Wild Sails: An Artist-Sailor on Daniel Buren's Voile/Toile – Toile/Voile
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Daniel Buren

Wild Sails: An Artist-Sailor on Voile/Toile – Toile/Voile

Sails reflecting on water

Minneapolis-based artist Peter Haakon Thompson creates work made to be experienced outdoors, from custom flags hoisted on abandoned poles to icefishing shacks converted into “art shanties,” a ping-pong table hauled onto city streets to a polar expedition tent inspired by French artist Daniel Buren. These interests, as well as Thompson’s experience as a sailboat racer and training as a photographer, make him a perfect pick to cover the regatta at the core of Buren’s Voile/Toile–Toile/Voile, a public artwork that made its US premiere at the Walker this summer. Here’s his account of the June 23 race on Minneapolis’s Bde Maka Ska.

I arrived at Bde Maka Ska on my bike with lifejacket and camera at around 9 am for Daniel Buren’s project, Voile/Toile–Toile/Voile. It was sunny and beautiful, a perfect day to  document and experience the regatta that is an integral part of this particular work of Buren’s. Alas, it was calm, which does not bode well for a regatta.

Sailors from the Minneapolis Sailing Center were already bringing their sails (“Careful! They’re art!”) out to the boats they were to race, International 420 Class dinghies, which are named for their overall length of 4.2 meters and are sailed double-handed (with two sailors). The nine sailboats were lined up along the dock, which was bustling with the high school sailors, parents, sails, coaches, lake users, and at least three other photographers.

Wind was forecast to be light, 5 mph from the south—what racers often call a drifter or light air. Regardless, I was excited to see the sails up and for the race to begin, but there was more prep to take place first.

In Situ

Daniel Buren was born in France in 1938. He began his career as a painter. In the 1960s he began experimenting with painting on bed sheets, utilizing the existing patterns as part of the work. When he famously purchased some striped awning canvas at a flea market in Paris, he launched a career that has largely focused on utilizing stripes of color, alternating with white, measuring exactly 8.75 cm wide.

In an artist talk held at the Walker a few days after the regatta, Buren said that one aim of his work is to “physically enlarge how to see,” adding that he saw the stripes as a “visual tool.” After initially hanging the striped awning canvas as paintings on gallery walls (he did apply paint to them), Buren expanded the use of stripes to multiple formats and spaces, from wheat-pasted posters to flags to sails. Much of his work happens in situ—as site-specific installations. He has placed stripes in many architectural spaces, modern and classical, calling out aspects of the architecture to the viewer. Buren has consistently brought his stripes out into the world, where they are activated by the space, the wind, and the viewer, who may be unaware they are viewing art.

Light Air

The artist first used sailboats in Berlin in 1975. As with the regatta at Bde Mka Ska in 2018, the boats in this first project used Buren’s striped sails, and the order racers finished in the race determined the order the sails were hung in the gallery. Voile/Toile–Toile/Voile (Sail/Canvas–Canvas/Sail), then, is an artwork of sails but also of the sailors, the race, the spectators, the lake users who likely don’t know who Buren is, the wind and water, the weather, and, finally—way at the end—sails installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s Cowles Pavilion.

All the sailors in Voile/Toile–Toile/Voile race for area high school teams and practice together on Bde Maka Ska. Watching from the dock, sailors began rigging their boats and getting sails ready to hoist. Each of the nine boats were outfitted with sails made to Buren’s specs, colored stripes on white. Youth on the boat with yellow-striped sails: “We’ll probably win: we just came back from a 420 clinic in Chicago.” As the sails went up, there was a giddy feeling of seeing all these magnificent, bright stripes beginning to flap in the slight breeze.

To back up: there are different types of sailboat races. In this type, a one-design fleet race, all the boats are identical and the race results are due to sailor skill rather than boat design. Boats race the same course, an arrangement of buoys, sailed in a particular order, and the first boat to finish is the winner.

As an event, the regatta is essential to the artwork’s ever-changing nature: after its current installation of sails in the pavilion ends in early October, the Walker must restage the regatta to determine the order of any future gallery sail installation. More than that, seeing these sails alive, doing what they do, is essential to the artwork.

A pre-regatta skippers’ meeting. Photo: Peter Haakon Thompson for Walker Art Center

Typically, before a regatta, the race committee will hold a skippers’ meeting to go over the course and talk about various rules that may or may not be in effect. Some questions from the racers at this one: “Can we call protests by sail color?” “Can we get the sails wet?” “Do we get the leftovers from the Walker’s pop-up tent?” The course was going to be three legs, twice around. The start is an imaginary line between a buoy and the committee boat. There’s a 5-minute countdown to the starting horn. Racers try to cross the line, sailing as fast as they can, at that exact moment.

I boarded the crash boat to observe the race from the water, among the sailboats. At the start, most of the racers were clustered around the boat end of the start line, Navy Blue Stripes was in clear air at the opposite end. The boat made it to the first mark (buoy) in the lead with Yellow Stripes a few boat lengths behind, and traded the lead all the way to the next mark. Yellow passed Navy soon after and stayed in the lead. I wondered how many passersby saw the boats sailing and marveled at the sight of striped sails, without ever knowing anything about Daniel Buren the artist. Yellow won the regatta. Because the boats were moving so slowly, there was a slightly surreal feeling as we motored slowly among them, close enough to touch, at times.

The author in the crash boat, with Walker videographer Christian Jensen, Walker photographer Bobby Rogers, and Maddie Mott of the Minneapolis Sailing Center. Photo: Peter Haakon Thompson for Walker Art Center

As a sailor and racer I know how difficult it actually is to sail in light wind on a small boat. Any wrong movement or body placement can cause the boat to slow to a stop. As there’s not much breeze to get it moving again, every maneuver must be done as carefully and gently as possible to keep the boat moving.

Stick with Stripes

I first encountered Daniel Buren’s work when I saw his show, The Eye of the Storm, at the Guggenheim in 2005, an exhibition that was kind of a “sorry about that” for being kicked out of the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition in 1971. Buren’s work was removed because Donald Judd and Dan Flavin objected to the ginormous striped banner that he hung in the middle of the museum’s atrium. They didn’t like that it cut off views of their works, so they complained, calling him a “Parisian paper hanger.”

Five or so years later, when I was in grad school, I discovered more about who Daniel Buren really is and how he worked. I was intrigued by the way he took his art out of the gallery and into the world. It resonated with what I’d been doing with my art as well, and it both bugged and inspired me as an artist.

In February 2009, I undertook an expedition-homage to Buren by sewing a striped canvas tent from fabric I found at the SR Harris outlet in Osseo. I enlisted 10 other artists to travel to the north end of Medicine Lake from the Art Shanty Projects. We had flags and sleds and slept overnight in the tent on the ice. I loved the way that the stripes on the tent and the flags moved through the landscape. I could see why Buren had stuck with stripes.

Wild Sails

I met the artist on the dock outside the boathouse after the skippers’ meeting. He was having trouble with his camera, so I lent him my backup. We chatted a bit. Does he sail? No. Does he have a particular connection to the wind? No, he likes lots of elements: wind, water, sand.

Daniel Buren. Photo: Peter Haakon Thompson for Walker Art Center

One of Buren’s early works with stripes arose after he decided to print his own 8.75 cm stripes on paper and wheat-paste them up on walls around Paris. He did not have a studio at the time, so it made sense and it was cheap. He often pasted them onto existing advertising posters, creating new juxtapositions. He called these affichages sauvages, or wild postings.

After the regatta, the boats were parked back at the dock, lined up in the order of finishing. Yellow was first followed by red and then black. There was an awards ceremony back at the boat house, with Buren handing out ribbons.

I thought about the aliveness of the artwork, people who were there to see the art, and those who happened upon art in the wild. To me, that’s the best way to experience the work of Daniel Buren. Fortunately, the sails are installed outside, albeit under cover, but where they can continue to feel the wind and the elements. When I see them I remember their presence on Bde Maka Ska and their wild nature.

Daniel Buren’s Voile/Toile–Toile/Voile installed in the Cowles Pavilion. Photo: Bobby Rogers

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