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Italian-British artist duo Claire Fontaine’s neon sculptures, “Foreigners Everywhere” (2004–), serve as the conceptual centerpiece of the upcoming Venice Biennale’s flagship International Art Exhibition, curated by Adriano Pedrosa. In its first solo exhibition in Asia, hosted at the Atelier Hermès in southern Seoul, the collective presents the piece’s new fluorescent translation in Korean alongside English, Italian and French. Courtesy of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

Claire Fontaine’s first solo Asian show ‘Beauty is a Ready-made’ explores global identity, belonging

By Park Han-sol

“Stranieri Ovunque — Foreigners Everywhere,” the poignant title of the upcoming Venice Biennale’s flagship International Art Exhibition, originates from a series of neon sculptures started in 2004 by the Italian-British artist duo Claire Fontaine.

Over the years, their buzzing installations have come to spell out “Foreigners Everywhere” in 60 languages, including several indigenous tongues, some now extinct. The two artists adopted the phrase from another Italian collective, Stranieri Ovunque, which actively campaigned against racism and xenophobia in Europe in the early 2000s.

Artist Collective Claire Fontaine, Founded By Fulvia Carnevale, Left, And James Thornhill / Courtesy Of Claire Fontaine

Artist collective Claire Fontaine, founded by Fulvia Carnevale, left, and James Thornhill / Courtesy of Claire Fontaine

Adriano Pedrosa, the curator behind this year’s Venice Biennale show, explained the meaning of the expression as twofold: “First of all, wherever you go and wherever you are, you will always encounter foreigners — they/we are everywhere. Secondly, no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.”

The fact that their project has been chosen as the conceptual centerpiece of the world’s most prestigious survey of contemporary art two decades after its inception came as “a total surprise,” recalled Fulvia Carnevale, who founded Claire Fontaine with James Thornhill.

“Our perspective on this work hasn’t changed [since 2004], but what might have changed is the way it resonates with the world because the context has changed and it has worsened. We think it has become more and more contemporary,” she said during a recent press preview held to mark the opening of the duo’s first solo exhibition in Asia at the Atelier Hermès in southern Seoul.

“Foreigners Everywhere” has indeed become a charged and topical slogan now more than ever, as we stand in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis in human history, according to the UNHCR’s reports. And visitors to the Seoul show, titled “Beauty is a Ready-made,” can encounter its new fluorescent translation in Korean alongside English, Italian and French.

“The process of translation is probably the most interesting part of this work. Being a foreigner means not being understood [by others], but also not understanding things that seem obvious to other people. This goes with language, too,” the collective noted. “It is extremely interesting how this relation of being a foreigner can be syntactically rendered by language. How can we relate to a language that we don’t actually know?”

Installation View Of Claire Fontaine's Solo Exhibition, 'Beauty Is A Ready-Made,' At The Atelier Hermès / Courtesy Of Fondation D’entreprise Hermès

Installation view of Claire Fontaine’s solo exhibition, “Beauty is a Ready-made,” at the Atelier Hermès / Courtesy of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

Scattered Across The Photographic Vinyl Tile Floor, 'Cut-Up,' Which Visually Replicates Different Sections Of Actual Antique Outdoor Spaces In Palermo, Italy, Are A Batch Of Plastic Lemons Titled 'Migrants.' Korea Times Photo By Park Han-Sol

Scattered across the photographic vinyl tile floor, “Cut-up,” which visually replicates different sections of actual antique outdoor spaces in Palermo, Italy, are a batch of plastic lemons titled “Migrants.” Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol

Occupying the gallery alongside the neon sculpture are Claire Fontaine’s nine other equally polemical ready made installations that stealthily reflect on issues of our time — from immigration to late capitalism.

“Cut-up” is a photographic vinyl tile floor that visually replicates various sections of actual antique outdoor spaces in Palermo, Italy, each carrying cultural imprints from both the Mediterranean and the Arab world. In doing so, it illustrates the layered history of migration present throughout the region.

Scattered all over this floor is a batch of plastic lemons that roll around the visitors’ feet and continue to get in their way. Its title, “Migrants,” makes a rather obvious — but still striking — reference to their presence in Italy — and Europe in general. Although they may be deemed troublesome, their colorful “invasion” is capable of changing the energy of the entire space, suggesting the potential of coexistence.

“When lemons are in season in Sicily, they transform the public space with intense blocs of yellow,” the duo said. “This incredible beauty feels exotic and excessive like the migrants in the streets of the city that revitalize deserted neighborhoods and fill them with a more colorful, more joyful presence than the Italian one.”

Nearby, a peculiar, borderline unlawful set of master keys hangs on the wall. Composed of hacksaw blades, paper clips, razor blades, allen keys and hair pins, “Passe-partout,” in theory, provides access to all the spaces in the city that are typically off-limits, thus making the attempts to restrict entry based on wealth and social status meaningless.

Claire Fontaine's Led Installation 'Beauty Is A Ready-Made' (2020-24) / Courtesy Of Fondation D’entreprise Hermès

Claire Fontaine’s LED installation “Beauty is a Ready-made” (2020-24) / Courtesy of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès

It may seem ironic to see Claire Fontaine’s subversive ready made pieces, which take a playful jab at the political implications of the late capitalist era, displayed in the Atelier Hermès — a gallery nestled within the French luxury design house’s flagship store in Seoul’s upscale neighborhood.

But the two creatives view the apparent clash between their art and the space itself as both unavoidable and stimulating.

“We often say that our artworks are born inside the world we all live in, which is the world of the commodity,” they said. “Artworks have a double life in the sense that they have a commercial life — they are commodities like any other object and have their own market — but they also have a cultural and existential value. They live a life inside the people who make them their own by encountering and being touched by them.”

“And in this journey, we hope that this duplicity can shift people’s value system towards understanding the inestimable value that the cultural and the existential aspects have in comparison to the commercial one.”

“Beauty is a Ready-made” runs through June 9 at the Atelier Hermès in southern Seoul.

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