DARK PLACES: Part I.
‘Go to church. Or the Devil will get you!’
On the occasion of the Nord Fiction Festival, the Ecausseville Airship Hangar (Normandy, France), a final remnant of an airship hangar of extravagant dimensions classified as a historical monument since 2003, was transformed into a creative lab. It played host to Dark Places: Part I - ‘Go to Church. Or the Devil Will Get You!’, the first chapter of my new on-going project titled Dark Places.
Press article: TRAX MAGAZINE - Comment l’artiste Cécile di Giovanni a fait construire une chapelle en plein festival ?
Dark Places enacts the functional and architectural transformation of ‘suspicious’ places in the United States. It takes the form of a series of episodes, that follows my movements around the US. Each section takes as its focus a city, a state or a region of America, and places that I consider central to my artistic research. For each chapter of Dark Places, I create a unique installation, inspired by the different architectures of the elements I have selected to focus on. The scale and scope of the installation depends on the exhibition space in which the project is shown, allowing me to create a dialogue between the space and the work.
Dark Places also features a publication or other form of documentation for each geographical section of the project, conceived as the diary of a sort of architectural detective, that will report the various analyses and observations of the transformed elements, as well as the process of creating the resulting installation.
By focusing specifically on symbols, figures and places drawn from dramatic stories, events, and fictions that deeply impacted me, I seek to analyze and compare American material culture. I draw parallels between the changes they undergo over time with the evolution of the intimate relationship I have with them, and the symbolism they constitute for me and in the collective imaginary. Whether these symbols are at the service of fictions or are drawn from real events, how do their transformations and sometimes disappearance, impact the relationship that we have with the myths and stories to which these symbols are attached? What space do these symbols occupy, through their mutations, in our imagination?
The church and the hairship hangar
For the first episode of Dark Places, the artifice of a old rundown American church was built in situ in eight days in collaboration with the Bankal & Decker Collective. It was designed to reflect the transcendental beauty of this unique location, of which the procedures of construction, unveil at once the front and back of the work in the exhibition space, reflecting a sense of a film set, the stage set of a theater, or the front of a haunted house in a theme park.
The church's aesthetic is directly inspired by the gothic style of farms and chapels in the southern states of America. Its appearance is made in direct reference to the house of the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic, and other churches and farms appearing in American pop culture through horror movies and music videos such as November Rain, Jeepers Creepers, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre among others. The choice to build the artifice of a church on this scale was made to echo the sacred character of the hangar and its history, aiming to pay homage to the striking architecture of the building.
The style of the church front, imbued with the aesthetic codes of the haunted house and horror fiction, is brought into direct confrontation with the austere surroundings and the history those surroundings embody. Constructed by the Marine Nationale, the French navy, during the First World War to hold airships used to combat German submarines. Later, the navy used the airship hangar to store artillery batteries until 1939. In June 1944, the Americans built workshops for their vehicles and weapons in the hangar, employing a number of prisoners there, hence the multilingual graffiti found there.
To dare to build a horror attraction in a place of war, almost draws us to envisage this old vestige of a history long passed as a theater imprisoned in its own story, a story that it continues to narrate.
To represent the artifice of a church in the manner of a fictive decor in a place that has itself been a real theater of combat in the past is to question if the importance is truly to know if the stories that we tell are true or false, or rather how they manage to reincarnate these events that have marked human history.
My singular focus on representation of the building entrance mimics the experience of the viewer, it is often only the striking front edifice of the building that is viewable in popular imaging. Therefore, sticking to this aspect in a way is in keeping with the fantasy of the building. By presenting both the decorative front and the constructed back of the installation to the audience, I aimed to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, creating a space that might elicit a feeling of unease and uncertainty in the viewer. This kind of play builds a frisson, where everything can be true, and may allow the simulacra to become more real than the Real itself.
Situated in Normandy, a region marked by American culture during and after the Second World War, the hangar is the perfect place to launch the first episode of Dark Places. The hangar emanates starkly out of the countryside outside Ecausseville, a village of only a hundred inhabitants. Arriving in the region, I immediately saw correspondences with isolated areas in the American south, such as in Louisiana, and in Alabama, and drew from those links my inspiration for the installation, in the themes of the Southern Gothic genre.
The Southern Gothic is in no way an anecdotic reference for this work, but at the core of this first episode of Dark Places. It is a genre that opens up pathways by which we might try to understand the torments of present-day America. In its capitalistic excesses, America has forgotten its own people, who hide in the arid lands of the wild South, a place built on blood and death. Southern Gothic, as its name suggests, borrows from an the European Gothic tendency, whose focus was the fantastic interaction of Eros and Thanatos; sex and death. As a genre the Southern Gothic would first emerge in the mid-19th century, before finding its genrefied footing in the work of writers such as William Faulkner in the early-20th.
The characteristics of the Southern Gothic present a recognisable identity for the southern states in the US that has inspired and influenced wide ranging forms of culture there. We might think of the striking image of the humid bayou, the discordant notes of a Blues song drifting in through the thick air. The music made in such places remains unique, and are a part of their strange charm. Built by slavery, the American South carries with it important parts of black American culture, its music is an integral part of the cultural identity of the US as a whole. Tinged with an oblique mysticism, where the occult mixes with the sacred, the Southern Gothic lies within an atmosphere not entirely that of fantasy, but also not entirely real.
Often performing a role of social critique, the Southern Gothic is widely present in modern cinema, in particular in the horror genre. Under the influence of the Hays Code, from 1934 to 1968, cinema was unable to represent any form of violence, nudity or sex. Following the end of the Hays Code, from the late-1960s, films depicting extreme violence began to emerge from a reinvigorated New Hollywood. This occurred at the same time as the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War echoed through American society, and broke down the idyllic image of the United States. Horror cinema experienced a renaissance with an onslaught of violence, sex, and death. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes appeared, depicting a violence that engages with the traumas of an entire society. In films such as these, we see the depiction of rednecks as a symbol of the abject, rednecks from the depths of the South, who will become an essential figure in American horror cinema. Horror no longer came from the elsewhere, but became an inherent part of American cinema itself.
In such a spiritual society, it is perhaps almost unthinkable to criticise religion. However the Southern Gothic acts to destroy all forms of the sacred. The corpse, far from a quiet repose in America’s carefully manicured cemeteries where the dead sleep in peace, rots out in the open. The deathly body becomes not only the sacred link with God, but the link with through the occult to the Devil.
The Southern Gothic is vast, but remains a genre passionate in its search to bring to light all the paradoxes of the South and of the US on a larger scale. The demons exist, they no longer hide under the guise of terrifying monsters. The evil depicted is all too human, and the real monsters look just like us. The Southern Gothic transcribes the fears of a society turned in against itself. It represents the fears at the core of American identity, something that is brought to center stage over and over again in the works of the genre.
‘Go to church. Or the Devil will get you!’
The project’s title and its main symbol, a red devil armed with a scythe, refers to a famous sign located at the entrance of Prattville, Alabama. It was created and erected on his land by a devoted religious named W.S. ‘Bill Newell’ in the 80’s. After disappearing in 2016 because of a storm, the sign was rebuilt in 2018 by his sons, upon request from motorists and locals:
Wedding performance at the church with artist and singer Mathilde Fernandez:
Limited edition of t-shirts that were on sale during the festival:
3D rendering of the church
Dark Places is an on-going project imagined and conceived by Cécile di Giovanni.
The installation was designed, built and conceived in collaboration with the Bankal & Decker collective (Nils Brunel, Arsène Filliatreau, Yoann Pellerin, Erwan Faucon-Lo Pinto) with the contribution of Theophile Varin, Lisa Slangen and Charles Cadic.
Photos: Romain Guédé, Arsène Filliatreau, Lou Nicolas, Louis Borel, Cécile di Giovanni.
3D rendering of the church: Sophie Mil.
Graphics and Dark Places visual: Lucas Masini.
Special thanks: Marlène Huard, Guillaume Toutain-Avy, the entire team of Nord Fiction festival, Paskal Lecureuil.