Poteau Patriotique

Get out of the house and have an experience! -she said. It’ll be fun! -she said.

The “she” is my aunt and the “experience” was this public event in Fribourg, Switzerland that she had helped to organize with the APCd Foundation -a contemporary art gallery. I wasn’t sure I fully understood when she tried to explain to me what the event would be like.

“It’s the installation of a Poteau Patriotique (Patriotic Pole) on August 1st, Switzerland’s Independence Day. There are going to be a few speeches, and food.”

Still completely lost, I nodded my head and smiled, awaiting the next day with a mixture mild amusement and trepidation. What in the world is a Patriotic Pole? Who is giving the speeches? And more importantly, what type of food?

monney1My questions were all answered rather promptly when my mother, little sister, and I pulled into the parking lot across from where the event was to take place. We timidly parted the waters into the sea of unknown suits and flowing dresses with intricate designs. They all had clear plastic cups with glittery fizzing liquids; they all looked at us. Then I looked at us. My mom in a casual top with slacks and formal flats, my sister in a body hugging black dress with classy sandals, me in a t-shirt with jeans and flip flops. I catch sight of my aunt: thank god. She introduces us to her colleagues- Director of the gallery, handshake and smile. Exhibition manager, handshake and smile. Arts director, handshake and smile. Then she points out the creator of the Patriotic Pole, Alain Monney, also known in Switzerland for being a prominent comedian.

My sister and I casually float over to the appetizers. We take turns tasting the different macaron flavors. I try a tuna tomato bite sized tart. Then another, and another. By the time I’ve popped the fifth in my mouth, the crowd hushes. I stop chewing.  

A bald man holds a microphone while the crowd molds a crescent shape in front of him. After clearing his throat and uttering words of introduction, he takes out a scrap of paper from his coat pocket and uncrumples it- the paper is shaking. I watch his moist red face move for a few minutes. He announces he is nervous, as he is in the company of such prominent comedians and skilled speech-givers. I guess he was a comedian. I didn’t laugh.

He hands the microphone to a young woman with a prim pixie cut and small lace bows on her baby blue ballet flats. She is lively and intelligent; as she speaks she motions to the Patriotic Pole. Upon first sight, the Pole looks like a clumsy jigsaw puzzle of sporadically arranged pieces.

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But, as Prim Pixie explains, there is far more thought behind the piece than meets the eye. Monney chose the names of specific villages and cities in Switzerland and arranged them on the pole so that when read phonetically in order, the words on the pole sound like the first words of the Swiss National Anthem. Additionally, each label for the town points accurately towards its direction from the site of the pole.

Pixie hands the mic to Daniel Rausis, a well known Swiss comedian. He moves his hands and fingers in a way that tells you that he sat alone at the lunch tables in high school.

Then, things get weird.

img_2594All of a sudden, a priest emerges from the crowd, Rausis hands him a clear cup with water in it and a small twig of rosemary. The priest approaches the pole, dips the rosemary in the water, and twitches the twig towards the pole, sprinkling it with water.

Did a priest just bless that Patriotic Pole? I have to make a blog post about this.

When the priest retreats, Monney takes the spotlight and leads the crowd in singing the Swiss National Anthem around the pole. My sister and I blunder with the lyrics, mostly moving our mouths to blend in.

At last, the ceremony ends. I had endured a peculiar journey from banana flavored macaroons to nervous comedians to a priest blessing a pole to pretending I could sing the Swiss National Anthem.

If you read my previous post, you know I have had issues in the past with accepting contemporary art.

We are in for Round 2: Coming to terms with the fact that a street pole is art.

I cannot unlearn what Pixie explained. When I drive by next summer and catch sight of the jigsaw puzzle, I will flash back to the macaroons, the bald red man, the blessed rosemary, and mouthing words to the Swiss Anthem. I now associate the pole with my oddly entertaining experience. I also understand the logic behind Monney’s choice of towns and their position on the pole, as well as his choice to mount the pole on August 1st.

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However, had I not been present at this event, this pole would have meant nothing to me. No memories, no association, nothing.

How then, can others who did not attend the event or create memories with the piece, consider the pole a work or art? Perhaps, Swiss people can feel a sense of general bonding, familiarity, belonging to their country, as the pole features towns from all the cantons.

But what about for total strangers? They have no bonds to the pole itself, and no bonds to the country it wishes to praise.

Because this pole caters to only a small audience who can truly connect to it, is it even art at all? Is all art universal? In this case, the pole is a piece that is not universal. Is it still art?

As usual, I end my post with more questions than I began with. I would love to hear your opinion in the comments.

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