trash or treasure? Liz Magor at the MAMAC de Nice

acs_0120 Last week, with snowflakes hitting me in the face, I set out for my first visit to MAMAC, the musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain de Nice. 

It’s hard to miss. The museum is housed in a neoclassical building that crosses over a busy street, flanked on each side by chunky white marble towers. The space comprises a library, theater, and a lot of locked doors. It took me a full ten minutes of crossing back and forth through slush puddles before I found the entrance.

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View from the MAMAC

Inside, I found a small but interesting collection ranging from Pop Art to modern surrealist acquisitions. I spent the most time strolling through the temporary exhibit: an entire floor devoted to recent works by Canadian artist Liz Magor.

Her work included lots of old objects. Open cardboard boxes, a stack of towels, a stack of paper, the “bloodied” head of a deer, all of it in lofty white rooms. Some of the objects were real, some were casts.

The work had the ability, if not to inspire, then certainly to provoke. I watched groups of people rolling their eyes and snickering as they walked through the rooms. When I later looked up reviews of the exhibit, many were scathing.

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Liz Magor, Whisper Glitter

I’m all for modern art, but this is too modern.

Some accused the artist, and by extension the museum, of le snobisme.

An insult to human intelligence. 

Several reviews were self-concious, noting they knew they’d be considered stupid or unsophisticated by others, but really, they had to say it, this was just dumb.

It was indeed one of those exhibits where you wonder if it’s all just a big trick–a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes exhibit, where you hope it’s not some prank being filmed for Jimmy Kimmel. Watch these mindless losers think they’re appreciating sophisticated art! Really, they’re staring at someone’s trash! 

I had a suspicious encounter with a broom that I think was just a left-behind cleaning tool, but there is a chance it was part of Magor’s collection. Even as I tiptoed around it I thought, this is what’s so fascinating about modern art. Put something in the sacred space of a museum and even if we hate it, or even if it produces no emotion at all, most people will agree to treat the object with respect, at least in practice.

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Liz Magor is something of a surrealist, and surrealists have always had the power to shock and awe…and incite fury. Some feel delighted upon seeing the playful, subversive reinterpretation of a urinal as a fountain…others are insulted.

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But art isn’t just about beauty. Beauty is subjective, after all, and there is beauty in ugliness.

It isn’t just about skill or time spent or effort, either. How do you assign value to ideas? Sometimes it’s the idea that makes meaning, rather than any work of the hand.

Sometimes, especially in surrealism, I think the artist dares you to say that sucks, dares you to think for yourself. Just like with Duchamp’s Fontaine, where his message was not ‘I am the all-important artist,’ but rather, ‘how far can I push the art world?’

And as far as the accusation of snobisme, I say just because you have to work to appreciate something doesn’t make it highbrow or a scam. Does it make you think? If a piece fails to inspire me on a conceptual level, I like to use it to think about the art world, about the business of art, or maybe about that age-old question “what is art.”

I like to ask questions like: how did this get here? Does anyone actually like it or is it just the artist who makes it “good?” Is it good? What is good? And just like that, you have a reason to stare at a cardboard box for a few minutes.

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Magor’s work made me think about a lot of things, such as the transformation of found objects into art. At what point can you assert authorship?

“I made this.”

Well, kind of, Liz. You mostly just found it in a thrift shop, but sure. 

But the more I read about Liz Magor’s ideas, the more I appreciated what she does.

Magor’s work is all about objects. Stuff. Rarely is there a human image in her work, but the displays suggest a human presence: someone has just left or will soon return.

She likes to find old, discarded things and revitalize them, perhaps putting a worn, stuffed puppy on a literal pedestal and sticking it on the wall, or draping dresses in garment bags over the backs of chairs, arranging them in various states of “repose.” Magor has said she works by taking an object and seeking to find what made it valuable to someone in the first place. Why did someone buy this?

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Our most practical relationships are perhaps with our things. Chairs and toothpicks and gloves and barrettes and notepads and forks and hairdryers, all the little objects that foster a Western lifestyle. The value is in the service these things provide. Magor, it seems to me, aims to restore some aesthetic value to these found, once-loved things. She lends interest, even dignity, to what might otherwise be trash.

She also works with the more insidious emotions of guilt and fear: hiding stacks of beer cans under folded towels, cigarettes under clothing, Cheetos under a mound of rocks, all facades that don’t quite manage to conceal the bad habit or addiction.

The secret life of stuff, you might call it. Or maybe: the secret stuff of life.

mon chou: kale, the forgotten vegetable

img_3431 In French, instead of sweetie, you might call someone mon chou.

My cabbage.

I appreciate the double meaning. Le chou is both my cabbage and my sweet. But all cabbages are not created equal. It’s kale that’s my drug of choice.

Looking for a light read in the ‘American Expats in France’ genre, I recently read a memoir entitled Bonjour Kale. It was fun to find out that the kale I enjoyed for dinner tonight, last night, and pretty much every night I cook for myself, is largely thanks to fellow American Kristen Beddard, a New Yorker who found herself a bit lost in Paris, lacking a day job and lamenting the absence of her favorite vegetable.

Five years ago, kale was the superfood and comfort food du jour for foodies around the US, but in France ce n’existait pas. Sure, you might be able to find a row in someone’s personal garden, but certainly not on a commercial scale. Stores didn’t carry it and market vendors and farmers hadn’t heard of it. There wasn’t even a consensus on what to call this neglected vegetable. There was, however, a term describing its sad state. Kale was a légume oublié–a forgotten vegetable–one that had fallen out of favor. One theory goes that kale was a hearty “poor man’s food” that reminded people too much of their lean days during World War II.

Beddard wanted to change this if she could. There could be such a thing as celebratory kale. Glamorous, chic (and full of antioxidants). Kale’s image needed a makeover and Beddard, with a background in marketing, felt she was the woman for the job.

First, she started a blog intended to detail the progress of “The Kale Project.”

Next she went to the market, gathering the courage to ask local farmers, in her beginner’s French, if they would be interested in growing le chou kale. She would provide the seeds. She made her case: healthy, delicious, and here’s proof it will sell…

A few said yes.

As it grew, Beddard made kale connections, identifying expats and restaurant owners ready to buy in case of a supply.

She visited the farms to see the progress, once carting back two full trash bags of kale on a three-hour train ride.

She promoted the vegetable at a Yelp event, a winter foods festival in Paris where she served pesto and smoothies and talked about her project. It was a hit.

As the supply of kale increased, so did its value in the public eye. Beddard’s website included a map, “Kale Spotted,” that let followers know exactly where they could find this vegetable, forgotten no longer.

She was interviewed by various media outlets and even got to help decide what to officially christen this revitalized veggie: le chou kale (sounds like kahl) it would be.

And there it was. Beddard said she was never in it for a profit. Bringing kale to Paris was its own reward. (Though you might also count as reward the kale-based tasting menu she was personally served by Alain Passard.)

I appreciate the book most as a business story: a great example of how to identify a need and meet it. A Humanities alum like me could use the lesson. “Make your passion your paycheck,” that’s the goal. As for the book’s subtitle: “a memoir of Paris, love, and recipes,” I’m less convinced. While the recipes are great (I’ve tried two), and it’s fun to learn of each one’s diverse origins (from the author’s mother to Passard), I don’t think the story quite covers “Paris” and “love” effectively. This title oversells the product–or perhaps represents a different product entirely. When I think of Bonjour Kale, I think of…kale.

I would have called this book something like: Légume Oublié: One Woman’s Quest to Bring Kale to France.

The ‘American expat stumbling around France’ thing has been done before. I think there is room to do it again: but the writing should be really sharp, the observations astute. Foreign words should be included effortlessly, with grace (don’t define for readers un petit peu or mon Dieu!: instead, simply provide a bit of context). The author should have something original to say.

Beddard has that something (how many other Americans have started a transatlantic initiative for a beloved vegetable?) but her true story gets a bit lost when trying to keep up with the other players in the memoir market.

Still, I have Beddard to thank for helping me get my daily greens. I buy my kale at Marché Forville in Cannes. Or at the chain Grand Frais if I’m feeling more commercial.

It is still largely unknown. Little old ladies in line at the market might ask me: “now what are you planning on doing with that?” Cashiers inputting the code eye the kale suspiciously. “Ça c’est le chou kale?

Thanks to Beddard, I know to respond with a confident oui.