together, to negotiate—and this is what we are doing.”

While Pistoletto shies at the notion of political art, he does not hesitate to address confrontational subjects. One of Evento’s central themes is “roots”, a reference to the city’s colonial days when slavery was a main source of wealth. Work by artists such as South African William Kentridge and Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou, best known for addressing post colonialism and issues of identity in his work, will be juxtaposed with the ethnographical collections of the Aquitaine Museum. Although Pistoletto’s own work will not be on show, according to the artist the whole show will be a “Pistoletto work”.

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