The Villa Arson, a building complex overlooking the city of Nice on the Saint-Barthelemy’s hill comprises a school, an artists’ residency, and an art centre. Nine years ago, Spartacus Chetwynd first came to the Villa as a resident. This summer, the art centre has dedicated a major exhibition to the Glasgow-based artist who now goes by the name of Monster Chetwynd.
Spartacus, Marvin Gaye, Monster. In line with 18th-century Japanese conventions, Chetwynd changes names at every new stage of her artistic career one that is incredibly prolific with a nomination for the Turner Prize in 2012, and numerous performance pieces and theatrical happenings in international venues. Last year, Londoners could not miss her gigantic illuminated leopard slugs occupying the front of Tate Britain.
Visiting the Villa Arson with its multiple gardens is a singular sensory experience. The smell of pignolia, rosewood, mandarin tree and eucalyptus, along with provençal sounds of crickets fill the air. Inside the Villa, Chetwynd has built another type of garden, a dark landscape full of gigantic bats, butterflies, fireflies, snakes, and salamanders. All are night creatures usually despised by humans. But here, Chetwynd creates these ‘monsters’ with a certain ‘joie de vivre’, hilarity and child-like naivety, situating her artistic practice at the intersection of the whimsical, the grotesque and the fantastic.
The first room presents fanzines of Chetwynd’s exuberant performances combining dance, theatre and improvisation, which made her reputation in the early 2000s in south London. This information becomes handy as we navigate through her sculptures and decors from previous projects, all taken out of their original context. The first half of the exhibition is inhabited by colourful insects and animals; ‘Moth Panels’ (2018), comprising enormous papier-mâché night butterflies on paintings by XVIIIth century French painter François Boucher and initially produced in response to the Scottish National Gallery, ‘Bats’, and ‘Salamanders’ (2019), new sculptures made during an on-going collaborative workshop.
Further away, ‘Cacti Chariot’ (2018), a décor of her past performance called ‘Vionnet and Ethical Capitalism’ (2018) and inspired by the traditional New Orleans carnival, introduces elements of popular culture and folk plays, which are recurrent themes in Chetwynd’s art. Although here, there aren’t any costumed performers to activate the prop and the festive energy of the parade is nowhere to be found. In another room we find the gigantic mask, ‘Il Tetto’ (2016), initially created for the 2016 Bergen Assembly in Norway where it was carried by performers screaming eco-warriors’ songs. Today, the scene is difficult to imagine as it rests motionless, compressed in its small room. We leave the exhibition passing through an immersive installation with a garbage-bag floor and posters on the walls. Among them, a medieval fresco presents a fascinating Boschian orgy scene.
An interplay of coloured neon lights and an on-going original sound piece of garbled vocal fragments and swathes of free jazz percussions from French metal band Talweg, attempt to activate the space. However, the exhibition appears inanimate and leaves few doors open to enter Chetwynd’s world. This paradoxical situation – when considering the artist’s practice – questions the limits of exhibiting performativity, a debated issue not unknown to Eric Mangion, Villa Arson’s Director and curator of the exhibition. In 2005, he co-curated with Marie de Brugerolle, ‘Not to Play With Dead Things’, an experimental exhibition that questioned the status of performance objects ‘after the act’ by presenting props decontextualised from their performative acts. In ‘Monster Rebellion’, the absence of photograph, videos, or sketches of past projects can be seen as a strategy to give a new life to Chetwynd’s sculptures, while avoid presenting her art ‘through the memory screen’, to quote Amelia Jones. However, left devitalised like relics lost in the large space of the Villa, the sculptures fail their isolation test. Interaction and action seem to be the only way towards emancipation.
Before visiting ‘Monster Rebellion’, one needs to keep in mind Chetwynd’s hilarious, absurd, and yet political work; an art of encounter, creating spaces of sociability and breaking the boundaries between high and low culture to affirm that art is accessible to all.