Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Writing Your Life

I have always been a fan of autobiography as a genre, and luckily so is my husband. As a young teen I would read autobiographies of my favourite pop stars, while today I am more likely to read autobiographies of my favourite writers and broadcasters. These sit on the bookshelf alongside Jean-Marc's choices (often autobiographies written by political figures like Charles de Gaulle). 

So with this being a source of entertainment consistently from teenagedom to adulthood, it hardly seems surprising that I was immediately drawn to the exhibition on autobiography being held at the Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel in Paris' 16th arrondissement. It's just lamentable that I only heard of it a week before it was due to close, meaning repeat visits are unlikely to be possible.

It seems bizarre that while the Louis Vuitton shop on the Champs Elysées teems with Chinese and Japanese visitors, who queue in droves outside the door of the flagship store, the Espace Culturel, which is immediately adjacent to it on the Rue de Bassano, is practically deserted. There are some visitors, but still plenty of space and quiet for you to explore the exhibits, which prove to be an entirely positive and fruitful experience.

The venue itself is spacious and clean-looking, with its white walls and surfaces allowing exhibits to just pop out at you. This is complemented by the panoramic view of Paris to be gained from its tall windows (seriously, don't ever pay to go up the Eiffel Tower when you can get views like this for free) and contrasted by the lift ride up to the exhibit space, which is an exhibit in itself - with your ride taking place in total darkness, the artist behind the exhibit wants to encourage riders to explore their senses differently.

As well as it being free to enter the Espace Culturel, another perk of this exhibition was the sumptuously-illustrated and bound catalogue, also free, which gave details of the artists and their work as you went round, and doubled as a satisfying souvenir. But the whole thing is more than worth paying for, with high quality artworks in a variety of different media providing something for everyone. The number of ways in which the artists have chosen to "write their lives" is incredibly far-reaching: aspects of life and experience are captured through wood sculpture, books, film, photography, watercolour, comic books, and more. 

But perhaps more to the point, the reasons why they have chosen to do this do a lot to make visitors think about what it truly means to be 'us', and what we gain - or do not gain - from exploring our lives' twists and turns. For some artists, such as David B, the aim is clearly catharsis, helping them to work through life events such as the illness of a relative. For others, such as Fiona Tan, the autobiography (an hour-long film entitled May You Live In Interesting Times) is a cruise through their family, lives, and history, in an attempt to find out who she really is (which, you understand, can be difficult when you're half Chinese, half Australian, have lived in Indonesia, and now live and work primarily in the Netherlands). This also raised important questions of identity for us: we are a bi-cultural couple (I am English, he is French) who have both lived in each other's countries and plan on possibly going to live in a third one in a few years' time (Belgium). As a teacher in an international school, I also frequently come across what are known in the industry as "third culture kids": children and young people who are caught between the culture of their parents, the culture of the place in which they live (at that particular moment: some stay for less than a year before moving on) and the culture of the expatriate and international school lifestyle. Now that's some autobiography.

Lucy Wadham is someone else who, although she hasn't written an autobiography, has explored this conundrum through the sociological (and, OK, semi-autobiographical) tome The Secret Life Of France, where she discusses not only her own difficult adaptation to French culture and how this has affected her life but also the voyage of discovery travelled by her children in getting to grips with their Britishness (being raised in France, even by an English mother, has understandably made them very French). 

This is less addressed in the Autobiographies exhibition, though, than pivotal moments that the featured artists feel have shaped their lives: Ernesto Sartori, for instance, illustrates a supernatural experience that he had while still a child through the medium of sculpture, and Frédéric Pajak focuses on a gift of a Tintin album and how this helped him to deal with the death of his father. Others are more gradual (as the reading room of autobiographies in the exhibition space also attests), systematic and analytical in their approach, such as On Kawara, who marks each day of his life so far with a dot on a calendar that has a tiny square for every single day for 100 years. This is colour-coded too, with a yellow dot representing an ordinary day, a blue dot showing a day where he produced one work of art, and a red dot indicating a day where he produced more than one.

The forms of autobiography, then, are clearly as varied in their form and purpose as the spectrum of human life and experience itself. But don't take my word for it: if you're passing through the French capital this week, don't hesitate to go and visit the Espace Culturel. Or, at the very least, view the video trailer of the expo here. And when you've done that, you'll find me watching the story of Roald Dahl's life and work that's still available on ITV Player.

The Autobiographies exhibition at the Espace Culturel (60 rue de Bassano, Paris) runs until May 20th.

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