The terrorist attack on the 14th July 2016 in Nice dramatically highlighted a territory that had, over the years, been immersed in all sorts of clichés: the Promenade des Anglais.
If one does not live in Nice, one imagines a crowded beach invaded by successive cohorts of visitors, a caricatural symbol of mass tourism, with superposed visions of suntan oil, beach towels and gossip magazines. Why would so many people come to lie on uncomfortable pebbles or on deckchairs rented a fortune, in an atmosphere that, after all, lacks conviviality? One could also picture an old-fashioned place, right out of the Belle Epoque and its lost paradise, the heart of a French Riviera with receding glamour, visited by people who make believe they’re rich in a fantasy of love, fame and beauty.
When one actually lives in Nice, these fictive reveries are meaningless. Instead of the static character of bodies baking in the sun, one’s preference would go to the movement of those who stroll in autumn, winter or spring. Because the Promenade is aptly named. It is the meeting ground for strollers, joggers and cyclists. Elegant elders seeking reassuring light, smooching lovers, boisterous teenagers, families on outings, over-aged athletes, recovering partiers, concentrated readers and wandering homeless… all come and go. The Promenade is not a park. The visitors do not disperse themselves into peripheral by-ways. There is only one line, one single way there and back that imposes a closeness of bodies and glances. Land embraces sky and the sea disappears into the horizon. Everything comes together in this rather sympathetic spectacle of life and the world.
It is must certainly for all these reasons that between 1960 and 1980 so many artists chose this strip of the coastline as their field of experimentation. The first artist to work on the Promenade was Ben Vautier (born in 1935), during the Algerian War. He had the habit of meeting his friends there, namely François Fontan, a thinker of decolonization. France was in a state of emergency. All meetings were forbidden; Ben and his companions were separated regularly by the police. The artist drew a genuine aesthetic vocabulary from these subversive meetings. His best “gestures” resulted from these experiences, like in 1963, when he sat on a chair with Regardez-moi cela suffit (Look at me that’s enough) written on his chest. An accomplice filmed people observing the artist. The lookers-on were being looked at. The following year, he signed the horizon, appropriating the land, sky and sea with his piece Tracer et signer la ligne d’horizon, 1962 (Tracing and signing the horizon). That same year, he threw God into the sea: Jeter Dieu à la mer, 1962. In 1964, he went into the sea tied in string with an open umbrella: Rentrer tout habillé dans l’eau avec un parapluie. He then went on to literally sign life: Je signe la vie, 1972. A champion of the ego, but also of different peoples and minorities, Ben found all the social ingredients to display his absurd claims in Nice.
On the 4th June 1970, Pierre Pinoncelli (born in 1929) began his trip to China by bicycle on the Promenade, acclaimed by friends and lookers-on who didn’t really know what it was all about (Nice-Pékin à bicyclette, 1970). “An epic crusade for peace and poetry. I’m riding by bike to Peking to bring Mao a message of peace from Martin Luther King.” The craziest thing about his project was that he really did cross over most of Asia to reach his goal. After braving all sorts of trying experiences such as his bicycle being stolen in Ankara, his adventure ended in Nepal, blocked at the border, unable to obtain a visa to enter China in the raging Cultural Revolution. His wife came to collect him and they both went back home. One year later, after throwing paint on André Malraux the day the first stone was laid at the Chagall Museum in Nice, Attentat culturel, 1969 (Cultural Attack), Pinoncelli embodied the troubles during a period when the utopias of the sixties were transformed into radical actions during the following decade. On the 18th July 1975, in the waters off the Promenade, he had himself thrown overboard inside a weighted bag with his hands tied together (Hommage à Monte-Cristo, 1975). Luckily, he had learnt Houdini’s techniques to free himself from all obstacles several days earlier. But Houdini set high standards, and Pinoncelli had very little time to make it out of there alive, observed as he was by a flabbergasted audience on the beach.
Still in 1975, the Garage 103 (a collective of artists initiated in 1975 and coordinated by Olivier Garcin) organized fireworks in the middle of a day in December. “We went down to the beach, some of us with flares, others with a bucket containing a mixture of weed-killer and sugar, matches and a camera. Garage 103 was written in cursive letters on the ground with the sugary mixture. We lit an extremity of the text that went right up in flames, producing a big cloud of smoke. Once the text was consumed, we lit the coloured flares that also produced thick smoke. We went successively from one fire to the other, saluting the amazed spectators watching us from the Promenade. We made sure the fires were out we left, and the word Garage 103 stayed there for several weeks, until it was washed away by the sea.” A dream of ephemeral fame imagined by a bunch of artists, located on what resembled a typical movie set (Feu d’artifice, 1975).
Whereas women present in artistic programming were extremely rare at that time, Elisabeth Morcellet (born in 1957) used the Promenade as a working table (Baie des Anges, 1978). For several days, in October 1978, she came to put her “trousseau” on the pebbles, consisting in a set of free-flowing canvases that could either be hung on a wall or worn as a wedding dress. The passers-by hardly took any notice of her until she summoned photographer Jacques Miège to come and take photos. From that point onwards everything changed. People stopped and observed her strange solitary ballet. Her gestures were demure rather than provocative. She managed to seduce the public. For Elisabeth Morcellet, the Promenade is a “place of both representation, exhibition, wealth and luxury on one hand, and a place of popular, touristic leisure, inhabited by bodies, on the other. A place of constant, normalized dressing and undressing. Nice, or the art of bodies in freedom and art on vacation.”
In mid-August 1980, Claude Gilli (1938-2015) set down his easel on the on the footpath with a blank canvas upon which a dozen snails made a picture with their slimy trails (Sur le motif, From Nature, 1980). Gilli expected to catch the eye of the passing tourists, who were extremely present that year, with this iconoclastic gesture. But nothing of the sort was to happen. Like Elisabeth Morcellet, he came back a few days later with a camera. His painting then became the centre of attention, everyone wondered whether gastropods could be artists and why an artist would delegate his talent to these creatures who seem devoid of any aesthetic sense. A young topless woman even offered her chest as another creative field for snails. Having a camera around changes everything.
Noël Dolla (born in 1945) decided, on the 23rd February 1980, to deform the Promenade. “Three immense craters of a thirty-metre diameter and one metre fifty deep should be dug. Every circle was to reach from the shore to the dyke. Dressed in white costumes, the artist and his assistants painted circles with natural pigments (yellow ochre, red ochre and burnt sienna). Dolla was to finish here a group of outdoor interventions he called Restructurations Spatiales (Spatial Restructurations), initiated in 1969, making him one of the only French artists to have produced Land Art. The choice of the Promenade was not innocent. Concentrating on the place’s theatricality, Dolla reflected upon what Land Art had become: a spectacle, whereas it had started as being an ensemble of simple gestures in nature, thrown out to challenge the visible world. This last Restructuration did not lack in irony. Besides, the documentary on this action shows mainly technical agents working with mobile excavators rather than romantic artists dreaming of the aesthetics of humans in phase with their environment.
There are many other examples. If over these past two decades artists have turned towards this extraordinary exhibition space, it could be explained above all by the lack of other exhibition spaces in the city. The beach is a stage and the Promenade a tribune where the public reacts as potential spectators. It must also be said that Nice’s reputation was that of a Sleeping Beauty. Artists could play with this feeling of collective lethargy in the place that represented it best. Their creative energy thereby functioned as a social and political oxymora.
The Promenade is also the place where battles of flowers pass by during the famous Nice Carnaval, a purposely grotesque procession that has lost most of its symbolic meaning today, but whose spirit is sustainably inscribed in the local collective unconsciousness. Artists know this and play with the cliché to create their own excesses, their own catharsis.
The Promenade des Anglais, with its ten months per year of peaceful existence, is the natural meeting place of the city’s social, cultural and ethnic components, while it offers each one the possibility of being singular. This is what Ben and his friends understood as soon as 1960, in the midst of the Algerian War, when an even more ferocious terror reigned over France. Artists oppose their poetic science of the territory and communities to barbarity and idiocy. They help us to see life and our environment differently.
Editing by Luc Clément
Translated from the English by Emmelene Landon