The ruins of Château de Lacoste rises dramatically over a verdant crest in the Luberon Valley. Once the residence of the Marquis de Sade, this 11th century fort is pitted with caverns and subterranean passages the aristocrat allegedly used for the incarceration of village girls - victims whose erotic torments he scrupulously detailed in his novels Justine and 120 Days of Sodom. Masochist that I was, I made my way up the steep, winding path to the castle now home to designer Pierre Cardin. Dispelling the aura of romantic doom, the designer had just hosted his 90th birthday fete there, and belly dancers and costumed revelers spilled down the cobblestones in a riotous mood. Scattered half-way down the hillside of Lacoste, was the Savannah College of Art and Design's (SCAD) vertiginous campus, a maze of terraced landings and dugout cavernous alcoves that have morphed into artist ateliers where students spend their 120 days contemplating far more pleasurable acts of creation.
In 2002 the college acquired the estate of 31 buildings from the painter Bernard Pfriem, an American expat who sowed his passion for the arts into the region, collecting and renovating abandoned buildings to transform into artist residencies. Since then, SCAD has been sprouting colonies of schools across the globe from Savannah to Hong Kong, bringing an ethnic mix of talent and diversity to Lacoste, and energizing the sleepy hamlets of nearby Bonnieux and Ménerbes.
The dwellings find niches in the garrigue, the scrub-covered rock-walls of the Luberon that erupt in shocks of lavender and cascading ivy. During my stay, Kiki Smith presented her collaborations with Valerie Hammond, an artist and former faculty member in an exhibition entitled Streaming Spirits. The project had stemmed from the idea of 'spirit photography', representations of the invisible in early 19th century photography such as the Cottingley fairies, and the belief in the afterlife that began Margaret & Kate Fox's modern spiritualist movement.
Image of Kiki Smith's back - by Valerie Hammond, 'apports', 4-color photogravure, 20 x 16 inches, 2012. SCAD permanent collection. Print created at SCAD Atlanta. Courtesy of Valerie Hammond.
"The beginning of photography was an experiment with the assemblage of reality," said Smith, whose show had loosely meandered into experiments with printmaking techniques, and was constrained by the scope of the tiny exhibition space and shaped by the artists' shared experiences at Lacoste.
Explaining the evolution of the work Hammond said, "Those images made you want to believe; they stem from beliefs in other realms." Hammond's mother had just passed away before she had arrived at Lacoste, and then a month after their stay, her father died, which expectedly had a meditative impact on her work. Kiki Smith summarized it philosophically, musing that, "the material and the physical were the manifestations of the spiritual."
Besides exploring the vestiges of the physical body, the two artists shared an interest in lithography and the palimpsests of impressions left behind on physical surfaces through the process of building and erasing residual layers of inks. Photographic inversions from black lines to white created ghostly apparitions, and Smith had also experimented with other imaging interventions into the physical realm with X-rays and MRIs, as well as working with multiple exposures on glass plates and stained glass etching techniques that stippled light and shade.
The artist has had an ongoing fascination with capturing the body's effluvium, breath and the intangibles that animate the body. "Vomit, breath and language, things that come out of your mouth." While Smith's images and sculptures explore and transgress the surface of the skin to expose its web of capillaries and musculature, her own skin too has become marked with a constellation of pigmented and beaded tattoos like strands of lapis lazuli.
In the evening, locals gathered at the Café de France perched on the edge of the mountain's slope. It was the lull before twilight when the sky turns shades of damask the same hues as the Rosé filling the slender translucent carafes at my table - sweetened with grapes grown from the Luberon's vineyards.
The Château loomed above and the breeze blew fragrant from fields of lavender in the valley below. Parisian and Russian curators picked on the fromage de chèvre and drank the Châteauneuf-du-Pape grown in the wider Vaucluse. Dusk brought out thick flocks of starlings that flew in sudden staccato bursts out of the steep mountainside - a haven for visiting students and tourists alike, but perhaps not all villagers who gripe about the glamourization of Lacoste. 73 year old local reporter Lucien Ricaud for the Marseillaise does not mind the change though, he was born in the Luberon - change is good, he tells me, it is more news to write about.
Valerie Hammond, Thanks for Calling, photogravure and letterpress, edition of 12, 2012. SCAD Permanent Collection.
Streaming Spirits: New Prints by Kiki Smith and Valerie Hammond
Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
July 7-September 1, 2012, La Galerie Pfriem, 84480 Lacoste, France
Special thanks to Cédric Maros for his assistance at SCAD Lacoste.
Correction: A previous edition of this article had incorrect captions the images of Kiki Smith's back and 'Thanks for Calling.' We regret this error.