Mille cent neuf mètres – Puits Yvon Morandat of Claire-Dantzer & Pierre Lambert

Un Anglais à Marseille #12

Prof d’anglais et coursier à vélo à Marseille, Rory Launder livre son regard sur la ville tout en vous donnant une occasion de réviser votre anglais. Dans ce nouvel épisode, il nous emmène à la découverte des expositions Cosmopolitiques et Mille cent neuf mètres – Puits Yvon Morandat à Buropolis, dont le finissage est prévu ce samedi.



Trundling along Romain Rolland the surface is awful, potholes, drains, parked cars, it’s a mess. Fun fact: all the roads in Marseille point to the Vieux Port (or the Mairie if you want to be pedantic) in that the numbers (odd on the left even on the right) go up as you get further away from the Hôtel de Ville. Fun fact no.2: Roman Rolland is one of the few exceptions, the numbers going down as you approach La Valbarelle.

A little bunny-hop for the front wheel is required as we turn off to the right into the calm of a long sideroad. Buropolis looms in the distance. Tunes are blazing so I turn them down, and catch English accents, also on bikes, in their twenties . . . I ignore them, pretending I didn’t notice. I’m not jealous.

Some 1970s office blocks have a certain Brutalist charm, concrete monstrosities striking firmly out from the earth: the Barclays Tower in Poole, Crack Castle in Bristol, Dworzec Zachodnie in Warsaw, the residential block on the left as you climb up towards Pharoh, its pastel inlays offsetting the sheet metal. Buropolis is not amongst them. This is the kind of office where, on arriving for an administrative assistant temp interview, you must remind yourself: this is only temporary, one could lose twenty years in here, be careful.


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The 9th floor is vertiginous, better to look out across the skyline than straight down. Cosmopolitiques is in full swing, blue or pink hair for the boys, red eyebrow-mascara for the girls. It’s rare to have a view over the North of the city, spending so little time in the South as we do. From here the city looks pretty flat, until slowly mounting towards St. Charles. The obvious exception being the Vélodrome, a fitting accent to Cosmopolitiques, its bulbous moulded triangular exterior mimicking the imagined interiors of Sci-Fi’s spaceships. The windows are open and people are smoking. I join them in watching the sunset, and watching the people.

Also on the 9th floor, just across the hall in fact is Mille cent neuf mètres – Puits Yvon Morandat. Claire Dantzer and Pierre Lambert welcome me warmly. Stretching out to my left three large flags supported by scaffolds as flagpoles lay at angles. The flags are too large and the ceiling too low for the flags to be stood erect. As the sun goes down over Cosmopolitiques, a full moon rises over Mille cent neuf mètres.

Claire is in full stream-of-consciousness, several times I’m obliged to ask her to wait, my frantic scribbling unable to keep up. “The Puits Yvon Morandat is a coal mine, the deepest well in Europe. It opened in 1994, despite France having already started closing its coal mines in the 1970s. In 2003 a decision was taken to close the mine permanently, to plug it with concrete. The shaft of 1,109m could be descended in just three minutes in the purpose-built industrial lift.”

“To nip the local uprising and growing protests against its closure in the bud, the mine was closed quickly. There are stories of sabotage, the management cutting the power, disabling the mine. The mine was closed in such haste that the machines were abandoned. The pumps have stopped, the water has returned consuming the equipment.

“We wanted to make a performance – to inscribe – to materialise the 1,109m of the vertical onto the horizontal. The route that Pierre takes, the different surfaces he traverses – the carpark, the roads, the residential countryside, and finally up out onto the summit of the Massif de l’Étoile – mimic the geological stratification beneath.

“The use of flags draws attention to, or marks territory, or relays over distance a message . . . we wanted to use the fluorescent colours of high-visibility jackets for their connection with industry, and with protest movements. We constructed them as a jigsaw with a hidden emblem, that of a raised fist.

“Time stands still, the headframe now only serves as a roost for pigeons. It’s abandoned, but has not yet been visited by graffiti artists, free parties, or other squatters. The zone is far from everything and is still guarded.”

A series of photographs accompanies the flags: symbols and slogans of resistance, the control tower littered with the day’s timesheets, a coffee cup, bird shit everywhere. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a video of the performance. A camera positioned on a drone views Pierre from above, and follows him as he runs the 1,109m to the summit, a top-down view, a ‘long take’, one continuous shot.

And he’s off! And he’s not hanging around either, this is no funeral march. Pierre in his customary black t-shirt and cut-off black jeans shows little sign of difficulty running with the flag. The flagpole bending against his shoulder, succumbing to the drag, the wind resistance, the flag billowing rhythmically like the fins of a manta ray.

Out of the industrial estate and across the flyover, the motorway perpendicular below, towards a roundabout. The bicycle courier in Pierre instinctively dodges out into the road cutting seamlessly through the oncoming traffic, bewildered drivers slowing to let him pass between them, too shocked to beep. There’s plenty of space.

The terrain changes, the tarmac dwindles away, a residential lane, gardens, and on. It’s moving to see Pierre’s efforts in one continuous take like this. The camera rises to avoid the canopy, as Pierre switches shoulder again, the flag weighing him down, but still clearly visible in all its fluorescent glory slicing through the dense dark green of the foliage.

A sandy track now, shorter uncertain steps, dry branches crackling underfoot, small stones giving way, tumbling down the hill. We see his labour, feel his breathing. The trees are thinning out, picking his way up through scrubland, he accelerates again, stinging the eyes, and out onto the plateau. Slowing to a walk for the last few steps, now facing back down towards the mine, the flag is prepared and rolled out triumphantly in figures of eight, alone, defiant.


Rory Launder @un_anglais_a_marseille


Cosmopolitiques (expo collective) et Mille cent neuf mètres – Puits Yvon Morandat de Claire Dantzer et Pierre Lambert : finissage le 14/05 à partir de 18h à Buropolis