I have to admit that contemporary art isn’t always my tasse de thé. However, they do put on some good exhibitions at the Abbaye de Beaulieu, a Cistercian gem a few kilometres away. As well as being an historic monument, it’s also a centre of contemporary art. The pure austerity of the abbey church is a perfect foil for the often riotous art.
I had a particular interest in an exhibition that is currently running until June. Virginie Dagault Revel is an acquaintance who teaches photography in Cahors but has a weekend home in a hamlet in the commune of Ginals. Most of the local people live from farming: cattle, ducks and geese, sheep and goats and a bit of arable.
Virginie spent several months photographing and recording interviews with some of these people. Her exhibition consists of the blown-up photos and tape recordings. A strange wigwam-like structure in the middle contains a surrealistic video of the vegetation in the vallée de la Baye – a small river that trickles through glorious countryside.
The photos reminded me of the Grant Wood painting, American Gothic, if a bit less severe. They show the farmers with their animals on their home territory. The ones at the far end of the abbey show some of the people, naked and covered with mud (definitely not American Gothic), in settings around the River Baye, with dappled sunlight and moss-draped trees. I have no idea how Virginie managed to get people to pose like this, especially as most of these photos leave nothing to the imagination. However, there’s something strangely appealing and prehistoric about these photos – almost magical. I thought it better not to reproduce any of them here…
The soundtrack of the people talking is a fascinating record of a way of life, delivered with the sing-song rolling accent of the area. Many of the farmers Virginie interviewed are not elderly but see themselves as part of a continuing tradition. Several of them expressed concerns about the environment and a desire to move to a culture raisonnée – a less intensive and more ecological method of farming, even if it’s not entirely organic. They freely admit that they over-used chemicals in the past, chasing higher yields, and want to get the former balance back. Some are more optimistic than others about the future for farming in the valley.
It’s not always easy to get people around here to open up – still less to allow themselves to be photographed naked! – so Virginie must have drawn on endless reserves of patience and diplomacy.
The exhibition is worth a look if you’re in the area and the €5.50 entrance fee also gives you access to the interior parts of the abbey that are open to the public.
Click here for more information about Beaulieu, including opening times etc.
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