By Alison Walsh
The Château de Sacy isn’t your typical art gallery, by any stretch of the imagination. Located at the edge of a rather sleepy village in Picardy, essentially inaccessible by public transport (since the nearest train station is 4 miles away and the bus comes once a day), if you did eventually ever make it there you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d come to the wrong place and hurried off back towards civilisation.
Yet if you managed to persevere one Sunday afternoon in early September, you’d be in for a pleasant surprise. You’d find a small but international group of art lovers, drawn together by Hermine Williams (née Demoriane), a former singer, dancer, actress, tightrope-walker, author, journalist, and descendent of the Dupressoir-Deneufbourg family who built the château in the late 19th century. After inheriting the place in 1994, she set up an association, the Association Ateliers d’artistes de Sacy with the aim of inspiring creativity and establishing links between artists and the local rural community, primarily by setting up artists’ residencies. Each summer two artists are chosen to spend a month living and working in the château, and the resulting work forms an exhibition which is open throughout September.
This summer the two artists in question were María-Fernanda Sánchez-Paredes, a Mexican photographer currently based in Paris, who cites as her influences the Latin American authors, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, and Vicki Thornton, a London-based artist-filmmaker.
Sánchez-Paredes describes herself as “driven by the paradox that it is not because you’re photographing the real that it describes the reality”, and it is true that whilst looking through the book of photographs placed casually on the table in the drawing room, you are haunted by an eerie feeling of familiarity, which is explained when you look up and find that the image of the portrait of the young boy between two sets of French windows is in fact what you see in front of you in real life.
Thornton also seems to have picked up on this idea of the blurring of the image and reality. She explains that as soon as she visited the château she felt that it would make a perfect film set, and Hermine, a formidable seventy-one year old woman with a fascinating past, was quite clearly the ‘strong female lead’ that she needed for her project. Her film combines homage to the French New Wave with an exploration of the startlingly prosaic. From one moment to the next, its protagonist moves from acting out classic cinematic scenes to peeling tomatoes, mowing the lawn or washing the dishes (complete with bright pink rubber gloves). Perhaps the most memorable scene, however, is that in which Hermine re-enacts one of the celebrated performances of her youth, singing whilst slowly tearing herself free from a giant paper cone. Like Sánchez-Paredes, Thornton plays with the exhibition space, as the attic used for the screening is recognisably the place where this performance was filmed. Indeed, when Hermine finishes her song and bends to turn off her tiny portable radio, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to turn around and check that she isn’t behind you doing exactly that.