Letter from: Porquerolles

On the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, Fondation Carmignac immerses visitors in art and nature

Words by Francesca Perry

To get to the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, you must take a boat from the French city of Hyères on the Côte d’Azur. Once there, the 12.5 sq km island is home to more bikes than cars, and despite a busy harbour and pretty village, it is wild: a rocky outcrop covered in pine and eucalyptus trees, it is part of the Unesco-protected Port-Cros National Park.

A popular stop for day-trippers (with only 200 residents of its own), Porquerolles last year welcomed its first major arts destination, Fondation Carmignac. Located on 15ha of former farmland, it comprises gallery spaces in a villa and landscaped gardens, all dedicated to exhibiting art drawn from the private Carmignac collection, amassed by investment banker Édouard Carmignac. There was no public access until Carmignac bought his late friend’s estate on the island to transform the site into a centre for art immersed in nature.

The Sarah Lucas show is installed in the villa’s former domestic spaces. Credit: Luc Boegly / David Desrimais Éditeur

With the help of GM Architectes Associés and Atelier Marc Barani, Carmignac and his son Charles, director of the foundation managing the collection, expanded the Henri Vidal-designed house (which, although built in the 1980s, resembles a traditional provençal villa). This being Unesco-protected land, spaces were carved out from an expanded basement, so as not to impact the landscape. 2000 sq m of lofty, subterranean exhibition space was created, with the former house upstairs repurposed into more gallery space. The surrounding landscape was gently designed by Louis Benech and curated in order to exhibit artworks.

Fondation Carmignac is open to the public from April to November each year; this is its second season. Every year, the foundation invites a curator to put together a show drawing on the collection; it also invites selected artists to spend time on the island and create site-responsive artwork for the grounds.

Miquel Barceló’s Alycastre (2018) at the entrance to the villa. Credit: Fondation Carmignac / Camille Moirenc

This year, there is a group show The Source, and Sarah Lucas’s first solo exhibition in France, both curated by Chiara Parisi. Before entering the exhibitions, you must remove your shoes — one of the ‘rituals’ of the curated experience. Walking around galleries barefoot, senses heightened, you become aware of the varying temperatures of the stone floor. It lends a distinctly informal, almost domestic, mood to the visit, enhanced by large sofa cushions scattered across the floor (a project designed by Stéphanie Marin, inviting you to practically lie down to view the art). But this is no ordinary home: the double-height gallery spaces are laid out like a cruciform church and lit, in the crossing, by a showstopping 8.5m by 10m glass roof topped with a shallow pool of water above. The wind vibrates the water while the sun beams through, casting rippling shadows on the floor.

Although packed with great works, The Source feels like a commercial gallery presentation — an Elmgreen & Dragset sculpture here, an Egon Schiele drawing there, a Roy Lichtenstein painting there. Parisi’s theme is meant to be open to interpretation; it’s hard to pin down. Moments of intrigue resonate in the works which form a relationship with the architecture — such as Tony Matelli’s Weed (2017), an artificial plant growing out of the floor, or Micol Assaël’s site-specific Le Vent d’Eau (2019), a trail of magnetic plates ascending the staircase.

Ed Ruscha’s Sea of Desire (2018) can be found on an abandoned tennis court at the end of the garden trail. Credit: Fondation Carmignac / Marc Domage

Upstairs, the home-turned-gallery has been given over to Sarah Lucas. A series of her sculptures — a figure of stuffed tights sprawled on a chair in Suffolk Bunny (1997–2004), a coathanger carrying two bulbs and a bucket in Mary (2012) — is complemented by large-scale photo wallpaper showing some of Lucas’ self-portraits.

This is a strange setting for the work of the former YBA. Lucas’ art is brash yet banal, sexual but comedic, and somehow inherently British. Here in a place of rolling vineyards, sun-scorched earth, twinkling sea and yachts on the horizon, are items that orientate us more in dull suburbia: pub bar towels, breeze blocks, a washing machine, used buckets. The imagery, references, materials, and even Lucas’ persona — which imbues the work so heavily — jar bizarrely with this luxury resort-like space, and its views through panoramic windows of the provençal landscape.

The immersive, disorientating mirror labyrinth, Path of Emotions (2018) by Jeppe Hein. Marc Domage

The grounds — designed in areas such as the ‘nourishing garden’, ‘exotic butte’ and ‘meadow’ — host a trail of artworks (some part of the collection, some specially commissioned). Miquel Barceló’s Alycastre (2018), which the artist created after staying on the island, is a monster-like, 3m-high bronze sculpture at the entrance to the villa, representing the mythical dragon of Porquerolles. In the meadow, a tiny house has been filled with a space-consuming, almost respiring inflatable (Rosa Barba’s Inside your Breath, 2019) while its exterior walls have been scratched and sculpted in situ by Vhils (2018). The route around the gardens ends with Ed Ruscha’s enormous and powerful painting Sea of Desire (2018), mounted on a billboard overlooking an abandoned tennis court surrounded by trees.

Many artworks draw attention to sensory experience. Jeppe Hein’s Path of Emotions (2018), a mirror labyrinth designed within a grove of giant reeds, dazzles and tricks the eye into disorientation. Cildo Meireles’ Volatile (1980–94), a temporary installation, immerses the visitor in a pitch-black room, barefoot and wading calf-deep in a sea of talcum powder.

Vhils’ handiwork on a shed in the garden with a view on to the sea and mainland France beyond. Credit: Fondation Carmignac / Camille Moirenc

But the sensory engagement has been ramped up this summer with an hour-long, night-time soundwalk (disclaimer: I did it at day rather than night). Conceived by Soundwalk Collective, the narrated nocturnal stroll, Le Temps de la Nuit, features the voices of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Patti Smith. Headphones on and setting out across the gardens, Gainsbourg’s intensely breathy voice — with interjections from an echoey and cryptic Smith — discusses myth, history, dreams, ritual, the universe and love, as she navigates your journey and encourages you to engage with your natural surroundings (and senses). Sounds weave in and out of the track, from grasshoppers and seagulls to woodchopping and distant laughter.

It’s hard not to giggle when Gainsbourg pleads in your ear: ‘Don’t leave the path, I could lose you forever in space’; meanwhile, Patti Smith’s voice, echoing as if in aforementioned endless space, interjects at random points to say esoteric things such as: ‘Do you know what absolute reality is?’ At times it feels like the work is engineered to transport you to some Shakesperean reverie — ‘We are sailors on a foreign coast,’ Gainsbourg whispers. ‘You forget your past, and your identity.’

Charles Carmignac says the work ‘connects you to the energy of the island’. Porquerolles is indeed already a sensory immersion, the air laced with the intoxicating scent of eucalyptus and the sound of waves pulsating on the shore. ‘It was only a dream,’ muses Smith in the soundwalk. It certainly felt that way.

Fondation Carmignac and The Source is open until 3 November

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2022, All rights reserved.