2016-11-25 14:16:16
How a French Artist Turned a Stay in North Carolina Into Conceptual Art

EDEN, N.C. — The trees were turning yellow, orange and brown the weekend before the election in this town of some 15,000 people just a mile from the Virginia border.

Something about the fall palette and the once-bustling streets lined by rows of shuttered businesses strongly suggested the work of the photographer William Eggleston and his knack for forlorn, deadpan details. There were an unusual number of “Lost Cat” posters plastered on telephone poles, and Trump signs were thick on the ground, a harbinger of his victory both here in North Carolina and nationally.

The name Eden, selected in 1967 when three local hamlets merged, seems overly optimistic, especially in the wake of the recent closing of the local MillerCoors brewery, a blow to the economy that was the talk of the town.

But this atmosphere was exactly what the French-born photographer Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques was looking for when he picked up stakes and moved to the town because of its name, and lived here for months to observe life and customs, like a 21st-century update of Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French chronicler of early 19th-century American life.

And ultimately Eden became part of a conceptual art project.

It seemed an unlikely place for an art event, but here was Mr. Couzinet-Jacques hosting a couple dozen neighbors at a sundown party to celebrate his rehabilitation of the Little Red Schoolhouse. He bought the 1884 structure a year and a half ago for $1,000 when it was abandoned and falling apart. He has painstakingly renovated it and most recently painted it an alarmingly bright red color — not the classic schoolhouse maroon, but the color of caution, a toxic Edenic apple.

“It’s a pure object, a sculpture,” Mr. Couzinet-Jacques said of the schoolhouse, which was largely empty inside. Essentially he was presenting the debut of the new paint job.

The building has been the subject of his photographs and obsessive documentation for the past year, indeed, something closer to a fetish object, as well as a symbol of economic distress here and everywhere.

“There is a paradise here, but it’s lost,” he said of Eden. “I wanted to bring about a re-enchantment through art.”

Mr. Couzinet-Jacques has tried to import that magic for “Eden,” a new exhibition at the Aperture Foundation in New York that runs through Jan. 19. The show is sponsored by the Fondation d’Enterprise Hermès, the charitable arm of the fashion company, which gave Mr. Couzinet-Jacques a 40,000 euro grant (about $42,000) to create “Eden” as part of its “Immersion” series of French-American photography commissions and is separately underwriting the production of the exhibition.

The multimedia installation in Aperture’s gallery on West 27th Street in Chelsea includes some 20 photographs of the schoolhouse and its environs, some dramatically tinted in red and blue. Two large prints mounted on the walls are covered in linoleum scraps from the building’s floor.

Mr. Couzinet-Jacques also turned a phrase from the property deed (“foundations are bricks and some boulders”) into a Tracey Emin-like neon work, rendered in his own handwriting. And he has reconstructed parts of its rickety porch in the gallery, after having traveled alongside the pieces in a truck for the 500-mile journey from Eden. (Live kudzu, the invasive vine common in the South that he intended to grow around the wooden pieces, didn’t arrive in time.)

Aperture is publishing an “Eden” book, too, and it features almost 1,000 of the 12,000 close-up images that Mr. Couzinet-Jacques made with a document scanner to record every inch of the structure.

“The idea is that the entire house is in there,” he said.

The elaborate installation “has stretched us,” said Chris Boot, the executive director of Aperture, known for mounting more traditional photography shows. “This is something the likes of which we have never done before.”

But Mr. Couzinet-Jacques’s approach to photography — using it as a launching pad for a larger conceptual work — is part of a trend that Aperture can’t ignore, Mr. Boot said. “Every photographer now wants to be a sculptor,” he said.

Catherine Tsekenis, the director of the Hermès foundation, said that “the process itself” of moving to a foreign land “is a work of art.” She added, “Sylvain wanted to be immersed.”

Bearded and eager, Mr. Couzinet-Jacques, 33, who sometimes sounds like he is still in a graduate seminar, has degrees from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Marseille and the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie in Arles.

He made a specialty of documenting the housing speculation debacle in Europe. For a 2013 Paris exhibition, Mr. Couzinet-Jacques showed photographs of failed real estate projects in Spain and illuminated the gallery with ultraviolet light so that the images would degrade over the length of the show. Viewers had to wear protective glasses. “I got a sunburn working on that one,” he said.

When he was nominated for the Hermès commission in late 2014, he at first proposed an American road trip. But at the last minute, he overhauled his idea.

“I didn’t want to stay in a hotel for just a week and take some tacky photos,” Mr. Couzinet-Jacques said. “I wanted to be more involved. I wanted to live, as much as possible, an American life.”

Once he first visited Eden, he found that the artistic risk was taking derivative photographs that looked too much like the work of Mr. Eggleston or Stephen Shore, so he decided to amplify his ideas, he said, to “bring a three-dimensional aspect to my practice.”

Both of his parents are teachers, and Mr. Couzinet-Jacques grew up living above a school for part of his childhood in the Burgundian town of Sens. After searching for a building to document and learning that a schoolhouse was available, “I took it as a sign,” he said. He also noted that 1884 was the year that the predecessor to Eastman Kodak first introduced photographic negative paper.

Mr. Couzinet-Jacques has mostly stayed in motels and a rented house (the schoolhouse doesn’t have working plumbing), and he blew through his prize money long ago, dipping into personal funds. He lost one long-distance French girlfriend to his international sojourn, though he found another one.

He doesn’t drive, so when not hitching a ride with a local studio assistant, he traversed Eden by bike and on foot, which baffled residents. “They call me ‘the walker,’” Mr. Couzinet-Jacques said with a laugh.

His embrace of the town has been mutual. Over wine and beer at the Eden party, several residents said that any old building’s being saved was a good thing, even though Mr. Couzinet-Jacques wasn’t exactly pouring money into the local economy with his trips to the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday.

“We exhibit the normal Southern atmosphere from time to time,” said James C. Burnette, a town council member who showed up at the party, referring to initial suspicions of the Frenchman in their midst. “But we want to see progress here. People are excited to see what the next step of this project is.”

Mr. Couzinet-Jacques was repeatedly stopped and asked about it over the weekend by acquaintances. The town even offered him a tall safety light to illuminate the schoolhouse at night, and set it up across the street for him. The building’s red exterior shone ominously for the partygoers and any passers-by.

“It’s incredible what Sylvain has done, but I’m not sure everyone grasps it yet,” said Randy Hunt, the head of the local chamber of commerce. “I think people have wondered, ‘Why us?’”

After nearly two years on “Eden,” Mr. Couzinet-Jacques will go back to France, but he also plans to return to North Carolina and photograph more of the people he has encountered here.

“I see this as a long-term project,” he said. “This is just the first chapter.”

The schoolhouse’s closest neighbor, Ken Yearout, came over in his wheelchair to have a drink. Mr. Yearout lost his legs because of repercussions from Agent Orange poisoning from his service in Vietnam, he said.

“I’ve haven’t heard anyone complain about him,” he said of Mr. Couzinet-Jacques. “He’s a good neighbor.”

The issue of how neighbors and communities cohere — or fray — has long been on the mind of French observers. After de Tocqueville returned home from the United States, he issued warnings about fractious individualism run amok but made many positive pronouncements about Americans, including, “They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.”

The same tensions are apparent in Mr. Couzinet-Jacques’s work. He isn’t so sure Eden’s trajectory is upward, but he knows that it will be the proudly eccentric citizens, not old buildings, that give it hope. “I’ve been all over the U.S.,” he said. “But there are such characters down here.”