Interview by Dorothée Deyries-Henry, June 2018
When we last met, you showed me a very early work of yours – an abstract painting from 2003. The work is made of 2000 pins and includes instructions for the collector to assemble them on his wall in a Do It Yourself way. In its form and in its title (Collection Pointillisme Abstrait), the work is thought in relationship to abstract painting and art history. It also originates in the interest you had at the time for the economic and commercial aspects of art objects. Is your shift towards materials and materiality a way to leave abstraction behind (as well as the commercial, even decorative function that is often associated with abstract painting) or a way to redefine the notion of abstraction?
I believe the main force of Abstraction is that it shifted focus from the subject towards the means of execution. Figuration is mainly about the subject (what to paint?), whereas Abstraction focuses on materials and processes (how to paint?). If we think about it, what we call “abstract” today should be called “concrete”. There’s nothing more concrete than traces of tools in materials … even if forms are non-figurative…
Regarding my work on kit pieces, it is also interesting to come back to the original meaning of Abstraction which implies a certain distance from reality. In philosophy, Abstraction is an operation where the mind isolates a quality from a concrete object to form a conceptual representation. My kit pieces question the commercial dimension that is embedded in all artworks, in a critical and humorous way. There is nothing more abstract than money …I have started IBK (International Benjamin’s Kit) in 2001. At first, I created an abstract picture with colorful pins on a studio wall. The pins were like Duchamp’s Ready-Mades. And through their repetition and their juxtaposition, they became industrialized keys of color, a kind of pointillism in the manner of George Seurat: post-modern pointillism. Being an in-situ piece, the work had to be reproduced to be moved. Referencing Ikea, I proposed the work in a kit and I created multilingual editing systems and tools to assemble it easily. Very quickly, the reproduction system appeared way more interesting to me than the object itself. The kits propose several models. It shows that the works are interchangeable and points out their value as a merchandise. More than a brand, IBK is an artwork in itself, a concept that can be understood as a cynical vision of the work of art in the age of globalized economy. It asks the questions “What’s an artist?” and “What’s a work of art?” in a society controlled by a liberal economy. Moreover, the pictorial forms come as much from the history of abstract art as from the logos of companies and multinationals. The visual vocabulary I use in IBK integrates and plays with the principles of geometric abstraction, corporate design and interior decoration. It also creates a continuity – with the cold appearance of the keys, the garish colors – between Mondrian, Neoplasticism, the Bauhaus aesthetics and Op Art.
One of the works you will show in the Abstraction & Architecture exhibition is a cement bag screwed on a wall. The materiality of this work is connected to construction materials and thus to architecture. Where does your interest in architecture come from?
My relationship to Architecture goes back to my family history, and it is linked to questions of autonomy and education. In the 1980s, my parents (who were former students of Claude Viallat at the Beaux Arts of Marseille in the late 1960s) bought an abandoned farmhouse in Haute-Loire. With my family, we spent almost all of our vacations renovating it. For more than fifteen years we were improvised carpenters, roofers, bricklayers, plasterers, welders, electricians … Sometimes even lumberjacks. The most difficult thing was to carry stones and pieces of rocks, which we piled up and interlocked the best we could to build dry stone walls. We drew a form of satisfaction and even sometimes some pleasure from the physical work. We acquired a lot of knowledge.
We were not far from Ivan Illich theories on education: to gain autonomy and independence through the acquisition of practical knowledge. We learned from materials, we discovered the limits and possibilities of materials, which are a great starting point for creative imagination. In Homer’s world, Paris and Ulysses work to build their home. “This is the autonomy of the Homeric hero, his independence, the free supremacy of his person,” wrote Hannah Arendt. This is all related to a concrete utopia: the appropriation and the transformation of the world around us with our hands. Self-construction – the practice of building one’s own home – liberates people from multiple subordinations created by the consumer society. By substituting himself to building professionals, the self-builder responds to the ideal of autonomy conveyed by the counter-cultural society.
On a similar level, today’s artists must gain their independence from the growing influence of capitalist values. There is a need to reconsider the dichotomy between thinking and doing and to put back the artist’s (and the work’s) autonomy at the center of the debate.
The work looks like a pillow or even, according to you, an anthropomorphic form, which links the object to furniture, to the body and to ideas that the object can convey, as if thoughts materialized here in action and in a concrete form…
…The dichotomy between the weight of the materials and the feeling of lightness is recurrent in my recent pieces. I play with materials using a container vs. contents approach. In this work, concrete keeps the imprint of its disappeared container. It is its own weight and the force of attraction that shapes it. It gives an impression of lightness, the bag seems to have turned into a cushion and the perception is that it is held on the wall by stems. I like to use oppositions and to reverse the balance of power: heaviness vs. lightness, strength vs. fragility.
This artwork can rather be attributed to its materials than to its maker. My role was only to put the raw material at work – by simple games of thrust, crush, and spill – on a supporting and deforming tool. The artist’s gesture disappears in favor of tools and materials alone, playing on their plasticity, strength and their intrinsic weight.
The title of one of my exhibitions, Reinforced Concrete, reflects the articulation between materiality and the referential character of my works. It has a double meaning: Reinforced Objectivity, and, more literally, Fortified Cement. It bears the idea of a hard, raw art, where materials and processes are visible. At the same time, it critically refers to principles set out in the Manifesto of Concrete Art of 1930, where the work of art “had to be fully conceived and formed by the spirit before its execution and should receive nothing from nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data”… For me, creation today precisely lies in this gap between the idea and the result, between the project and the object. That is to say that creation lies in working time. Whether work is effective, represented or symbolized by materials, gestures, forms or figures, my practice brings to light an “aesthetic of toil” and reinvests reality.
Illustration images (from top to bottom): Sans titre, 2017 / burnt wood and concrete / 90 x 110 x 6 cm. Courtesy Galerie Bertrand Grimont, Paris. "Peinture en Kit IBK, Pointillisme Abstrait, 3cpj 4513", 2002 Courtesy Galerie Bertrand GRIMONT © Photo Éric Simon Sans titre, 2017, burnt wood and concrete, 94 x 94 x 9 cm Courtesy Galerie Bertrand Grimont, Paris Sans titre, 2017, concrete and metal rod, 64 x 66 x 8 cm Courtesy Galerie Bertrand Grimont, Paris