A former olive oil mill in the south of France in December is not exactly where one would expect to pick up good vibes of the Californian surfer variety, but courtesy of Olivier Millagou’s solo exhibition, Le Moulin is currently oozing beachy mellowness. An avid surfer since childhood, Millagou is known for appropriating nostalgic motifs from American surf culture—from palm trees and rip curls, to long boards and station wagons, to bikini-clad babes and the Beach Boys.
Working across a variety of media over the past decade he has created an oeuvre that includes surfboards fashioned from car parts, Hawaiian leis strung out of beach stones, and lyrics from surf-rock songs wrought in iron. In his latest body of work, Millagou approaches the California-dreamin’ aesthetic from a more philosophical perspective. Referencing cliché representations and connotations of sun-drenched seaside idylls without flaunting—or even necessarily showing—them, “Paradise Sounds” adds depth to mythologized, and often superficial, evocations of sun, sand, and sea.
Olivier Millagou, Paradise, 2012, Lettres en verre et résistance, 291 x 45 cm ., Installation view "Paradise Sounds”; Courtesy of Galerie SULTANA, Paris.
The exhibition opens with Paradise, 2012—a deceptively banal work consisting of clear glass tube lettering spelling out the title of the work. Since the word is not illuminated one might initially assume (as I did) that Millagou’s foray into the trendy genre of neon signage is broken or perhaps unintentionally unplugged. Approaching the artwork, however, it becomes clear that something more interesting is happening here. Instead of glowing gas, a curly copper wire runs inside each of the letters. Peering even closer I was surprised to feel a pleasant warmth radiate over my face. As opposed to broadcasting the concept “paradise” with a flamboyant light, Millagou’s anti-neon (retrofitted with heating coils from a simple toaster oven) effectuates a paradisiacal experience by literally warming the viewer.
Much in the same way a neon sign cannot announce paradise, a fun-in-the-sun experience is not effectively communicated via a generic picture postcard. Millagou illustrates this second point with his elegant series of Scratch Postcards (2012)—a collection of individually framed postcards hailing from such photogenic beach destinations as Hawaii, Bali, and the Côte d’Azur. But instead of displaying the colorful photographs of enviable tropical vistas, Millagou exhibits only the cards’ blank backs. In an homage to what is perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of beach paradise, Millagou has traced all of the palm trees that appear on the picture side of the cards, pushing hard enough to create an embossed leitmotif of bushy fronds and slender trunks across the reverse side. Not unlike a sun-bleached photo where sharp narrative detail fades into a generalized impression, there is more than a tinge of nostalgia to these achromatic drawings. Generic photo captions (“Just another beautiful sunset in the islands!”), the shadowy suggestion of palm trees, and Millagou’s compilation soundtrack of indie surf-rock all help to set the scene, but these elements do not dictate the narrative. The un-written, un-mailed cards act as tabulae rasa onto which the viewer can project his/her own souvenirs or “wish you were here…” fantasies.
Olivier Millagou, Sand Paintings, 2012 , Installation view "Paradise Sounds"; Courtesy of Galerie SULTANA, Paris.
The Sand Paintings (2012) are Millagou’s most abstract aide memoires. This monochromatic series consists of odd-shaped wooden planks coated with white sand propped casually against the walls of the gallery. Though the forms may look like scattered puzzle pieces, their irregular curvilinear edges are in fact based on satellite imagery of actual white sand coastlines around the world. Willfully amorphous despite an impressive underlying level of topographic accuracy, the deconstructed jigsaw presentation of these sand-frosted pieces reminds us that a paradise is as much a state of mind as it is a geographic location.
(Image on top: Olivier Millagou, Scratch Postcards 2, 2012, carte postale grattée , 10 x 15 cm; Courtesy of Galerie SULTANA, Paris.)