What is depaysement? / by Laura J. Lawson

I titled my thesis exhibition Depaysement. Said exhibition was held in Memphis, Tennessee, where French is not the lingua franca. I dedicated an entire section of gallery wall to the definition. Why bother?

The exhibition was the product of my experiences after three years of study in Memphis, and a two month artist residency at the Centre d'Art Marnay Art Center (CAMAC) in Marnay-sur-Seine, France. I wanted to take a deep look at the concept of the identity of place, and I did so by investigating the landscape through color, pathways, borders, and cartography.

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester in Paris, and gained what I'll call an academic fluency with the French language. (Fluent enough, but not confidently bilingual yet.) My favorite words to learn were the ones that didn't have an English equivalent. Depaysement. The feeling of not being in one's home country. What is that, exactly?

The odd thing is, by returning to France for the CAMAC residency, I was essentially returning to something familiar. I spoke the language, navigating nearby Paris was already easy for me, and there were few surprises left when it came to cultural differences. Still, the light and air were different, and invisible particles seemed energized in different wavelengths. Time ran at a slightly different speed. Even on days when I felt terrible, I could still delight in how normalcy was never quite normal.

The depaysement in the French countryside reminded me of the almost imperceptible differences that continued to permeate my life in Memphis. Despite moving frequently, most of my youth was spent in Texas. Southern culture covers a huge swath of states, but beyond slightly inferior BBQ and sno-cones,* there were still peripheral and atmospheric qualities that would never be identical.

I really saturated my mind and body in these places. They were a little familiar, a little strange, and had more in common than I could have predicted. It's invigorating to be depaysee, and these questions and memories continue to drive my artistic practice.

*I'm sorry, Memphians; "excellent" is still one rung lower than "best."