Florence Ostendes Tale of Two Cities


Paris and London are separated by no more than a tunnel—but the lack of communication, if not interest, between the two art capitals is noteworthy. Tracey Emin and Xavier Veilhan on each end have shown extensively around the world, but very little on the opposite side of the Channel.

Interrogating the relationship between the two cities, and encouraging their rarefied collaboration is key to Florence Ostende’s work. The 26-year old Marseilles-born curator, who studied the discipline both at Paris’ Sorbonne and London’s Royal College of Art, is now a resident at the Palais de Tokyo, as well as guest curator for 2010 at cultural center La Maison Populaire, in Parisian suburb Sant-Ouen.

“There is a surprising lack of communication between the two countries,” says Ostende—a telltale gap, she believes. “In an Anglo-Saxon academic environment, there is less of a hierarchy: one could, for example, study a film by Godard, followed by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which rarely happens in France.” PORTRAIT BY RAPHAEL PFEIFFER.

France, by contrast, “offers the academic rigor of a historian, and a true research initiative,” she reports.

The disjunct of the two countries opens a wider continental dialogue. as demonstrated by Catalogue, the bilingual, bi-annual online magazine co-founded by Ostende in 2009 with Coline Milliard, a French, London-based critic. The two convene over skype. Together, the two women aim to create a critical platform connecting the two cities, and more broadly between the Francophone and Anglophone world. The latest issue features a profile of Geneva-based artist Raphaël Julliard, alongside a research on London’s artist-run spaces, and a theoretical opinion piece about the notion of remembrance in exhibitions by curator Guillaume Désanges.

This cross-border compilation of high institution, low-fi spaces, and theory, combined with a cross-Channel perspective opens a broader dialogue on boundaries  in the arts, in curating, disrupting the microcosmos a city can be. “This isn’t about a bi-lateral relationship, but rather, creating a dialogue between the anglophone and francophone worlds—Canada, Switzerland, Ireland,” says Ostende.

Other examples of cross-pond participation includes Energiser (June 2009), a show at the galerie Paul Frèches in Montmartre featuring British artist Nick Laesing, and For Your Eyes Only (June 2009), a screening of a group of young artists, at Mains d’Oeuvres, an alternative art space in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. “I started to work on these shows whilst still studying in London. These were well received by the French, because it was artists who were totally out of their radar. This is a way of leaving their established network”comments Ostende.

In the footsteps of key figures like Harald Szeeman (1933–2005), one of the first freelance curator who moved away from aesthetic curation categories towards ‘non-art’ themes, or Hans Ulrich Obrist (b. 1968), who encouraged public participation in the art world and also set up shows in his kitchen, Ostende ponders the role of the curator today.

“An exhibition is a priviledged way of viewing art. One must consider the different viewing modes, and what a mise-en-espace (spatial arrangement) means”, says Ostende, “It is also a way of reflecting on the role of memory in the exhibition experience, what will be perceived and remembered.”

Her show Retracing Exhbitions (March 2009), co-curated with New York-based Kari Conte, further interrogates the relation between temporality and curating. A key part of the exhibition consists of a reconstruction of the 1953 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, ‘Parallel of Art and Life’, by the Independent Group—which was then revolutionary in its methods of selecting, displaying and hanging art and non-art pieces alike. The show also brought in a display of videos interviews by Obrist, and the attendance of Village Voice art critic Kim Levin– yet another way of reinforcing the Anglo-Franco dialectic.

“My interest in memory and the history of exhibition is core to my work, and is bound to London because that’s where it flourished.” LEFT: SUSAN COLLIS, 100%, COURTESY TE ARTIST. PHOTO BY RAPHAEL PFEIFFER.

Ostende’s latest show at La Maison Populaire, Les Compétences Invisibles, (The Invisible Skills). The exhibition uses art as a method to dissect the nature of competence and labor, and the absurdity of the latter when taken out of context—and brings in key figures from either side of the Channel.

London-based artist Susan Collis (b.1956), presents 100% Cotton (2002), a workman’s overall that appears covered in paint splatter. The work is hung on the wall as the worker’s uniform as if casually left over at the pub.  Every stain is in fact delicately embroidered with silk thread. Collis’ work often adds surprise to a seemingly mass-produced object with obssessively hand-crafted piece; 100% Cotton embeds the iconic worker’s uniform with the cliché Victorian hobby of embroidery—a simultaneous derision of bourgeois pastimes and a sublimation of labor.

Nearby, Parisian artist Vincent Ganivet (b.1976) has built a massive concrete caterpillar track, Roue et chenille (2010), which in fact is contained by a single strap. The contrast between the overwhelming physicality of the raw building material and the fragility of the structuring element, suggests the underlying vulnerability of dominant structures -which spatial effect is emphasized by its placement in the center of the space, as if reigning over a Lilliputian universe.

For September, Ostende is planning a show spanning La Maison Populaire and Mains d’Oeuvres; co-curated with Isabelle Le Normand, it will bring together a collaboration with the “Farrell Brothers,” three Irish, Paris-based artists and it will attempt the biggest of all challenges: “Getting the Parisians out of Paris.”