Exploring Andy Goldsworthy's Refuge d'Art, Digne Les Bains, France

April 18-22, 2012

Sentinelle – Vallée du Vançon, Authon (2000).

“In some ways, the construction of laying one stone upon another is not unlike laying one bed upon another. It becomes almost a geological process in which the stone is returned to its state when it lay as bedrock. I can’t entirely explain why the cairn takes upon itself the role of the sentinel. It’s something that I just know.  Perhaps it’s the way it sits with its quiet compressed energy.” -Andy Goldsworthy



Five years have passed since we were thrown together with Nicolas and Aurélie on a four-day jeep tour adventure across the starkly beautiful high altitude landscapes of southern Bolivia. Fortunately, we discovered a deep simpatico with this wonderful couple from Paris. Since then, we have remained in touch through email, and last December we finally got together again when they came to stay with us in Berkeley for several days. It was during this visit that we came to understand Aurélie's work at the Musée Gassendi in Digne-Les-Bains, France, and the amazing Refuge d'Art project.
In the foothills of France's southern alps, not far from the border with Italy, lies the Réserve Géologique de Haute Provence which encompass the unique geology of this region. Within this reserve, the Musée Gassendi Refuge d'Art project brings together art, nature, and landscape in a very special way. The concept is to create a 160 km circular trail that leads the walker through this mountainous landscape, with land art installations that can be intimately experienced along the way. The entire walk is conceived as a single artwork, and while other artists are now involved, the Refuge d'Art is the brainchild of artist Andy Goldsworthy.
Each individual Refuge site is created within the ruins of a centuries old abandoned hilltop village. Houses or chapels have been reconstructed from the scattered stones, and inside each structure Goldsworthy has created a unique work of art that references the human and geologic history of the region. Currently, there are three completed Refuges with rustic accommodation that allow hikers to sleep overnight with the artwork (two of which have fireplaces!) The plan is to create enough Refuges so that walkers can complete the entire circuit in 9-10 days, sleeping in a different Refuge each night.
What a cool idea! Right away we were dying to experience the Refuge d'Art firsthand, and Aurélie graciously offered to organize a tour for the four of us. So off to France we go!


Ground zero for the Refuge d'Art project is the Musée Gassendi in Digne. This beautiful museum is the starting point for the entire hike, and also the first Refuge.
La Rivière de terre, Musée Gassendi, Digne-les-Bains (1999). “The Ballet Atlantique and Digne have always been linked in my mind. The idea we started out with was to make works along the riverside, to film them and use them as…a backdrop for dancing.  I decided to make (a wall) where the layer of clay would be thicker in some places than others, so that as it dried, a form would appear…(suggesting) a snake, or the course of a river.” -A.G. (The Ballet Atlantique performed La Danse du Temps at the Musée Gassendi in June, 1999.)

Sentinelle – Clues de Barles, Vallée du Bès (1999). “When I dug the foundation, I found a rusty shovel and evidence of fires. I liked this feeling of protection in this site, in counterpoint to the sense of fear that, even now, a person feels in the steep, overhanging cliffs of the Clues, as the road passes under masses of tons of mountain. Perhaps it’s the memory of the people who have labored, some dying, in the making of the road that gives the place its poignancy. This contrast makes the cairn a guardian and a protector to the Clue, a memorial to those who have passed by already, and a witness to those who'll pass by in the future.” -A.G.


Les Bains Thermaux, Digne (2002). “Each sculpture and building will be constructed and linked together within the time, space and rhythm of the walk ...The viewer will see the building not only as a shelter but also a sculpture. A circular arch will be the door to the building, and will frame a cairn/pile of stones inside the building itself. In a way, the cairns inside the houses would become markers to the journey, and memorials to the people who once lived there.” -A.G.






Le Vieil Esclangon, La Javie (2005). “When you walk up to the house, along the path that is sinuous, you have red in your eyes and red on your feet. Then you arrive at the house and look at the wall with this red sinuous line. I think it would be a wonderful resonance with the walk." -A.G.




"There is an enormous difference between seeing a piece of art for a few minutes in a museum and one that you actually live with for a little while and sleep with. Sleeping with a sculpture, it's a beautiful idea."-A.G.



Col de l’Escuichière, Le Brusquet (2004). “The river is a very strong expression of flow, connection and movement.  I’d like to feel that I can find the river in a tree, in a stone. I think the sculpture that I make in here is an attempt to find the stream, the water in the stone, the fluidity. It is a line of energy, movement and flow.”  -A.G.




La ferme Belon, Draix  (2003). (The original 17th century farmhouse was used as a training place for Resistance fighters during World War II.  A detachment of German troops discovered the fighters, imprisoned and deported them, and burnt the building to the ground.)  “My new proposal still uses the idea of concealment by placing a group of arches on the ground floor.  It might be that the building will be entered by steps up to the first floor, and the sculptures discovered afterwards by descending into the basement through a hatch door and ladder.” -A.G.






Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine, Thoard (2002). "When we walk down to the chapel you get fantastic views over the valley. The chapel was probably built here because of elevation. But the chapel is also about looking inside, the internal view, so I wanted to make a work that would draw people into the place, into ourselves. I decided to make a chamber for people to step into.

Each time someone steps inside a little bit of their presence will be left inside the space. It's like collecting the memory of all the people who will make the walk. I hope that articulates the continued use of the building. It connects to what has gone before and gives a social dialogue and lineage to the sculpture." -A.G.

La Forest, Saint-Geniez (2008)."Whilst making the refuge at chapelle Sainte-Madeleine I saw the possibility of extending the chamber up to the roof and making a window to the sky. The white stone in a dark room would be a luminous reversal of what I've made at Sainte-Madeleine. To have one chapel containing a dark chamber, and another light would create a dialogue between the two chapels and sculptures. It could be that one will be like stepping into the stone, the other into the sky." -A.G.




Merci beaucoup, Nicolas and Aurélie, for sharing this incredible experience with us!

(Quotes by Andy Goldsworthy are from the beautiful publication, Refuges d'Art - Andy Goldsworthy, by the Musée Gassendi, 2008.)