“L’Eau et Les Rêves”, A Typographic Fountain In Vence
Another piece of typographic environmental art we saw on our vacation was L’eau et les rêves (Water and Dreams), a “miroir d’eau” (best translated as “water mirror”) in Vence, the town we stayed in. I first noticed the new public sculpture in 2007, the last time we were in Vence. It is a long rectangular structure in stone, with a typographic border spelling out numerous adjectives related to water. Although the water does circulate, there is no visible motion. This permanent installation emanates a soothing calm, creating a small oasis of tranquillity in the otherwise buzzing Place du Grand Jardin – where the Nuits Du Sud festival is held; see the latest My Type is Music. It is a creation by Henri Olivier, a local French sculptor and landscape artist, who currently lives and works in Contes, some 30-odd kilometres from Vence. Last week I contacted Mr. Olivier for a short interview.
Henri Olivier, born in Alger in 1955, graduated at the École National Supérieure d’Art de la Villa Arson in Nice, where he received his Diplôme National Supérieur d’Expression Plastique (Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Arts). Since 1980 his work has been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Parallel to his sculptural work he practices garden and landscape art. Olivier taught at the École Méditerranéenne des Jardins et du Paysage in Grasse where he held the position of pedagogical coordinator.
His work investigates the relationship between sculpture and garden, environment, and landscape, but also our own perception of space. To quote Allen S. Weiss,
his sculptures serve as catalysts to put the mind, the eye, and the body in motion.
After having participated to the colloquium Mémoire urbaine, projet urbain (Urban memory, urban project) organised by the city of Vence the year before, in 2004 Henri Olivier was asked by the municipality to draw up a study on the numerous fountains (and washing basins) in the city. In 2006 – when it was time to refurbish the northern part of the Place du Grand Jardin, but after the selected architecture bureau had almost completed the project – the cultural department solicited Olivier to propose a water sculpture, to be integrated in the already established plans.
Water is a recurring element in my work. For the Vence project I revisited an argument from my study, suggesting that in an animated, agitated, noisy city centre water can have an assuaging effect if its motion is apparently stopped. The water mirror relates to the fountain, the washing basin, and the river, the stone having the colour of pebbles. There is more to the project than the mirror effect, reflecting the city in the water, and the playful aspect of its use. It makes the water of the Foux – the spring that provides all the fountains in Vence with water – visible again in the heart of the city. Here the water that has organised life throughout time and history is brought back centre stage.
How did the idea originate to work with typography, with words, all adjectives related to water?
Because the water of this mirror is spring water, natural, running, and not just whatever water recycled by some mechanism, it seems to me to be imbued with meaning and history. Hence the importance for me to name it. And who is better placed to qualify water than French philosopher and epistemologist Gaston Bachelard? L’eau et les rêves is the title of his philosophical musings on this natural element. All the adjectives used for the fountain come from this book; in a certain way they well up from it, and the book title resonates like an homage to Bachelard.
The type used for the installation is the Helvetica clone Arial. Although I would have preferred to see something like Basic Commercial/Standard, I think Arial is a decent choice for this specific application, even better than Helvetica. The more open forms of characters like C and S, and the much maligned sloping tail of the R actually lend themselves better for physically connecting the steel letters.
Generally speaking Henri Olivier never discusses the technical aspects of his work, nor does he show, exhibit, nor sell preparatory drawings or sketches. Only the end result matters. However, in the interest of the typographic focus of The FontFeed he was gracious enough to elaborate on the letters and words rendered in metal.
I chose Arial for its simple, minimal design, and because its shapes were easier to adapt to the meet the constraints of the project – different lengths and widths, specific slopes, … There also are the particularities of a typeface that make the F or E look smaller than the M, or the curved letters like the C and O that slightly overshoot the letters with straight tops and bottoms. I used a drawing and vectorisation application for all the adjustments before committing them to steel by laser cutting.
How was the water sculpture received by the general public?
This is a sensitive topic. The public reacted so negatively against the integration of a contemporary work of art in the city of Vence that there even was no inauguration. The same goes for Arman‘s sculpture Traction avant, traction après that was installed provisionally in the centre of the roundabout at the entrance of Vence. However I received numerous personal testimonies of appreciation, also from locals who wish to convey the pleasure and joy this water mirror – next to which they like to sit down – adds to the perception of the city. It has been a controversial reception, sometimes polemical, yet one that leaves no one indifferent.
This installation has been filmed in the framework of a reportage on artists’ gardens in the Provence by the German television (Künstlergärten in der Provence, ARD production, 27/02/2008; by Knut Meierfels and Julia Drost).
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