Story and photos by Kylie Clifton
It’s a regular day at LUMA Arles. Visitors are milling about; smiles grow like eager crops at the sight of two 90-foot-long intertwining stainless-steel slides. Pascal Coluni, a LUMA welcome agent, collects denim toboggans from guests at the foot of the slide with a wide grin. Guests watch the slides behind smartphones as Coluni checks his watch repeatedly.
And then it starts.
Taking a few steps from his post, Coluni changes his posture and begins to sing. It’s musical, but there are no words. An ethereal echo fills the cavernous tower. The sounds are eerie and bizarre, yet still comforting. Coluni opens his arms to welcome others to join in. A few visitors start singing the wordless song together.
To visitors, it might appear that Coluni has gone rogue – or perhaps a bit mad. However, the song is not spontaneous. It’s the first composition from “These Elements,” a collaborative immaterial artwork created by world-renowned artists Tino Sehgal and Phillipe Parreno. This exhibition was commissioned by LUMA Arles for the opening of the Tower in 2021 and the living artwork has continued daily for two years.
“These Elements” is a permanent exhibition at LUMA Arles, but its existence isn’t documented. Visitors will not find a title, an artist credit, a schedule or a description on location or on the LUMA website.
The exhibition needs to be experienced to be understood, and behind it is a complex list of rules per the artists’ instruction. The first rule: This is not a performance and it should not be regarded as one.
“For Tino’s work, the art is what is born in between the person who does it and the person who receives it,” explained Iaci Lomonaco, head of global engagement for Tino Sehgal. “So, it’s what we are exchanging. Who is singing is [not] the star; [the star] is what we exchange. This really depends on the mood of the interpreter but also the moods of who is receiving it.”
“These Elements” is made up of three compositions and a film. The first element is the immaterial artwork that Coluni participates in. When the singers finish the five-minute piece, they move into a room where visitors are seated on a giant circular couch watching and listening to a multimedia piece by Phillipe Parreno. Once inside the room, the singers join the unknowing guests on the sofa and start improvising electric sounds in a piece called “The Grotto.” The final element, “The Spider,” includes an improvisational duet between a dancer and a pianist.
From the beginning, LUMA Arles sought to hire existing welcome agents for “These Elements.” Coluni, who started working at LUMA Arles in 2016, was invited to meet Sehgal for a vocal exercise in June 2021. Without any voice lessons or experience performing, he discovered he could sing.
Prior to 2021, he had only ever sung at home and simply for fun. His favorite artists and genres include Michael Jackson, Mariah, jazz and gospel music.
“It was a revelation for me,” said Coluni. “It revealed my artistic side and the fact that I didn’t know that my voice had that much potential and could cover that great a range in terms of what I could do singing Tino’s work.”
This exhibition is kept alive by the presence of an unknowing audience. Impressions from onlookers can vary from confused to delighted.
“Interaction with people changes it a lot,” said Flore Silly, another LUMA employee who participates in the exhibition. “Energy of the day is always different [which influences the] piece. So every day is different. I learned from those interactions or synergies how to be in flux, to share, to be incarnated in all those different elements.”
Jo Crosby, an Australian who was visiting LUMA Arles recently, heard the vocal piece while viewing another exhibition. Intrigued by the sound, she left her exhibit to find the source.
“I wasn’t sure if it’s an installation or if it’s actually part of the building,” said Crosby. “It’s fantastic to see something that’s not so conservative, that’s brave and yet unexpectedly pushing the boundaries.”
This exhibition is collaborative in nature but not just with the artists — Coluni treasures the moments shared with visitors.
“There was a nurse who had just come out of two years of working through COVID-19,” he recalled. “At the end she came up to me and [silently embraced me]. She had been very moved by the piece and I was also moved by her reaction.”