From Movement to Action


“Art d'autoroute” (Motorway art) is a project carried out from 2009 to 2015 by graphic artist Julien Lelièvre. Benefiting from a research grant from the Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP), the photographic survey of the seventy-one works of art scattered along the French motorway network offers a panorama of motorway art that is sometimes disparaged and often misunderstood. The book “Art d'autoroute” (Building Books, 2019) restitue presents this photographic approach. In it, philosopher Joëlle Zask questions the experience of freeway users and motorway art. Is the freeway a possible condition for the existence of art? According to the author, this photographic work confers new virtualities on motorway artworks. Lelièvre situates them, attaches them to the landscape and tests their hitherto unknown qualities. He links them together to form a kind of community of form and memory.

In Julien LELIÈVRE. Art d’autoroute. Paris: Building Books, 2019, p. 97-104.

Is there such a thing as motorway art and, if so, what are its distinguishing qualities? Julien Lelièvre’s project lists 71 sculptures. An article in Le Monde in August 2018, suggested that there are 83 of them altogether, three-quarters of which were designed and erected in the 1980s and 1990s.1 As in any inventory (whether of roundabout statues, animal art, still-lifes, or murals), some are good and some are bad. The right question should be whether a motorway is a possible condition for the existence of art—after all, few people are not motorway users; it is virtually impossible to avoid using them if you travel by road. Can these roads become the site of an aesthetic experience? And if so, under what conditions?

As a road user, the first indication is the feeling of being a captive audience. It is impossible not to see them, impossible to look away. Most of the sculptures make their presence felt from way ahead; they loom into the field of vision of drivers who, for obvious reasons, cannot close their eyes. They stand tall and ostentatious. Georges Saulterre’s Les Flèches des cathédrales [The Cathedral Spires, 1989] was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as “the tallest sculpture made by a man.”2 Marta Pan’s impressive Signe infini [Infinite Sign] Fig. 1 is 25 metres high. Woinic Fig. 2aFig. 2b, a giant wild boar commissioned by the Conseil Général des Ardennes, at eight metres high and weighing in at fifty tons, is reputed to be the “biggest wild boar in the world.”

But although art can be readily thought of as proposing something, it can less easily or systematically impose itself on the viewer. In fact, as Julien Lelièvre, who would like to remedy the situation, has remarked, the often massive works of art that stand on the verges of motorways and which flash past the eyes of millions of motorists, remain unappreciated or even unknown. Even when they are inordinately large, they can be insignificant; even when they are imposing, they can be invisible. Robert Musil made the same point about public monuments, namely that the most conspicuous structures erected in memory of great men or glorious deeds are, in fact, rendered inconspicuous and unappreciated, as if the fact of not seeing them were a source of freedom. “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen—indeed to attract attention... Many people have this same experience even with larger-than-life statues.”3 The spectacular can prove to be so insignificant that, because it does not address anyone in particular, it is seen by no one. In other words, the public for motorway art, far from being captive, is in fact absent.

Beyond the imposition of artistic proposals and public indifference to them, there is a third variable that acts against any recognition of motorway sculptures as art, namely, movement. Our most common experience of art is one of contemplation, attentiveness and observation, all of which require standing in front of a work and keeping still. Here, it is the other way round. Our own movement activates an otherwise motionless work and endows it with a kinetic quality. When driving through a tunnel on the A86 near Vélizy, the driver has nine seconds at 70 km per hour to appreciate the Allegory of the Château de Versailles, a 162-metre-long mosaic created by Cinzia Pasquali. It makes no difference whether an artwork is located in a rest area or service area—where it can be so crowded out by other features as to become incomprehensible—, or whether it stands at the side of the road, where you drive past at high speed, any experience that the work may give rise to is fleeting and short-lived. Often, the work simply acts as a signal (in fact, many have this word as their title), directing the eye towards a distinctive landmark in the region, which does, however, lead to a salutary easing of the foot on the accelerator pedal.

This leads to a fourth problematic variable with regard to the conditions of existence of motorway art: the work must not take the viewer by surprise or be too distracting because surprise and distraction are fatal on the road. Any artwork that might capture the traveller’s gaze to the point of diverting his or her concentration from driving has to be rejected. “It is allowed to be entertaining but not distracting,” says Cinzia Pasquali. According to a planning report from the French Ministry of Ecology, this is why visually interesting proposals, in particular ones by Bernar Venet or Nissim Merkado, which were designed to span the motorway, were eventually rejected.

These unpropitious variables are countered, however, by the particular experience of being torn between several types of space and the ambivalence of the status of the space: whether it is public, private, landscape, territory, or regional. There are considerable tensions between them. Because the location of sculpture is a delicate and ambiguous matter, it becomes a sensitive factor in the equation. And the experience of that tension brings its own reward. It can generate awareness of how a space varies according to the different characteristics that affect it, thereby creating a zone of freedom, which is the domain of aesthetic experience in general.

Are the works you see on the motorway public? Yes, and no. Yes, because most of them are the result of public commissions and are accessible to anyone present, and are supported by a public programme introduced in France in 1951: the “(one) percent for art”—although, for motorways, it is calculated at 1‰ (one per mille). And, at the same time, the answer is no, because agreements between motorway operators and artists are governed by private law contracts, and motorways in France are operated by private companies (APRR, Eiffage, SANEF, Vinci), and an entrance fee has to be paid and, furthermore, because some of the artworks are the result of a private commission. For example, Les Chevaliers cathares [The Cathar Knights] Fig. 3 by Jacques Tissinier, on the A10 between Tours and Châtellerault, was purchased by Cofiroute in 1982.

The same perplexities apply to the other kinds of spaces. Are the artworks part of the landscape, the territory, the region? Yes, they are, because the ones we know best have been assimilated into the environment, where they have carved out a place for themselves, and done so, particularly, because formally or semantically they were connected to the area from the outset. But then, no, they are not, because most of the artworks come across as trivial or bizarre, and sometimes totally irrelevant to any context.

The speed and uniformity with which they flash by, the one-sided, inflexible way in which they are handled, the constraints imposed by safety regulations in terms of standardisation, signposting, and equipment, among other things, and the inevitable concentration on speed on every journey, whether on the road or at the service and rest areas along the way, contribute to making motorway driving a nonexperience, if we define experience as “an action the outcome of which is not foreseen” (John Cage). The journey itself is immaterial; what counts is arriving at the destination. In the interim, the driver is in a kind of voluntary limbo.

Besides, the motorway and surrounding areas are not specific to any locality. Alain Bublex said as much, on the occasion of a commission from Le BAL: the landscape you see on the motorway is like everywhere and nowhere.4 It is a separate, disembodied space, an endless strip with things to see on either side that flash by at such a rate that they cancel out the breaks and variations, producing a linear, cinematographic effect. He suggested focusing on the journey itself and on the motorway as a technical object. Sophie Calle, who was involved in the same project, wondered why anyone would want to go anywhere—“everywhere is the same.”

The advantage of sculptures by the side of the motorway is that they convert these non-places into places. For drivers and passengers, they are markers that indicate a specific position in the world they are travelling through. They are static landmarks, while everything else is subject to change due to the seasons, construction, planting, the light, or the speed of everything flashing by; they are points in relation to which a significant spatial and temporal mapping occurs. Julien Lelièvre’s meticulous documentation of 71 sculptures illustrates that effect.

The power to convert a “nowhere” into a “somewhere” is at the heart of a social and situated conception of art. It makes it possible to escape the usual choice between so-called “autonomous” art, on the one hand, i.e. art that is supposed to contain in itself its own criteria of appreciation independently of the spatial and temporal environment of its public existence, and, on the other hand, contextual art, i.e. art conceived as dependent on the conditions of its production and its appearance, and therefore relative in this respect. Art as a creator of place is neither detached nor determined. It is simply conditioned. What brings it into being is its propensity to connect with the variables of the environment in such a way that it provides an enriching experience. Motorway art is an integral part of these problematics. Perhaps its main mission is to introduce a brief experience into the relentless, unrelieved, monotonous and wearying hypnotic state induced by the flashing by of the surroundings, an experience from which the only possible pleasure to be derived is perhaps the moment of reprieve that it grants to the driver, which is no doubt a good thing for their concentration.

Conversely, the unexciting proposals are what they are because they appear, sometimes wrongly, all things considered, to be merely illustrative and have no personality of their own. This is often the case with works intended to promote local heritage, and these have tended to become the rule since the 1990s. The most recent project to date, for example, is the face of singer Charles Trenet on the A9 motorway, inaugurated in July 2017 by Vinci Autoroutes, who stated that “we are actively pursuing our policy of promoting the cultural heritage of the territories through which our motorway network runs.” In the same vein, some sculptures come across as a mere resurgence of the environment. Illustrative, verbose, redundant, they point out a place without really exploring it. They are part of it. The astonishment they arouse comes not so much from their quality as from their quantity. The same also applies to offerings that are too discreet and go unnoticed because they are not up to the scale of the landscape, which is a considerable challenge in itself.

On the other hand, projects by Vasarely Fig. 4, Marta Pan, Anne and Patrick Poirier Fig. 5, and Agathe Larpent Fig. 6, for example, relate to the environment by isolating one of its distinctive features and using that as a focus for the experience. Although there is a link between them and they are based on genuinely existing, earlier knowledge about the place they are dealing with, that is not all they amount to. Geography, history, cultural factors, and the ways in which they interact with the environment are as diverse as the parameters for studying towns and cities are. In one place, a view is created over part of the countryside, in another, a junction becomes a partition, in another, the break between departmental administrative borders is converted into a dialogue and an encounter between pluralist worlds.

This is how a non-place is converted into a place (a place of memory, a location, a place of rest, or a history place). But only the so-called public sculptures that “work”, and that we might usefully, following Carl Andre, call “place-sculptures”, possess this attribute. Without being subjugated by or subservient to the environment in which they are placed, they are intimately linked to it. Without being so detached that they might seem as whimsical and gratuitous as a piece of graffiti in the space, they are nevertheless clearly out of joint with it. In Guy de Rougemont’s case, the introduction of colour into a uniformly grey universe does this job, actually inverting the relationship and making the road an element in the installation to which he has given the very apt title of Environnement pour une autoroute [Environment for a Motorway] Fig. 7.

A sculpture is a place, Carl Andre has told us, in the sense that “the great Japanese temple gardens of moss, sand, stone & water are embodiments of sculpture as place, as placemaking, as placing.”5 Creating a place is not just a matter of delineating a particular space by providing it with an internal logic and a coherent rhythm, it is also a matter of multiplying and intensifying the relationships of individuals to that space. If a place-sculpture is a creator of place, it is also a creator of functions.

On the motorway and in the rest and service areas along the way, there is generally room only for conditioned reflexes. A very particular kind of behaviourism. All the more effective for being relatively unconscious. The motorway is a space where improvisation and freedom of movement are not allowed. Julien Lelièvre bears witness to this. His project of focusing on the sculptures and their environment from a perspective other than the generally accepted angle—of going, as it were, “behind the scenes” on the motorway—, brought him up against all kinds of obstacles and exposed him to a good few dangers, he says. The artists invited to exhibit by Le BAL in 2014 had the same experience. Julien Magre Fig. 8aFig. 8b, for example, avoided the motorway service areas and explored by night the strange spaces that lie behind the petrol pumps and the trucks; Sophie Calle filmed the wildlife—weasels, foxes and squirrels—, with their eyes glinting in the dark; Antoine d’Agata Fig. 9 worked by night, too, using the lighting to photograph unreal-looking roads that lead away from the beaten track. These procedures, which, in terms of the space and possibilities they open up, are analogous to how a place-sculpture functions, can perhaps be best described as “conduct” rather than “behaviour”. To conduct oneself suggests giving oneself a direction, choosing an angle and a rhythm, committing oneself and experiencing the effects of that commitment, adjusting to the environment as it presents itself. Unlike “behaviour”, with its suggestion of an “-ism”, “conduct” implies thoughtful awareness and action. To conduct oneself in a place is the opposite of being conducted or led along some beaten track, whether it is a motorway or something else, but where the automatic adjustment that it requires makes one forget how coercive it is, to the point even that it becomes a game. A place-sculpture sets in train a diverse range of contrasting behaviours (or functions) that are individualised and individualising modes of experience, in the sense that they strengthen the character of those who embrace them. Jean-Jacques Aillagon’s words, when he inaugurated Cinzia Pasquali’s mosaic—“to provide motorists with a moment of culture as they drive through the tunnel”—, were slightly unfortunate but had the merit of diverging from the usual declared aims of motorway art: that is to say, not to create art but to decorate, to amuse, to entertain, to enhance, to legitimise and to provide something for the consumer.6

By photographing them, Julien Lelièvre has given motorway artworks new potentialities. On the one hand, by placing his camera in spots from which they are not usually seen, he has situated them, set them in the landscape and brought out hitherto unknown qualities which, in some photographs, can amount to a revelation. On the other hand, seen from the road, he has connected them to one another in such a way as to forge a kind of community of forms and memory, transforming the general impression of a non-place into an experience of closeness, which is public and can be shared. There is no doubt that while it is sometimes difficult to go from driving on a motorway to assessing the finer points of a work of art, it will be an attractive proposition to go from this book to our experience in the field as we drive through the country on the motorways. To have pointed out the works and documented them has also freed them from their role as mere signals, it has involved them in the creation of an experience, not of movement but of action.

  1. Mathilde Damgé. « Arrêt sur l’art d’autoroute », Le Monde, August, 11, 2018. Among the 83 works listed, some do not strictly speaking qualify as motorway art and have not been treated as such by Julien Lelièvre; that category includes memorial monuments, handmade replicas of Roman sculptures, and works located off the motorways. Also excluded from the selection are sculptures where the author is not clearly identified, works that have been stolen or vandalised, and works installed since 2015. (NE)↩︎

  2. Quoted in A. Champagne and T. Schlesser « L’Art d’autoroute : monumental, invisible… forcément médiocre ? », NouvelObs, November 15, 2016.↩︎

  3. Robert Musil, “Monuments”, in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. Peter Wortsman, Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1987, p. 61.↩︎

  4. Exhibition “S’il y a lieu je pars avec vous”, Paris, Le BAL, September, 11–October, 26, 2014.↩︎

  5. See the chapter “Place” in Carl Andre, Cuts: Texts 1959-2004, edited by James Sampson Meyer, MIT Press, 2005, p. 190. See also the chapter “Japan”, p. 116, in which Andre explains that his trip to Japan led him to argue that sculpture is a place, not just a form and structure.↩︎

  6. Those are the verbs that are most often used in the press.↩︎