A project produced within the framework of the Nouveaux Commanditaires action proposed by the Fondation de France. An artwork owned by the Conseil Général de la Nièvre co-funded by the City of Pougues-les-Eaux.
Mediation: Le Consortium, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Dijon and the Parc Saint Léger, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Pougues-les-Eaux.
Wilfrid Almendra, Le Splendid, 2013
Devised by Wilfrid Almendra (born in 1972 in Cholet) and created in the eastern part of the thermal park, near the building where Pougues water was bottled—which now accommodates the exhibitions of the contemporary art centre—Le Splendid is a perennial artwork in the form of a playground, based on two memories from bygone eras.
On the one hand, Wilfrid Almendra’s construction emerges as a small concrete island on the site where, between 1884 and 1977, the Splendid Hôtel was built, which was later destroyed, after having served as a shelter for the German army during the Occupation. It also evokes the thermal history of the park. Concrete modules—whose forms evoke plates bent by tectonic movements or slanted launching ramps—spring from the earth in four parts, with irregular lines that follow the foundations of the old building, allowing identifiable traces of the ground plane of the former hotel to show through here and there. Through the excavation of both the plan and a buried past, spaces that have long been demolished suddenly re-emerge in the present as artificial and flawless ruins, containing many footholds so that they can be walked on and are thus fit for the enthusiastic assaults of children.
These heterogeneous modules are punctuated by various elements of outdoor furniture with geometric designs. They form the false archaeological framework within which the central structure is built: a metal tower and coloured steel plates standing nearly 8 metres tall. In an architectural reference to Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys, aka Constant, this time, the interlocking beams that rise from the centre of the excavated framework, and which it is possible to climb on, allow the artwork to shift into the context of a certain history of ideas. Here, the tower refers to the only fragment made during a utopian town-planning project entitled New Babylon, which Constant developed in the 1960s. This architectural ensemble was designed for the Moon—a site free of construction—and was supposed to represent a perfect example of a city for a future world in which human beings, finally freed of their laborious obligations, would be exclusively focused on their leisure activities. The housing estate was vertical and elevated off the ground, resting on solid pillars. It promoted a nomadic lifestyle in a world built to respond to the new breed of humans’ desires for mobility and creativity.
In Pougues-les-Eaux, Wilfrid Almendra interweaves histories and forms in order to produce a hybrid and artificial landscape, and to present a broken-up monument to the creative enthusiasm of children. While his interest in Constant attests to a critical continuation with respect to an ideal of standardised and individualised suburban life, the artist nonetheless joins the dots for us towards a comparison founded on games and the notion of play, targeting young people with his arguments in favour of “playing together”, built on the remains of a memory that is thereby restored.
In the beginning, there was the discovery of the sole photographic remains of the Monument for reconstruction tower presented by Dutch Situationist painter and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant) at the major exhibition “E55” dedicated to energy, held in Rotterdam in 1955. This was a metonymic research phase of his more international utopian project and social model entitled New Babylon. A nomadic housing estate in a society liberated from the necessity of labour, it was intended to illustrate a world in which talking about art or architecture as distinct disciplines no longer made sense, just as talking about houses, roads and workplaces no longer held any meaning. On the contrary, the city would be devised as a collective, creative and playful construction, as a new activity for transforming urban space. Monument for reconstruction thus asserted its symbolic dimension to the glory of this future world. It was placed right in the middle of a zoo, presented as an elevated structure made of interlocking metal beams and colourful wood, around which children played under the benevolent gazes of their mothers.
Over sixty years after it was dismantled, Wilfrid Almendra’s gaze has honed in on the image of this tower, whose structure and title he appropriates. There is nothing accidental about this encounter. On the contrary, while the form and values that the edifice represent are symptomatic of the architectural projects for the reconstruction of Europe of the time, they are also central to the French artist’s fields of investigation. His work has long observed, re-contextualised, re-evaluated and consistently re-deployed the problematics raised by these collective utopias, over which contemporary Western society structured by individualistic aspirations has since triumphed. Wilfrid Almendra sees in Constant’s proposition both the expression of an aspiration identified in the history and the technical postulate of its implementation. The craftsmanship of Monument for reconstruction aims to demonstrate that it is possible to adapt the means of the industry to the construction sector in order to produce, as Jean Prouvé claimed, “houses manufactured like automobiles” while at the same time satisfying the needs and economic constraints of the era.1 Furthermore, beyond the utopian project of New Babylon, the tower presents itself to its viewers as an open architecture whose spaces are defined by colourful plates, with obvious formal complexity but without any affirmed functional attribution, thus leaving Wilfrid Almendra free to invent a future for it.
As for his series Killed in Action (Case Study Houses) (2009)—his plastic research into the ground planes of the Californian Case Study Houses, a programmatic post-war construction experiment of ultramodern, functional and economical housing units—he would use this concrete occurrence as support to allow him to evolve towards forms, scales, functions and situations generated by his own artistic practice while at the same time sustaining and extending the problematics of the latter. Since Wilfrid Almendra’s art operates by way of a constant to-and-fro between the spheres of the so-called white cube and public space, basing a work on Monument for reconstruction today constitutes an answer for him, in a certain sense, to a debate that is as time-worn as it is arid, which consists of placing these practices back to back. For this artist who is a product of globalisation, who inevitably considers the question from a globalised perspective, it is the chance to affirm a personal approach that is just as informed by displacement and appropriationism as it by local roots. The project thus also naturally makes use of the mobility inherent to these four sculptures that will travel from art spaces to other specific contexts, depending on the professional opportunities available and the problematics it will encounter.
The expedition that Wilfrid Almendra has embarked on for Monument for reconstruction thus begins in Faute-sur-Mer, in the region of Charente-Maritime, France. The plots of this touristic village on the west coast of France were partially built on flood-prone areas and were emblematic of the exponential and irrational development of the leisure-based society of the Glorious Thirties in France. In 2010, nature reasserted itself in the form of a rare and violent storm that annihilated these fragile constructions. Once the sea had withdrawn and the debris were swept, the artist left in search of veranda posts and other structural elements from the destroyed homes, scattered among the surrounding refuse stations. The sculptor “traced” these materials that were to become the materials that gave substance to two sculptures interpreting Constant’s tower in miniature, whose title he reversed. Evidently, Reconstruction for a Monument I and II underlines a kind of collapse of the individual suburban utopia and relegates Monument for reconstruction to an outmoded historical moment, which this sculptural reinterpretation nonetheless prevents from fading into oblivion. Having said that, it is hard to believe that Wilfrid Almendra has any intention of positioning himself as a ‘righter of wrongs’. Furthermore, there is nothing cynical or sentimental about the use of the remains from the Xintia storm. He demonstrates sincere empathy for the victims while remaining reserved and humble. Irrespective of what may be read into their titles, neither of the two artworks is intended as a monument. Their mobility and sites of display, from the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain de Paris to the Museum of Contemporary Art de Chicago, neutralise a Symbolist interpretation and distance them from any finality as memorials. What ought to be seen in these sculptures is the first phase of a circuit through which the artist will cause their form to evolve in accordance with the contexts encountered.
These resolutely postmodern activations will first and foremostly be expressed through an objection to New Babylon’s nomadic principle, through the perennial nature of the installation. The continuation of the project effectively distances itself from the universalism of the Situationists to affirm that the social function of art as it may be captured by a French sculptor in this early twenty-first century involves the long-term inscription of the work within established contextual problematics. This position was to lead Wilfrid Almendra to suggest installations at two sites that are poles apart in geographical, cultural, and sociological terms, yet undeniably complementary within his process of exploration of the contemporary stakes of the modernist aesthetic: the French countryside and the southwest American desert. He would find in this the artistic motivation of a new attribution to the monument revisited in a single proposition designed for a very young audience. From then on it would be a playground. This shift in meaning towards a functional object rendered interactive by children constituted, in his view, a response just as legitimate as it was generous with respect to the enthusiasm shown by the children identified in a pictured from 1955.
From one side of the Atlantic, he responded to a commission from the Nouveaux commanditaires programme for the park of the Centre d’Art Contemporain du Parc Saint Léger, just a few doors down from Nevers in Burgundy. The artistic institution emerged from the French political ideal of culture as the determining element in the development of infrastructure on the territory in order to alleviate the so-called ‘French desert’. In the United States, he chose the Texan city of Marfa, on the border of another desert—a desert in climactic terms this time, but not at all an artistic desert, since well before him the tutelary figure of Donald Judd had moved there. This superstar of minimal art settled there in the early 1970s to escape the madness of New York. The town subsequently became an artistic Mecca. Two different continents, two visions of the urban exodus of art, two parallel adventures that were seemingly poles apart, even in terms of their types of addresses. In France, it was the community that he met through the Fondation de France, in charge of the programme, who commissioned the artist to work on the creation of a games complex, while in Marfa, Wilfrid Almendra adopted Donald Judd’s position (as domineering as it was philanthropic) by anticipating the community’s request. In Burgundy, Monument for reconstruction aimed to be the hub of a modular environment. He cleared an elevated site to extend onto a field of the thermal park, in the very place where Le Splendid Hôtel once stood, which had a notorious reputation for having been occupied by the German army during World War II. The site of the establishment—today only its foundations remain—is reactivated to become a kind of archaeological complex featuring metal tubes and concrete slabs. Based on the building’s ground plane, Wilfrid Almendra highlights certain parts of the hotel’s hold on the soil through the earth’s movements. The concrete phantoms of the library, of a bedroom or the salon thus emerge from the lawn to invent play areas. Built in immediate proximity to a suburban area, this practical sculpture both accentuates and makes use of the proportions and standard manufacturing materials. Conversely, its American cousin conserves the original height of sixteen metres. The assembly of billboard structures—attributes that are symptomatic of the large towns of Sun Belt of which the town of Marfa is the hub—are paradoxically affirmed in their verticality as the structuring element of a typically suburban educational and sports complex that destabilises a predominantly horizontal city. Wilfrid Almendra serves here as the perfect counterweight of Donald Judd, who advocated that the existing built-up landscape should be used as the yardstick for the artworks produced, thus imagining a harmonious combination of old and new. He wrote at the time that he had “taken care to try to include the existing buildings within an overall complex. […] The old buildings must not downgrade the recent ones nor should the recent ones denigrate the old. The conflicts that we see everywhere between old and new can be avoided.”2 As technical as it is conceptual, the critique of the autonomy of art conveyed by Judd’s specific objects may appear to be somewhat brutal, but above all, it is dynamic and alive in the eyes of the artist who sees in the installation of the object in Marfa a logical evolution of the urban community.3
Monument for reconstruction in its revised edition above all reflects the distance taken by Wilfrid Almendra with respect to the tutelary figures that he invokes. What remains of Constant’s original form after this journey during which it has been so unabashedly overturned by the sculpture? It is an obvious and key corpus within Wilfrid Almendra’s artistic career that paves the way for a contemporary re-evaluation of an ideal that has since fallen into disuse. The cartography mapped out by the occurrences and phases of the project effectively find echoes well beyond the sculpture’s work, representing so many actualisations of the inherently Situationist aspiration of a continually evolving collective creation. From Charente to Chicago, from Nièvre to Texas, the appearance of the artwork is considered as a network as per Bruno Latour’s understanding of the term: as a dynamic relational combination between humans and things that act as mediators or intermediaries with each other.4 We are thus able to broach the artistic work and its situation or, in other words, the work itself as well as the way in which it is understood within its context of production. Each of the works finds its validity in a constructive back-and-forth between author, viewer, and user, in a lovely extension of Constant’s plea, for whom “the process escapes the control of one individual, but it matters little to know who had the original idea or who will later contribute to it.”5 Once put in place, Wilfrid Almendra’s sculptures continue to build within the community, through the empiricism of the gazes and movements of children.