Late in the afternoon I was hurrying up the road, craving for a warm cup of tea. To my surprise, I noticed an open gate on the side of the road; something unusual these days. It was looking as if it was meant to invite people in; yet there were no signs, or hints shedding light on the purpose of that open space. It was another place to welcome me before my beloved nest.
I told myself is an occasion to discover, too good in fact for me to ignore. I walked
in, surprised of the speed at which the noise of the city faded away. A wide stone yard is at the end of the passage, with some old chairs, a table, a few wild plants here and there… It felt as if time hadn’t passed, a corner miraculously forgotten by the greed of urbanization.
A big, sole, door, appeared as the only inhabited place. Slightly open, hidden by an aerial composition of hanging objects, it gave a flair of mystery and it triggered a unique, outspoken question… What is it!? I called for someone. A little minute goes, and then a voice, from an indeterminable location, kindly replies “Come in!”. There starts my discovery of the world of Frank Garam, French artist and hidden pearl of the city of Marseille, South of France.
Every day, for the past 18 years, between 17pm and 19pm, Frank welcomes those who discover his house, oasis, workshop, and museum. This unique and ever changing oeuvre d’art is now under threat, and risks to disappear for ever after, to leave place to the headquarters of an associated architect company.
Certainly, an unappealing story for mainstream medias, as it is just another example (of the many ignored) of how an individual is pushed away from the system as an encumbering appendix. But Frank holds much more than that, is the story of a man who transformed his refusal of a market-society, and his psychological diversity, into an open space of discovery, through the means of his art and humbleness.
Below a narration of what I could observe thanks to plenteous conversations, and regular visits in at Frank’s atelier.
A quest into matter
Frank Garam’s story is molded by his evolving relation to objects and social structure. His art is fueled by his innate quest for knowing, discerning, understanding. Not the realm of ideas, as it is often common in the Western world, but the one of matter, of transformation, of aesthetic and tangible expression.
As a child, his family would call him the “casse tout” (break-all), because he would deconstruct objects of his choice (radios, electric cars, toys,…) to see HOW it was done, but then would leave them as they were, deconstructed. He was always asking “Why is it [made] like this?”, and would receive the usual deceiving answer “Because it is like that!”. Frank explained how this frustrated him, he was very much disappointed as he felt that his questions were in the full right of existing, thus must have an equally righteous counterpart.
As he was 16, he started hanging around at his uncle’s lamp workshop, in Marseille, where he then became apprentice. From this very first experience, which lasted a few years, Frank understood that salary work was not his thing. He started asking himself why he should be dependent on someone, applying his orders. He felt that he was doing for another person, and not for himself.
By then, it was long he had started to recompose the objects he analysed. His love for matter and composition was just starting, but was deemed never to disappear. At some point during the interview, he reassured me “But I worked in my life [salary work], and everything went good, I gained well my life”. But he then realized how working with the consciousness that “you do things that are useless” was deleterious for him, so he became “a professional unemployed”, as he defines himself ironically.
He explains :
“When you are [officially] unemployed, the only thing to silence them [the job center] is a medical certificate. The only way for the system to accept that you do not participate in the job market, and consequently to a specific mode of life, is to declare that you are incapable to do it. Either you declare yourself inapt for it, for a « normal life », either you must take part to it. If you like, they gave me a status of sick to protect me.”
For him, this relative isolation, has been hard to live and to accept. He felt he had no place in society. But here, objects come in again.
In 1999, he found a house with a convenient contract, 30 Boulevard de la Libération, not far from where he was apprentice in his uncle’s shop. As it often happens in life, while one follows simple insights without really knowing why, Frank started to build a space of wander, a paradise of the unwanted, of harmonious shapes, fairy characters, hybrid beings and psychedelic scenarios. A surrealist world built, piece after piece, along the last 18 years.
What happens in a workshop of metamorphosis
Frank is a collector, whom has developed a unique sense of aesthetics through his observations and experiments. All his artistry is done using recycled objects and materials, an old trolley, a piece of a hoover, old magazines, pieces of toys, … anything that attracts his attention and solicits his imagination. He finds most of it walking in the roads of the city, or gets its from neighbors, supporters or friends. Yet, he does not collect objects with a fixed purpose, as such reflecting his approach to life, “It is not me that find the objects, is the objects that find me!”. His actions are rarely based on calculation, but on the ex-temporary fertility of daily events, cause and consequence of his human and social posture, a denial of the dualism gain/loose.
Once an object, a matter, has entered his workshop, it will lie “for a day, ten years or ten minutes”… And then his favorite moment happens, the magic moment. Where the different objects “reassemble themselves”, taking a new life, new shape, new function. “I dissect, and rebuild”, no more complications to it. Nonetheless, the objects and installations he creates, are often mechanically complex pieces. He uses parts of engines, minimal machines to set into motion his oeuvres, turn, swift..
In this sense, Frank is a deep-reaching pacifist. Where his principles go beyond politics, but attain the everyday life. His kindness and shyness is equally present in the way he treats matter. He does not impose his imagination, but creates thorough his art-work a space of communication, emotion, and discovery. Children are hypnotized by the infinitude of objects and tools, while elderly people are emotional and often dispense generous thankfulness. Passengers engage into political debates, and exchange their views and experiences, still surrounded by magnificent and iridescent oeuvres.
When asked “What is your last oeuvre?” he answers with certainty that there is not a last piece, that everything is in the process of becoming, that what might seem accomplished may be well deconstructed again and take new life, or be modified and change function. That illuminates his conception of art, not conceptual, but physical, mutable and participated.
The power of image
When you enter Frank’s atelier, you have the feeling of being in a museum. Yet, all oeuvres are made out of objects and matters that were found, and as such previously undesired. Those objects coming from your childhood, a never-used Christmas present, bits and pieces you forgot the use of. Not wanted, abandoned, forgotten, dismissed from the domestic reign and private sphere, and packed in a plastic bag on the side of the road. Frank takes them back, and reinterprets their existence.
Visitors often have an expression of surprise, amazement, and then a feeling of tenderness and nostalgia. Frank claims that his art has a power of seduction, because it touches the memory of people.
“Those who enter, see images coming from their past… that toy that they loved 30 years ago, that chair that they use to see at the post office when it was not so bad if you had to wait a little”.
As if his oeuvres were mirrors to a person’s past emotions and experiences. A composition of living symbols, emanating permeable memories of those years when you absorbed every detail and color, and an object might have been as much actor of your life as your childhood friend.
“…I have the power of image, that is what I explore”
So finally, his oeuvres are as much mutating as what they produce. They are not static, they do not have universal presumption, an immutable meaning, but they change radically depending on the plethora of variables that pertain to the human reality and its array of possibilities. Frank does not want to deliver a message through his art, his creative process is a way of life. It is a man’s way to exist, and to be in society, a way of being and giving at the same time.
Money and society, power
Frank recalls his childhood, when the doors of the houses were open, and you could go in to play, park your bike, or just have a glass of water. Now, he says, doors are closed. This realization is the inception of the modus operandi of his workshop and living space. A space to be discovered, where money is not part of the deal and where there is no pre-arranged mode of relation.
“Today, I have the impression that everybody expects a gain out of everything. A direct gain. Meaning, you invest, you harvest.”
For him, the return is indirect. You give, you share, you meet, and there will be a return to you somehow, “but there will be no bill, no papers, or fixed exchange terms”. As an example, he tells how he offered to the museum of Lausanne one of his best pieces, a chandelier which took him years to put together. The only reward he requested is that the chandelier would not be sold (“if there are 2 million on the table you can call me though”, he laughs). This tells a lot on his relation to the world, to the living, the surrounding. It is a relation of constant exchange and dialogue. His knowledge comes primarily, he claims, from the people he meets and the experiences he is engaged in.
Still he sees, in his surroundings, a deterioration of people’s freedom:
“Humor is in decline. There are many topics over which you could laugh before which now are taboos … Only the trees can make fun of the trees. Everything is written in the first degree, there is no second degree, everything is basic, it’s football … People are less independent… This decline invites me to look solutions elsewhere.”
The object, then, becomes connection, it creates spaces. The Metamorphosis workshop is a place to create, other than craft, human connections, “art is made by itself”.
Frank never sold his art pieces, despite numerous requests. He does not believe in money, and does not seek enrichment. For him, “[money] are hurting human beings, by creating poverty and richness.”. Since he adopted this posture, he realized how his life got easier, time became fertile, and his exchange with people happened differently. The absence of money opens other spaces, where the encounter is not based on a gain/loose spectrum, but on a human level.
“Human beings are made to be complementary.
Then, there is a whole system that is made to break this up.
Education, religion, possession…”
At the Metamorphosis Workshop, nothing is sold, or preached. You can look, or talk, drink tea, think… or all at the same time! His best reward, he says, is when a child smiles full teeth and spends one hour in the workshop experimenting.
Present and Future
By now, the housing complex in Boulevard de la Libération is empty. Frank explains how “… there was a life, there were artisans, artist. It was full, they were fighting for parking their car.. there was life, the yard was flowering, it was a paradise. But I am the last one, I am alone”. The building has been bought by an architect company who wants to build cabinets, and Frank’s contract has not been renewed, due to “insalubrious conditions”. Little by little, the inhabitants did not renovate their contract. Just another time were the systems impedes, and there are cryptic papers flying around, and boxes ready to refill, for another round of survival…
Not the case for Frank however, his workshop is his life, and his means do not allow him to take sudden decisions. His revenue is very low, and the prices of housing are extremely high, and he is, as he says, unknown. But it is also a chosen posture, “I am ready to die here, it is my baby”.
The power of money is almost always indisputable,
and what is not made out of money is hardly ever understood.
His choice of resistance lays in his call for recognition. Frank refers to the Brâncuși law to make his point. A law born out of a controversy in the 20s, where Constantin Brâncuși refused to pay import taxes on a statue that he crafted out of bronze and was importing in the States. He claimed that beyond matter there was art. The case revolved around how to define art, given that art articles were off duty according to US law, while bronze was not. Frank defend that he is an art oeuvre himself, while the buyers and previous owners consider him as a mere encumbrance to their investment project. He holds that the creative concept he created, and the workshop he build, must and shall be recognized for their artistic and social value. Nonetheless, he adds that “in war time, there are no discourses. Without exchange, there is no communication.” Still he fights, and devolves his trust to his values and understanding of a just society.
The only hosts he had who did not show bewilderment to his world are the future buyers, whom visited the workshop a few times, but “only looked at the square meters”. How sometimes it is really just a matter of perspective. Frank holds his ground, and has declared that he will not move of an inch if the new owners do not find him another place to set a new workshop and project. Surprisingly, he is having conciliatory feedback. He smiles when saying that presumably their papers “are not quite in order”, alluding to probable irregularities in the deal settlement. So, meeting points are possible, but not given. The power of money is almost always indisputable, and what is not made out of money is hardly ever understood. Since a few weeks, he receives “weird visits”, as an undercover psychiatrists to assess the nature of his illness and his social status.
“They do not look what you are doing. When there is something that disturbs you, you are not used to look at it. It is like the rich man who does not see the poor who’s hungry, it disturbs him to know, in his subconscious, that is eating, drinking good wines, … People are voracious.”
It is still to know what will be of the Metamorphosis Workshop, 30 Boulevard de la Libération. Frank is in attempting to communicate with the city elites as much as with his neighborhood and entourage. Nonetheless, the negotiation between the buying enterprise and former owners have resulted in a vacation order, decreed by the 31st of March 2017, less than two weeks. Full Stop. [
Frank intends to use his space at his best for as long it is there. However, he admits that “as an artist [he] feel[s] strong, but as a man not quite”. When I asked him what he envisions for the future, he answered “the same thing, but better!”. He wants to build a new atelier, applying his metamorphosis method, yet developing further the shared aspect of the workshop. One dream he has, is to run workshops for children around the discovery of craft and the conception of magical spaces, where all is possible.
Do we like diversity?
If the “world” would be to listen and observe, Frank Garam has a lot to say. As much as any every day “hero” has. He exemplifies the dilemma of a contemporary Westerner, and often human being tout cour // our quest for freedom, and our inescapable interdependence. Frank Garam shows how a life choice in antithesis with the status quo has tremendous consequences, which indisputably attempt to the person’s livelihood. He tells us how a different sensibility hardly finds a place in our market-driven societies, where the deviant (i.e. psychologically ill) is the only status we can accord (the “we” is obviously approximate). The quest for freedom and participation through a human (=unpredictable) research is not perceived as a resource for the wider collectively, but ignored or even condemned as inappropriate and impeded. In our mode of ‘survivor’, it is hard to understand how one can reject money, and ignore the plateau for the glorious, offered to the united mass.
Are we then a society open to diversity? Are we, in the “West” as inclusive as we would like to believe? Despite governments and institutions are advocates of democracy, freedom, and human rights, and all the consequent values and practices, money and power still hold their divisive, incontestable power. The individual’s contribution to society is accepted as far as it produces economic value, despite the stark evidence of its limited, at times sterile, contribution.
Frank Garam claims that everybody can contribute for a change, we shall simply start from our everyday lives.
Full photo-reportage here
Explore more on Frank Garam! (French)
(documentary, Frank form min.11.15)
Nuit Magazine: “Frank, poète urbain du recyclage”
Rose Nicolas: “Dans l’antre de Frank Garam”