Ulysses’ Dream

Aspects of the Villa Carmignac’s exhibition Ulysses’ Dream are meant to situate viewers into a ritualistic, narrative, and interactive space. The journey itself from La Tour Fondue in Hyéres, France, to Porquerolles Island will immediately get attendees imagining away the scores of tourists, the safety of cell phones, and the powerful engine of the passenger ferry. After climbing a hill and gaining entrance to the grounds, they are met first by a greeter who offers words of welcome and a selection of tonics, then by a hulking bronze sculpture of a local dragon. Seeming to guard the entrance to the villa, Miquel Barceló’s Alycastre embarks viewers on a sublime journey that wanders among such themes as the sea, labyrinths, memory, mythology, shipwrecks, and monsters/monstrosity.

Miquel Barceló, L’Alycastre (2018).

The wedding celebration cursed by a vengeful demigod, our hero and his traveling companions found themselves cast upon a hot, rocky, unfriendly shore. The inhabitants spoke a tongue unfamiliar to our hero, who kept his own mouth veiled lest the demigod’s curse be legible upon his lips and he be exiled from the community. Feeling ill-used in the idle days before he could resume his journey, our hero searched for ways to quell the brewing mutiny. To no avail—until, while stocking up on provisions along the Road of Salt, he encountered a face that held the promise of allure and glory. Or the promise at least of something beside crude assays at translation and the endless consultation of maps. Not a woman in the flesh, but rather her painted likeness aside an inscription even a newcomer to these lands was able to discern: The Dream of Ulysses. “Whatever that is,” our hero told his companions, “let’s go to it.”

Jeppe Hein, Path of Emotions (2018).

The experience of the exhibition merges with that of life in a succession of variable events that is never unique nor designed to contain knowledge.

After a moment’s hesitation, I agreed to take my shoes off before descending a staircase latticed overhead by the venous strands of Janaina Mello Landini’s Ciclotrama 50 (wind). Tracking with my toes which type of stone tiling might represent sand or the ocean or whatever quickly gave way to the mere novelty of being barefoot amidst fancy art. Also ebbing into a sense of novelty was the space’s maze-like multicursality, designed by guest curator Francesco Stocchi and scenographer Margherita Palli. Paula Burleigh’s essay “A Journey Outside Ordinary,” which appears in the show’s illuminating catalogue, describes other art exhibitions that have incorporated a labyrinthine form: 1954’s “Labyrinth for Children” at the 10th Milan Triennale, 1964’s “Dylaby” at the Stedelijk Museum, and 1966’s “HON – en katedral” at the Modernad Museet; the drywall alcoves, numerous mirrors, and trompe l’oeil staircases of the Villa Carmignac were more signifiers of labyrinths, on the other hand, than anything that might actually confuse one’s progression from entrance to exit. Similarly, the catalogue contains inserts not only of works in the exhibition but of mirrored paper, allowing a reader the limited agency of altering the sequence of images and to come across their own distorted reflection between Roy Lichtenstein’s Vicki! and Niki de Sant Phalle’s Vénus. While it’s correct that other approaches might have made the experience a truer simulation—for example, removing the plaques from the artwork (or the table of contents and page numbers from the catalogue), or interspersing unknown artists and fabrications among Fondation Carmignac’s exalted collection, or providing real opportunities for interaction and disorientation and potential death—I found myself more than content with the novelty and the signifiers. I had enough going on.

It wasn’t just the foreignness of the environs, the disharmony of the traveling party, the assuredness of ongoing shipwrecks, and the tension of awaiting the effects of the demigod’s curse that had rendered even a yearning for Home a total farce. For the last five years, our hero had been waging a perpetual campaign against a hostile neighbor, the few cessations of violence doing little to offer him time for attending to his own life and his own desires. Days before the wedding, the hostilities had ended in an amicable stalemate, and—while the journey and the celebration were a welcome change from the frontlines—our hero hardly could remember how to move about, how to converse, how to fill time without a constant stream of communication from the front that now or now or now or now could announce ultimate victory or defeat. He was also being reassigned in two months’ time to an emeritus position teaching the art of war to students in the provinces, and he had yet to secure lodgings or ready himself to confront his students’ desire to kill and be killed. Combat, in a sense, had made all of his decisions for him, and now the vacillations of the question What’s next? between the very short and the very long term froze him in a perpetual impasse. In a crude way, the curse of the demigod had come as an almost welcome reneging of the recent peace. Would our hero’s trials never end? There was a comfort in no.

Culture is seen as an agent capable of identifying a possibility of escape through one’s personal epic, and art as a necessary compass and metronome of our journey.

Benoît Pype, Le Sablier Millénaire (2021).

The white right angles of the gallery space’s labyrinth is contrasted by the ethereal whimsy of one of the most remarkable works on display, Jorge Peris’s Héroes boca a bajo, a room-sized labyrinth composed of tilted ship masts and swooping sails and ropes. A layer of water sits atop the installation’s glass ceiling, casting the sun into rippling textures that make participants feel peacefully drowned. Though there is plenty of stunning two-dimensional work—Adger Cowans’s photograph Icarus and Gerhard Richter’s caustically clownish painting of his father, Horst mit Hund, for example—the relic-like nature of the exhibition’s sculptures and the immersiveness of the installations lend themselves best to the spell the space is casting. One year’s worth of meager seepage from Benoît Pype’s Le Sablier Millénaire—a 35 x 55 cm., coal-tar pitch-filled hourglass that will take one thousand years to drain—is a dizzyingly sudden and stark confrontation with temporal vastness. Attendees will hear an untitled creation by Micol Assaël and take it to be ambient noise at first, albeit obtrusive. Perhaps… a work of art being installed or uninstalled mid-show? For me, turning a corner and seeing the installation triggered a hint of fight-or-flight, or at least I should tell someone about this. But there was an attendant right there– who didn’t seem to be doing anything about– oh, who was there (and always there) to make sure that nobody stuck their hand into a dark square in the drywall that emitted a rush of air and a glimpse of whirring blades and sparking wires. An apt minotaur for such a labyrinth.

Micol Assaël, Untitled.

By the time our hero’s journey brought him to the maze, only his most steadfast companion remained, an actor whose renown had crowned him with many laurels. Around the first bend, there was the face he’d seen at the saltmarshes—the same face, but changed. It stretched lengthwise in shiny fractured mosaic tiles of unknown material, a tableau the size of a table at a cursed wedding feast. “Faire et Défaire Pénélope that’s the rule,” my companion said, speaking as if possessed by a more beneficent spirit. But he was right about one thing. That was her name: Penelope. After innumerable trials in gallery after ever-more-subterranean gallery—a hundred levitating fish, the ghost of a hanged man, an automaton brandishing instruments of castration, a steel-jawed dog that chewed femurs like tears of Chios—we reached the one, the true Penelope I’d seen beneath a sky of kites. I looked to my companion for validation, but he had nothing to say about this Penelope, and as much as it distressed me I knew that our path lay still onward. After breaking the spell of a cave whose walls danced in a tryptic of sheer nightmare, we emerged to the final Penelope. “Ulysses,” my friend seemed to address an absent companion, but one who’d been there unrecognized the whole time, “why do you come so late poor fool?

While walking through the labyrinth, visitors are no longer spectators; they become the author of their experience by revealing a time that they have constructed for themselves in the image of their freedom of choice and self-determination.


Adrián Villar Rojas | The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (XII) (The Bison) (2015)

Kit and I were so exhilarated by the exhibition—it had so thoroughly reversed the trip’s stasis of unease and regret—that we were both feeling sad to find ourselves at the exit after only about ninety minutes. So it was also with a desire to prolong the visit’s bewitchment that we decided to explore the Villa Carmignac’s sculpture garden. Because we had just experienced what seemed, in its direct aftermath, to be one of the greatest things in the world, we were downright gobsmacked to find the sculpture garden another of the greatest things in the world. The way that individual installations as well as the meandering paths of the garden as a whole through scrubland and walls of bamboo continued the exhibition’s themes of wandering, of labyrinths, of sudden encounters, served to further dissolve the boundary between museum and garden, sculpture and nature, interior and exterior, to further extend that Friday’s sense of surreal liminality. To wit, the first stop after we’d emerged into the 90-degree Mediterranean sunlight plunged us into the most utter darkness yet, an outbuilding that contained Olafur Eliasson’s Object Defined by Activity (Now and Then), unlit except for strobe lights that made three fountains of water appear to be solid objects. Most enthralling of all was the labyrinth-within-a-labyrinth-within-a-labyrinth that was Jeppe Hein’s Path of Emotions, which consisted of head-high, mirrored, rhombic posts arrayed in three congruent spirals that fractured the self, the bamboo, and the surrounding strangers into vertical strips both immediate and distal. At the center of the Path was a concrete well shaft covered by a grate, covered by a filigree map of the Path itself; looking down the shaft was like looking into the very center of the labyrinth, of Porquerolles Island, of the Mediterranean, of myth itself. And, reflected in the water below, there you were. Another maze.

Jeppe Hein, Path of Emotions (2018).




All photographs courtesey Joe Sacksteder.
All italicized quotes are from Francesco Stocchi’s introduction in the exhibition catalogue. “Dream of Ulysses”. Edited with text by Francesco Stocchi. Text by Achille Bonito Oliva, Paula Burleigh, Mark Wigley. Dilecta, Editions, 2022.

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Last Map

Aspects of the Villa Carmignac’s exhibition Ulysses’ Dream are meant to situate viewers into a ritualistic, narrative, and interactive space. The journey itself from La Tour Fondue in Hyéres, France, to Porquerolles Island will immediately get attendees imagining away the scores of tourists, the safety of cell phones, and the powerful engine of the passenger […]