Inside Art Explora, the museum boat on cultural journey across the Mediterranean

Cross-regional residencies, exhibitions and artistic activations will take place in the cities where the boat docks at

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For the next three years, the world’s first museum boat will sail across the Mediterranean, bringing the Art Explora Festival to 20 coastal cities, with an ambitious programme centred on art and cultural exchange.

Seeking to bolster contemporary creation and foster dialogue between the various countries it will visit, the free festival includes a roster of cross-regional residencies, exhibitions and artistic activations in each city. Co-funded by the European Union, the boat will be docking in France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Albania, Croatia, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Algeria, inviting curators and arts institutions from each of the cities to get involved.

“The DNA of the project is to connect with different publics and to give an alternative artistic experience, instead of the classical museum approach,” Art Explora artistic director Blanche de Lestrange tells The National. “We want to attract different kinds of people that maybe are not going to museums, but also for cities that don't have many museum or art centres.

“For example, in Durres in Albania, they don't have contemporary arts institution, so this is one way to bring art to them,” she adds. “We are going to 15 countries and all the creators are connected, to create links between all these countries. It's also to mobilise ideas, projects and people; to be connected and to build bridges.”

The boat set sail from Valletta in Malta in late March after holding its first exhibition stop, then docked in Venice in April during the biennale to offer a sneak peek of its proper inauguration in Marseille this week. From now until June 18, they will also have their first showing of their large quayside exhibition pavilion and a full festival of performances, concerts, workshops and open-air screening, with more than 80 events.

Designed by architects Axel de Beaufort and Guillaume Verdier, the 47-metre-long catamaran can accommodate 2,000 people a day on board, and features an immersive exhibition designed in collaboration with the Musee du Louvre, a sound experience developed with Ircam (a French institute dedicated to the research of music and sound) and onboard artist residencies. The boat will stop about 10 days in each city.

“Inside the boat one of the main exhibitions Presentes – co-created with the Louvre Museum – has two parts – a documentary which looks at female figures in history and art, and an immersive exhibition created by different creatives from the Mediterranean region, like artist Simone Fattal, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and writer Daniel Mendelsohn,” Lestrange says.

“They selected 17 masterpieces from the museum's collection around the representation of women in the Mediterranean region from antiquities till today to discuss.

“The sound experienced by Ircam – the music research institution of Centre Pompidou – have made an 11-minute sonic odyssey using sounds from Mediterranean countries, from the sea, the cities, language, urban and rural settings,” she adds. “It really transports people to different cities to discover them through sound.”

On the quaysides three shows will be presented at the pavilion, forming part of the permanent showcases they will recreate in each port (space allowing). A virtual reality experience in collaboration with gaming giant Ubisoft will allow visitors to tour the ancient cities of Athens, Alexandria and Venice, as all as virtual journey from Palmyra to Mosul.

The exhibition Under the Azure will spotlight 20 artists whose work has been inspired by the Mediterranean, and the ancient and contemporary myths associated with it, such as Etel Adnan, Khalil Joreige, Joana Hadjithomas and Joan Miro.

The third exhibition, Undertow, has been curated by Lebanon’s Amanda Abi Khalil and Danielle Makhoul of Temporary Art Platform. Devoted to photography and film from the Arab world, it seeks to explore the Mediterranean in the context of migration and exile, featuring about 15 artists, including Mounira Al Solh, Walid Raad, Lara Tabet and Majd Abdel Hamid.

We Knew How Beautiful They Were, These Islands, a film programme titled after a work by Younes Ben Slimane, will be screened on loop alongside the main showcase featuring seven videos.

“My focus was really to give voice to artists from the Arab world, or artworks directly addressing the hardship of migrants from the Arab world,” says Abi Khalil. “There's a work by Forensic Architecture/Forensic Oceanography titled The Left to Die Boat and it's a visual investigation of the coastal guards applying this absurd EU law which actually leads to police just watching migrant boats sink, and documenting hundreds and hundreds of refugees dying at sea.

“This is a very important work for this research on the Mediterranean in relation to exile. It acts at the same time as an artwork, but also as data in a factual study, and I think it really shows the reality of what we're discussing in a very direct way,” she adds. “Other works use more poetic or aesthetic pathways, such as a beautiful video work by Sirine Fattouh, which is a song she's singing, mimicking one her dad used to sing to her when she had to leave Beirut and would come back to visit.”

A special work by Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari has also been commissioned for the exhibition space, which will adapt and change over the course of the boat’s journey. From a negative map of the Mediterranean Sea he has made a rubber carpet, similar to that used in children's playgrounds, which will register and absorb all the steps of the people who enter the space.

By the end of the odyssey in late 2026, the map will act as a documentation and memory of the movements and crossings of the visitors exploring the exhibition. After Marseille, the boat will sail to Tangier, Rabat and Malaga, before taking a break in the winter and setting sail once more in the spring, on a different route.

Updated: June 06, 2024, 2:07 PM