The thought of interrupting one’s Provencal holiday with a visit to an exhibition about cities in a stuffy museum doesn’t sound at all agreeable. However Toulon’s Hotel des Arts is an oasis of cool and the current show, Villissima! is a pleasure from start to finish. Curator-philosopher Guillaume Monsaingeon follows up his highly acclaimed 2013 map art show, Mappamundi, with another thought-provoking exploration of geography and how humans transform it.

The exhibition does not take the predictable dystopian approach to urban living instead it attempts to celebrate people’s ingenuity and invention, the pragmatism displayed when we have to share very limited space and the curious cultural results of living together in this close proximity. That is not to say there is a lack of darkness – on entering, one immediately encounters Mathieu Pernot’s photographs of tower blocks frozen in mid-demolition, chilling images of modern buildings in their death throes.

The discrepancies of scale are examined by several artists, most notably in Tony Cragg’s faux minimalist ‘Three Modern Buildings’ made from simple stacks of salvaged breeze blocks, and Julia Montilla’s diminutive city of artfully folded medicine capsule packs.

The insectiness of people streaming down streets, tunnels and staircases is captured brilliantly in Alexey Titarenko’s slow exposure photographs that record the buildings as static but with the crowds as blurred tides washing over them. The complex geometric patterning of the metropolis is enjoyed in the work of many – for instance flatly in the graphic assemblages of Nigel Peake and expansively in the luminous plexiglass city of Bodys Isek Kingeles from the Congo.

Villissima! takes a refreshing new look at city life, proposing that we must accept it, not so much with the cool observational haughtiness of the flaneur but instead as a component in a huge and wondrous organic machine, forever reinventing itself and us at the same time.

Continues at Hotel des Arts, Toulon until 27th September. More information here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.