The Great French Museum


« Art d’autoroute » est un projet mené de 2009 à 2015 par le graphiste Julien Lelièvre. Bénéficiant d’une allocation de recherche du Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP), la recension photographique de soixante-et-onze œuvres d’art réparties le long du réseau autoroutier français offre un panorama de cet art autoroutier parfois décrié et souvent méconnu. Le photographe Éric Tabuchi fait l’éloge de l’inventaire, tout en questionnant notre rapport à l’art autoroutier : qu'est-ce qu'un art qui, s'adressant à tout le monde, ne plaît à personne ? Et comment s'en accommoder ? Il examine attentivement la rigueur d’une démarche qui déclenche des réflexions sensibles et construites et convoquent autant les souvenirs que la structuration critique de l’ensemble de ce « parc » qualifié de grand musée français par l’auteur. L’ouvrage « Art d’autoroute » (Building Books, 2019) restitue cette démarche photographique et accueille le texte.

In Julien LELIÈVRE. Art d’autoroute. Paris: Building Books, 2019, p. 19-22. 

There is no boredom quite so excruciating as that of driving on French motorways. At least that’s how it feels to me whenever I drive on them. And although motorways may produce visions of near blissfulness, especially at dusk, my state of mind whenever I embark on a motorway journey is one close to resignation. There is no denying that the absolute antithesis of roads, which play such an important part in my work, is the motorway and I try to avoid it.

Nevertheless, my aversion is of no consequence and I am perfectly capable of ignoring it and of finding Julien Lelièvre’s endeavour both admirable Fig. 1aFig. 1bFig. 1c, considering the time and energy he devoted to seeing it through, and courageous, when you consider the scant interest, if not contempt, people have for public commissions in general and motorway art in particular. In that respect, the author of this book is one of those unsung heroes who, in the face of total indifference, plough a lonely furrow, seeing through projects that no one would expect anyone to undertake. You need to be moved by something stronger than self-denial to pick up this kind of challenge and probably slightly mad, too, to imagine that you can rehabilitate such a discredited art form. Of course, in heaping praise on Julien Lelièvre like this, I’m sending a little bit of praise in my own direction, too, since in some respects, the obsessive nature of my work and my fondness for unfashionable objects, is not dissimilar to Julien Lelièvre’s.

But to come back to the motorway, it is a world apart, a perfect metaphor for progress in the sense that, like progress, the motorway moves inexorably on. Progress it is, then, but for anyone seeking a sense of freedom as they travel through the countryside, it is like driving on a closed circuit. Once you have driven through the toll gate and reached cruising speed, you have to deal with that overwhelming sense of alienation. Ironically, for a place that is all about travelling, there are few places less conducive to getting away from it all than the motorway. Nothing imaginative or surprising is likely or indeed allowed to take place. The motorway is a hiatus in which nothing can ever happen. So, probably in order to soften its totalitarian character, unless of course it is actually to celebrate its omnipotence (you can never really tell what meaning to assign to a public commission), the authorities responsible for planning the infrastructures have dotted huge sculptures along the way, alternating between curved ones and pointed ones, carrots and sticks, as it were, that evoke both the regions crossed and the progress associated with them. In this closed-circuit environment in which pragmatism combines with functionality, it is not easy to bring out the symbolic and the beautiful, which by definition are neither useful nor easily quantifiable. The motorway as a solution to the speed/security equation was perfectly capable of doing without the irrational presence of this art which, in a departure from all traditions, celebrates neither military victory, nor the memory of a national hero, nor even the glorious achievements of an inventor or a poet. But, for reasons that probably stem from the urge to dominate, which the technological mind feels towards sensitivity, art had to be given a place, to be allowed to act as the straight-man, on the verges and in the service areas. Free art for pay-as-you-drive motorways, as it were.

My mother, when grumpy moods overtook the back seat on long car journeys in the family hatchback, would remind us that “only idiots get bored.” Though somewhat excessive, that maxim has always stayed in my mind, except, and I don’t say it with pride, on the motorway. On the motorway, there’s nothing for it, I am the bored idiot. I love the disorder and the muddle of the ordinary roads (the routes nationales)—the feeling that the unexpected might happen at any moment—, but the motorway experience is too cerebral, too introspective, and I have neither the wisdom nor the spirituality to appreciate the metaphysics of it. Sitting motionless behind the wheel as I whizz along the road at the unlikely speed of 130 kilometres an hour, I invariably feel as if I’m trapped in an experimental film, in some long sequence shot going from Paris to Lyon, Metz or Limoges, and of course I have to watch it from beginning to end, for in this cinema—which, in spite of everything, is actually real life—falling asleep is out of the question.

My defence mechanism against this potential numbness of the brain consists in making the slightest visual stimulus an event powerful enough to keep me alert. The little signs on the central reservation that count off the kilometres, rows of wind turbines up on a hill, logos on the back of heavy goods vehicles, a building in the distance: any or all of these things serve to keep up a minimal level of vigilance. In this hotch-potch of disparate signals, motorway art should logically occupy a prominent place, but curiously, with few exceptions (the colourful geometric figures along the embankments on the A4 after Reims spring to mind Fig. 2 Fig. 3aFig. 3bFig. 3c), near the tollgates or in the rest areas, they don’t provide the right amount of stimulus when it is needed. And it is probably not what they are there for.

Just like when I’m driving on a motorway, my thoughts have strayed. I’m on another tack, listening to Autobahn, that wonderful long track by Kraftwerk that took up the whole of the A-side of their vinyl album of the same name. I have never had a quiet enough car to be able to listen comfortably to music in it, so I have never had the experience of driving along the A7, for example, to the hypnotic rhythm of those great Düsseldorf musicians. It would be an exponential motorway experience to match an op-art creation by Vasarely Fig. 4. As far as Kraftwerk is concerned, I have never really worked out the extent to which irony plays a part in their music, but it seems to me that motorway art, in its glorification of progress, is not far removed from titles like Radio-Activity or TransEurope Express.

And how do the sculptures fit into all this? To be perfectly frank, the main attraction they hold for me stems from the generalised indifference, not to say downright hostility, that they arouse in most people. I have to say that I think their great quality is to achieve an almost unanimous antipathy towards themselves, not just from the general public but from specialists, too. Basically, motorway art raises a real question: what kind of art is it that, in striving to appeal to everyone, appeals to no one? And what should we make of it? I am incapable of providing any kind of answer. In any case, it would be irrelevant because the age of motorways and the art that goes with them is obsolete: the networks of today are transnational or global and our cars have become high speed trains or Airbuses. Admittedly, the phenomenon is still vague but it is becoming clearer, and in this respect Julien Lelièvre’s work is visionary; it is so comprehensive that it encapsulates an era that will soon be a thing of the past. With admirable rigour, Lelièvre confirms what we already sense coming, namely that the motorway network, with its dubious artistic language, will possibly soon become part of the Great French Museum. His book is, in a certain sense, a first step in the process.

So let us take a look into the near future. It is the year 2030. Just as tourists have been able to take the Médoc wine route or go to the châteaux of the Loire Valley, in their thirst for something new, they are now able to visit the 71 sites listed here. The specialist agencies are offering various circuits: An Introductory tour, A Tour for Experts, Weekend Away, The Economy Tour, The Luxury Tour—the possibilities are endless. Attractive brochures will vaunt their diversity, their cultural interest and their rare, exotic qualities. In the age of generalised leisure, people will come from far and wide to visit our motorway rest areas, to discover the quality of French civil engineering, and to admire the boldness of works of art cunningly located in totally safe surroundings. And the motorway, now become a theme park and open air museum, will gain a new lustre from which boredom, I am quite sure, will be totally absent.