Visual arts

Cécile Debray

Artists are the seismographs of our time

Director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, Cécile Debray is an iconic figure in the French contemporary art scene. Curator of several major international exhibitions – most recently “Préhistoire, une énigme moderne” (“Prehistory, a modern mystery”) at the Pompidou Centre with Rémy Labrusse and Maria Stavrinaki –, this year she is once again curating ¡Viva Villa!, which highlights the artists in residence at Casa de Velázquez, Villa Medici and Villa Kujoyama. Visit the exhibition at the Collection Lambert in Avignon from 11th October to 10th November 2019.

Updated on 04/05/2022

5 min

Cécile Debray
Cécile Debray
© DR

After being held in Paris in 2016 and 2017 and in Marseille in 2018, this year the ¡Viva Villa! festival is taking place in Avignon at the Collection Lambert. Why this choice of venue?

We were invited to take over the walls of the Collection Lambert by Yvon Lambert, a French gallerist and contemporary art dealer, who is inspired by his passion for the creations of young artists. Of course we were very excited about his proposal, because it allowed us to enter a museum setting which is very well-regarded in the contemporary art world. As an artists' residency festival ¡Viva Villa! also perfectly suits the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, which hosts a significant number of artistic residencies all year round.


You are the cultural heritage curator and director of the Musée de l’Orangerie. What was your role as curator of ¡Viva Villa! ? 

As curator of the exhibition, my role is to select works by artists in residence at the three villas in order to create an exhibition and a festival that highlights those artists while offering the public a coherent and stimulating experience. The theme of the festival is not something I come up with on my own, but rather emerges from the works and reflections of the artists.

I orchestrate a transdisciplinary presentation around a common narrative thread which reflects the concerns of a generation of artists and of an era.


This 2019 edition focuses on "The End of Forests." How did this theme emerge?

The general theme broadly emerges after my first visits to the workshops in Rome, Madrid and Kyoto. It is then refined through the choice of works and the relationships between them. However, the artists are never asked to create a work specifically for ¡Viva Villa!. The creation of the festival must not disrupt the residents’ time at the villas. I'd rather show older works which weren't made during the residency than have the festival end up hindering the artists’ independent reflection. Some, however, have chosen to adapt their creations to the festival format, which we love!

In recent months, many artists have taken up popular issues related to the anthropocene and ecological and political disorder. Furthermore, this winter storms brought down century-old pines at the Villa Medicis in Rome. This event was reflected in various forms in the works of the artists from the Italian residency. Whether by accident or by design, artists at both the Villa Kujoyama and Casa de Velázquez also addressed the notion of collapse and flora in the form of herbariums, screens, recycled objects, and an investigation/installation on invasive plants such as eucalyptus on the Spanish and Portuguese coasts, among other works. The question of the ecological, historical and political dimensions of nature and landscapes therefore became a common thread connecting the different research conducted at the three residences.

The question of the ecological, historical and political dimensions of nature and landscapes became a common thread.

Is it in the festival's DNA to get involved in contemporary social issues?

Artists are the seismographs of our time. They have a heightened sensitivity and that's what makes them so inspiring. The festival offers a reflection of their research - research which is in touch with the world. Working with these young artists means taking the pulse of the creative scene in general while also getting a feel for the new generation's unique perspective.  

Each of the three villas seems to have its own unique features. What is the Villa Kujoyama like?

Residencies at the Villa Kujoyama, notably due to its location in Japan, are very oriented towards crafts. I was struck this year by the creations of three residents who each examined the plant world from their own angle. Samy Rio worked with bamboo as a designer, Sandrine Rozier worked with indigo, creating a kind of herbarium to study Japanese dyes and techniques. As for Martine Rey, she focused on Japanese lacquer, which is plant-based. She harvested plants and experimented with lacquer on various media. The festival will also feature an installation by choreographer Emmanuel Guillaud, who incorporates projections of prints and decorative plant onto the body of dancer Takao Kawaguchi. We are also including the beautiful words of Arnaud Ryckner and more dance – an art form which is very well represented at Villa Kujoyama, in dialogue with the Japanese Butoh style– through the works of Nach, Camille Mutel, and other very talented artists.


The programme touches on the history of art, literature, photography and dance. Why this desire for a multidisciplinary experience?

The multidisciplinarity of the festival reflects that of the residencies themselves. The aim of ¡Viva Villa! is to allow these different disciplines to express themselves and meet through the festival, the exhibition and even in the catalogue. Art writers and historians, whose creative tool is writing, are highlighted in the catalogue. Visual artists have their work displayed in the exhibition, which is open to the public for four weeks. As for the performing arts – dance, theatre, musical composition and puppetry – they will be in the spotlight during the opening weekend festival: for three days the rooms of the Collection Lambert will be filled with performances, concerts, readings, etc.


How was the exhibition staged?

The Collection Lambert is a stripped-back space, a white box, and we wanted to respect that. We called on scenographer Joris Lipsch, who laid out the spaces in a minimalist fashion with the support of a technical team and in consultation with each of the artists. All the different artistic techniques are presented together – paintings, videos, installations, sculptures – and arranged according into five thematic sections: The Anthropocene Present / Collapse; Ecological Imaginaries / Herbaria; Vestiges / Persistence; Elephant Memory / Anamorphosis.

For the occasion, Ange Leccia, one of the first residents at the Villa Kujoyama - he was in residence there in 1992 - and a former resident of the Académie de France in Rome - has been generous enough to reconstruct one of his first films on the famous Villa Médicis Pines: the exhibition will thus begin with this great video, an educational and welcoming presence for which I am very grateful.

The Institut français and the project

The Villa Kujoyama is an establishment of the Institut français of Japan. It is supported by the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, which is its main sponsor, and the Institut français. Find out more about the Villa Kujoyama residency programme

L'institut français, LAB