An art assistant’s diary

This time last year I sent an application for work experience to a contemporary art gallery. The gallery was the Georges Pompidou Centre of Contemporary Art, which is situated in the beautiful Lot valley in the south of France. Applying was a long shot; I didn’t think they would respond. But like magic, two hours and a reply later, my summer had been finalised. I had attained my dream internship. BY JESSIE RODGER

The Georges Pompidou Centre of Contemporary Art is an organisation created by the family and friends of Georges Pompidou in honour of the artistically supportive Prime Minister who had had a holiday home in the valley. Despite being less recognised than its counterpart (the similarly titled Parisian centre of contemporary art Centre Pompidou), with its spectacular location and unique plural gallery set up, it is certainly worthy of world fame. 

 June 2009 marked the start of preparation for the centre’s Contemporary Art Route that would be put in place across the valley for the summer. Entitled ‘World Watchers 3’ the exhibition would approach the ecological theme of ‘watching over’ our environment and world, and would be created by six international artists. I acted as a personal assistant to the invited artists during the preparation for this exhibition. I had the most amazing three months as an artist’s assistant and met some great people that I will never forget. Through this diary I hope to share some of that experience with you.

J’arrive!

I first arrive in the Lot valley with my Dad and an exhausted Ford KA. We have just made the long haul from deepest darkest Wales to the sunny south of France. Art is far from the agenda as we set off to find some good local cuisine. We discover a rustic restaurant hidden away in Saint Cirq Lapopie, a village nestled on top of one of the dramatic limestone cliffs of the valley. This village will be my home for the next three months. After enjoying some of the local specialities we are involuntarily included in an in-depth chat with the out-going restaurateur. When I reveal that I’m going to be working 

at the Centre of Contemporary Art, opposite the restaurant, he looks at me with a shocked expression. ‘Theeere?’ he says ‘Oh. Good luck… They’re all off their heads over there’. 

Et voilà, the first words I hear of the gallery, it certainly hasn’t helped my nerves.

First encounter with a sea-mouse

On entering the artists’ residence for the first time the four other interns and I are greeted by a bizarre cry, ‘Sea-Mouse, Oh Sea-Mouse’. It’s the artist Marion Laval-Jeantet, one half of the duo Art Orienté Objet. She later explains that she couldn’t pronounce the name of the Irish artist Seamus Farrell, so has decided to call him Sea-Mouse instead. This memorable first meeting was to be a precursor of the quirkiness of things to come during our time with the gallery.

 The next artist to appear is Seamus Farrell himself, an artist who works principally with glass. He immediately launches into one of his famous monologues, mandatory beer in one hand, fag in the other. Seamus is known for his ability to turn his hand to anything in the art world but with his philosophical mind and expressive capacity it was our discussions that I most appreciated. 

 The other artists, though somewhere in the house, were hidden away most probably avoiding the awkward first day introductions. Either way their absence gave them an element of mystery that made the next morning a much more intriguing prospect.

A prickly début

Today we finally get to work with the artists! Laure (a fellow intern) and I are appointed as Gilles Bruni’s assistants for the next few days. I’m excited, Gilles is a landscape artist and he’s created some amazing pieces in the past. For this exhibition he plans to create a sculptural installation at the mouth of an abandoned railway tunnel. This work will represent a journey through the different forms of transport the region has relied upon, culminating in a real car plunging into the depths of the tunnel. However there is a catch.In order to transfer the car to its position we will have to clear 2 km of vegetation from the abandoned railway track behind the tunnel, in three days.Suddenly being Gilles Bruni’s assistant is less exciting than it was a few hours ago. Without the correct tools I am knee deep in brambles, bleeding from the countless scratches up my arms and the sun is beating down at thirty five degrees. Sir Giles, as we like to call him, wants the three of us to accomplish the impossible, and I don’t know if we can do it.

With a little help from our French friends 

 Returning to our task is even more daunting this morning, but the locals seem to have caught wind of what’s going on. An hour doesn’t pass on the railway track without a few residents from the neighbouring village coming along for a sneak peak at what we’re getting up to with their tunnel. Josette and Odette, sisters from the old signal house, get us through a good half hour of clearing with the village gossip. Later on I look up to the chateau on the cliffs above us and the eccentric owner we’d met earlier blows us a lofty kiss. The Mayor of the village and his wife even appear through the undergrowth as the day wears on to spur us on. These welcoming interludes give us the motivation to continue and somehow we manage to complete Gilles’ work of art. It was ambitious and could not have happened without the boost in morale the villagers brought us all.

Lost in translation

Today I start as Akira sunrise’s aide, which is a much more calming experience than the few days I spent with Gilles. Akira is a Japanese musician in residency with the art centre and is rather lost as he doesn’t speak a word of French. I will help him communicate by interpreting his English to the French musicians he meets. Today we’re going to an old rural wash house to jam with a local saxophonist. This might seem strange as a location, but Akira likes to work with water in a natural environment when he makes music so it is perfect for him. I only have to interpret a few words between the musicians then it’s down to the music and I’m present for a very special exchange surrounded by dragonflies, water and rolling French countryside.Akira has a concert this evening and he delights the audience with the unique sounds he makes from his self-made steel percussion instruments. I film every second on his camera, proud that in some way I am playing a role in his world.

The impossibly possible

Since 7 this morning we have been up in the trees trying to wrap up a whole beech wood in pink wedding dress material. The duo Art Orienté Objet wants to create a big environmental present. Instead of wrapping the trees we are damaging them and the project has to stop. This failure means a loss of €600 for the artists but despite being a little down they are hardly fazed. After all, every single one of their other wacky ideas for this exhibition has somehow worked out. With the help of the local knitting club they managed to knit the skin of a life-size polar bear to create their sculpture ‘la Peau de chagrin’. Furthermore just yesterday the tree they had transported all the way from Cameroon in Africa was installed successfully in the local church where it was decorated with bicycle wheels. Today, I’ve had first hand experience of the fantastical nature of contemporary art. These artists conceive the craziest ideas that everyday individuals couldn’t think to put into practice. When they succeed in realising them they create something truly exceptional. I think that’s the beauty of contemporary artists, and contemporary art today; through bright ideas the ordinarily impossible is made possible, or at least sometimes it is…

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