Barcelo at Palais des Papes (cf. Murakami at Versailles) Avignon & Musee Calvert preceded by some notes on losing the thread

This writing has by now turned into an Exquisite Corpse. I feel as if I’ve lost the thread I thought I was following leaving NZ, arriving HK, that I’d thought would be most durable, to do with the sense both of place and of displacement, the latter a function of the saturating of experience with mediated images, of information and communication technologies, which tend towards advertising, as the governing interest in their relentless encroachment. The difference between capital and advertising being then analogous to that between force and power. But I say I’ve lost this thread?

Do I mean like a thesis I have had to revise? Certainly, since Paris, I have not stopped to consider the relationship between place and advertising. And this has had to do with this relationship passing from being phenomenally present, as it were, one apparent in experience, as a screen, through which or before which what happens happens, or underlying, as a prior cultural knowledge or studium would, the point, or punctum, of experience. I am trying to say that although this relationship is there – as a cultural expectation – it has simply not been, since we’ve been in France, of paramount interest. Which is interesting in itself. In Berlin, there were the aporia surrounding the absence that is the Wall. An angle from which to consider the way the city advertises itself or represents itself against what one saw there, felt there. In Berlin, with the additional influence of having friends there, offering their interpretations, their points of view.

In Paris, and from Paris to here, I would say that the ‘postmodern’ line of questioning of the sense of place takes second place to a more old-fashioned sort of template, offered by the city, a daguerrotype, restated by the people, the media, and given in experience: to do with race and class, primarily, and the problems of assimilation of primarily Arab and African populations to the ideals of citizenship as stated from the Revolution. Going with this, the strikes that have been such a feature of our stay here. The co-opting of students by the unions to protest against the raising of the retirement age to 62. Here, it seems, old-fashioned politics prevail over the media concoction of ads and commercial interests.

We didn’t get to Villeneuve-Les-Avignon today because the bridge we would have taken was closed to cars by a march in demonstration that stretched right around half of Avignon itself, outside the old city walls. (Where in NZ there’d be a certain fear attached to and circumspection surrounding using the word ‘revolution,’ here the amplified marching song explicitly demanded revolution.) But this meant that a lot of people were put off entering the old city, and we had no queues to get in to see the Palace of the Popes, Palais des Papes. There was a delay in getting in but it was due to an ambulance blocking the entry. A visitor overcome by hunger? a jumper?

The ticket lady gave us the choice of chips or chips. Chips, however, were more expensive. So it became a difficult choice. Because chips with salt, and a further two toppings, cost more than salt with chips, with the same two further options of toppings.

We took the chips, paid the higher price, came out with a Passport to Avignon, knowing it’s always a dodgy thing having a Passport: what it usually means in France is reduced ticket price, the complete opposite of a free ‘pass,’ on the entry fee to additional monuments, museums, locations of interest, beyond that primarily stated. Our passports gave us access to the Palais des Papes, the Petit Palais, the exhibition inside the former, currently of works by Miquel Barcelo, and two other museums… But, beyond allowing us into the grand Palais, it was difficult, despite the ticket lady’s lengthy explanations, to know what else it was good for.

This time we accepted the offer of free audioguides – here perhaps insert an analysis of mediation by technologically effectuated commentary? – and imbibed a lot of information – ideologically inflected? – flatly delivered in Standard English, annoying, the apparatus heavy, one ear burning after a short time. Because with the handheld device comes the compulsion to use it, to key in the reference number for the place one is in. At. 3, for the big bare courtyard, first stop, explaining why the Papacy came to Avignon – or, as it was later put, why Rome was in Avignon… for almost two hundred years! In all the explanations there was no mention of the Anti-Popes. An ideologically inspired omission? Seems that, generally, over the period preceding Avignon’s Rome-yness, the Papacy was peripatetic. I can’t say I learnt a lot apart from that. Except perhaps from the ‘informative’ list of provisions for the Papal crowning. Outrageous numbers of animals, chickens, over 60, 000 eggs, and on and on. And the way animals were stacked on turning spits, tiered, it appeared, according to size. The smallest turning high above the beef carcasses, the boars, but no mention made of how the spit-roasters ascended to the little ones furthest from the fire. And were they naked when they made the ascent? Up ladders past tiers and tiers of turning browning beasts, bare, sooty, red and running with animal grease. Is that how it was done?

The painted rooms were wonderful. The papal bedroom a wonderland of curling vines, evocative of excessive consumption of local wines. Italian artists imported to deal with the tricky issue of perspective representation in the Pontiff’s library. Decorated, incongruously, with a forest and images of hunting and fishing. A man releasing a ferret. Three fishermen using net, line, spear, around a trough depicted with broad perspectival white borders. The magic of realistic representation let down by the relative scale of the symbolic space fished: hardly as large as a swimming pool. Children bathing. Oddly grey-coloured. As if schematic. Falconry. All with this lovely Rousseauean background of dense generic naive trees.

In the ‘high’ kitchen where the spit-roasting took place, mention was made of the squinches, allowing the transition from the four-sided room to the octagonal chimney. I snapped a squinch to show.

In the Grande Chapelle, we encountered the work of Miquel Barcelo, a native of Majorca. It didn’t take long for the work to grow on us. Memorable works of art. A Bacon crippled boy. A Giacometti burnt matchstick. And masks everywhere. Hung, so the blurb read, in Barcelo’s words, on the hooks left after Picasso’s last major exhibition here.

The final room on our tour, a vast vaulted hall divided by five columns, the wonder that it was directly below the Grande Chapelle.

We retreated from the Mistral into the car for our picnic. The demonstration had gone.

Back into Avignon to visit the Musee Calvert’s excellent collection, especially of Flemish, German and Dutch pre-renaissance art. I snapped some, in order of appearance: a polychromatic nude by Pierre Ambrogiani, painted in 1953; a detail of two men, by Pierre Journau; from upstairs, a painting depicting the Eden episodes, with animals fantastically anthropomorphised and expressing human emotions, and people in heaven having a hard time of it, looking like they’re in a celestial washing-machine in the clouds stuck on spin, this by Anon., circa sixteenth century, Flanders; a Louis David; a partial frame of the work by Charles-Hippolyte-Emile Lecomte-Vernet, for the tights-wearing youth with ear pressed against the wall, remembered by Balthus; the painted bust of the boy dates from the fifteenth century and is by Francesco Laurana; two gold wall-papered scenes of titillatory and fervid religious violence, German, fifteenth century; a detail of a stage scene, a show on a raised board, with backstage worker accepting a stool to use as a prop, by Pieter Brueghel junior; a Resurrection of Christ by Johann Koerbecke, 1456-1457, included because of the guy holding his friend’s nose and for it being the only work by this artist held by a French museum, the others presumably at home in Westphalia.

On our release from the Calvert Museum, we thought we’d take the long way around back to the car. Turned a corner, and suddenly a throng of extremely well-dressed Avignonians, thronging, with shopping bags on their arms. The road barred to traffic. Saturday afternoon.

Everybody seemingly in a hundred mile radius had donned their best duds and flocked to the shopping district of Avignon. It looked so like a special occasion I asked the fluoro-vested guy operating the gate to allow buses through what was up. Noone here, he said. But no, I said. We were here earlier and then there was noone here. Now everyone is here. And they’re looking at us like we could at least have made an effort and coordinated our outfits.

It’s always like this. But today, there’s noone here. Because it’s cold, he said.

Muscles cooked in their shells served on rice with vegetables and turkey meat, cooked by Q. and J. Wine, again very good, a Luberon, appellation Luberon controlee, L’Aiguebrun, 2009. The green glass with these images in relief around its neck: a pyramid-roofed tower beside a tall yew or poplar.