Interview with Fabrice Langlade by Cerise Fontaine, for Éditions Lutanie, Paris, June 2014
Cerise Fontaine: Are you still working on the Dionysos series?
Fabrice Langlade: I started a year and a half ago, and it’s not finished yet. The idea is complete, but a work is more than just an idea. The idea is the basis of the work, but everything that occurs while creating it, that’s what’s wild and savage, for me—this time when I can experience the work. These sensations are also … they’re integral to the work, as much as the idea is. I need to go through this experience. Plus, when you’re seeking out new forms, you need to be able to conceive the tools that allow you to produce those forms. And of course you need to choose the materials, keeping in mind that each material comes with its own vocabulary, its own physical properties. Every material comes with a metaphorical vocabulary, as well as a vocabulary pertaining to perception, to the cognitive. You don’t have the same kind of relationship with something mineral as you do with something vegetal.
What materials do you use, then?
They’re synthetic materials, so they have the added benefit of being all-terrain: they can withstand great changes in temperature and adverse weather conditions. I figure that if these works can survive outside, they can certainly remain inside for a very long time. I don’t make work that’s indestructible—everything can be broken—but conservation is important to me. I’ve made works out of wax, which has an extremely fragile side, but at the same time wax is the material of conservation: the oldest portraits we know of are the Fayum mummy portraits, made of encaustic, which is beeswax and colored pigments. The composite materials I use for Dionysos are made in part of resin. It’s a very solid material. People use it to make the hulls of boats, of trimarans or catamarans that go all around the world. It’s also a material I can afford, which means that I’m rather independent, economically speaking. The other advantage is that is allows me to create works that are easily transportable. They seem like they’re made of stone, very brittle and very heavy; by making them light, I’m also insisting that I’m a man of my times.
Are they cast from original sculptures?
No, but I image that they might be perceived that way. This white color looks like plaster. In the same way that photography has become the stand-in for our memory of images, plaster represents the memory of objects, of sculptures, of everything that’s three-dimensional. We have one magnificent example in France, the Musée des Monuments Français [Museum of National Monuments, Palais de Chaillot, Paris], in which plaster casts of the entire surface of buildings are displayed. White also has an otherworldly dimension. We know that it’s the sum of all colors. It’s the very essence of Greek sculpture: we know that many were polychrome, but they’re made of white marble, different white marbles from different quarries. This is a dull white, not a shiny one. It’s a real chore, there’s nothing more difficult to work with, but it’s what gives me the most thrills.
What’s the origin of these pedestals?
For Dionysos, which is the first work of this corpus, I copied an image from a book like you did in the old days, the Dionysus in the Farnese Collection. I copied its base, its plinth. Formally, when we look at the shoring of an antique sculpture, we see a very modern dynamic. Even Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, which is super dynamic, comes from there. Just look at the Farnese Bull: if you take out the bull, Theseus and all the rest, there’s still something pretty interesting happening there, something pretty exciting, I like that. I did a Hercule that I also borrowed from the Farnese Collection. Other sculptures are the result of pure invention, or interpretations of leitmotifs that we find recurrently in various different sculptures. I’m thinking for instance of the very beautiful leitmotif of the little boy removing a thorn from his foot, which we find in North Africa, in Italy, in Greece, in Sicily. It’s always more or less the same plinth, since the boy has to be seated. I’ve done my interpretation of this theme.
What led you to this motif?
It’s pretty complicated. But once I’d had this vision, it seemed obvious to me; so obvious, even, that I was surprised that no one had hit on this subject before me, or at least not in this way. Considering structure as the essence of work, of course, that’s been done. But I don’t know anyone who’s worked in this way from antique statuary, even though it’s present everywhere, permanently right in front of us, even in the most vulgar expressions, such as in advertising. Our canon is still Greco-Roman: what it the ideal man, what is the ideal woman. Modern art is a form of exocannibalism, nothing more. The drapery is also fascinating: the Greeks and the Romans made it an art in and of itself, which was perpetuated in classical sculpture. When you see the statues in the Sansevero chapel, in Naples—Antonio Corradini’s Veiled Truth, Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ—there’s something amusing in the fact that we associate drapery with clothing, whereas these subjects are in fact nude. These depictions aren’t naturalistic; it’s a sublimated naturalism. There’s a whole structure, a decorum, that is absolutely fascinating, even more so once you remove the subject, which is just the pretext for this décor.
So you’ve removed all subjects.
The idea of disembodiment todays seems to me to be a great subject. Be it political decisions, the way we live with our body, the image we have of ourselves, of the effect time has on us and that we consider an affront, plastic surgery, digital retouching, or those sculptures that only exist in newspapers, because 3D images are published before the actual sculpture even exists—all that is linked to this idea of disembodiment, a disembodiment obviously carried by this extraordinary tool, the computer. This absolute virtualization, that even attacks the body, I think it’s a true subject. I also like this idea of absence. Is this absence another way to sublimate a void? Making the subject disappear, that turned me on.
You made the subject disappear, but then you reintroduced it in a series of videos.
Yes, this base is an object on which we want to lean our elbows, like on a counter at a bistro. That’s why I made this video in which people appear and disappear, while the foundation, which is what allows them to hold up, remains. Between sculpture and video, one doesn’t justify the other. For me, they’re separate works. In video, there’s another dimension: time. These people who appear and disappear, they’re ghosts.
In one of the videos, the one that corresponds to the Dionysus plinth, you appear with your son, then you disappear and reappear again. Does it have a particular meaning for you, maybe one relating to myth?
There’s a personal dimension, but also a societal dimension, with these stories about cloning, about parthenogenesis. Dionysus was born of his father; his gestation took place in his father’s thigh, which for the Greeks was a symbol of vitality, of power. You have to remember that the Greeks were warriors, athletes, runners. So that’s where it takes place. And it’s interesting that Dionysus is his father’s son. Meaning: we’re always our father’s child, but in this case it’s the father who carried the baby. Of course today that’s amusing, because look at all of today’s ethical conflicts—on surrogates, cloning, artificial insemination, gay marriage …
Yes, and on the love a man can have for his child. Which was something depicted in Greek statuary, fathers holding babies in their arms.
Like this faun holding Dionysus, for instance.
Exactly, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The love we have for our children, and the difficulty, the gamble, the bet that that involves, particularly today, that seems to me to be a good subject as well.
Do you have plans to make more videos?
I have plans to make a film in which I’d throw a spinning top in a Louis XV living room. In 2001, when I made ZZZT, Elaine Sturtevant told me, “Fabrice, we’re going to have these spin in the gallery”—she was with Thaddaeus Ropac—“we’ll launch them in the gallery, we’ll see what happens, and I’ll film it!” And stupidly, since I had just finished making them, after working on them for two years and going into debt to do so, I told myself, “That’ll mess up the lacquer …” I regret it very much, because it’s something I’d very much like to do with them. I’ll do it one day. They’re very beautiful objects, very tactile, with many layers of lacquer so that they almost seem to be made of glass, but they’re extremely heavy, and once they’re launched … The spinning tops have an hard aluminum bottom, a slender throat on which you can place the string. I designed them with the idea that they could be launched. It’s not just the idea of a spinning top; they’re actually functional spinning tops. They bear within them a great destructive power.
It seems like war and play, weapon and toy, are often linked in your work.
Yes, that’s obvious, but I haven’t theorized it, I’ve worked on it. It’s something I discover. It’s likely very stupid, it’s maybe not very current, not very constructive, but if I start to think of it, for me, it’s the end. It’s not what I chose to do with my life. I chose to be an artist. There are many correspondences that mean that something occurs which is in between, it’s what’s between. It’s present as well in the idea of apparition, of disappearance, which is a recurrent theme, that we find for example in the portrait of the Mona Lisa I made sixteen years ago, or in those childish figures, AHGHA, that are ghosts, or again with Dionysos, with the subject that appears and disappears. In any case the ghost, the thing that inhabits you, it’s like the souvenir in relation to memory: memory is something that returns, it’s a reminiscence. There’s a very nice text by Kierkegaard on the subject, which is the introduction of In Vino Veritas, where he addresses the difference between remembrance and memory, what fundamentally differentiates the two. That’s what I’m seeking.
But you acknowledge that this theme appears?
Yes, I even assert that it does, because it’s precisely like counterpoint in music, it’s something very smooth alongside something extremely rough, or something crude alongside something very polished, silence next to sound, softness and innocence alongside corruption. Yes, weapons, violence, brutality are all on the spectrum. With AHGHA, I was playing with rather insipid things: little girls with flowers, bunnies. Don’t be daft, if no one gets that there’s something strange in that, if people take every thing in the first degree, then too bad for them. It should be obvious that I’m not going to make bunnies, I’m not Walt Disney. But I play with it since it’s what between that interests me. Not that it’s a real recipe. It’s true that the images of little girls were taken from postcards that were sent during the war. It’s true, but why, above all? Because I saw little girls carrying bouquets of flower, and I thought that this image was extraordinary. It’s only later that I realized that these images were created in the context of war. So obviously it’s very cerebral, but the experience, which is cognitive, is also hazardous, violent. When it’s mental, it isn’t violent. Physical experience, that’s what’s violent. It involves a lot of things, itself included. It’s not heroic, but it has that dimension.
Can you tell me more about the figures in AHGHA?
I found postcards sent to soldiers during World War I by their families. They’d left with flowers in their caps, the West thought it was invincible, thought that the war would last two weeks. And when they found themselves on the front, it was slaughter, it was the first industrial war. The descriptions, the letters that the military censors allowed to be sent, gave totally terrifying news to soldiers’ families. Soldiers were mutilated, they were humiliated, it was horrible. I bought a stock of these postcards in the countryside, found in biscuit tins in farms. They mostly date from 1914 to 1918. They’re letters written to soldiers, that were collected—either when the soldiers returned from the front, or when their belongings were sent to their families after their death. The cards represent children carrying bouquets of flowers. What’s written on the cards is very succinct. It’s all extremely discreet … I think people had no idea what to say to soldiers who were living through absolute hell, so they sent them images of children and flowers. I used this iconography to create this series of works, which was intended at the start as a cosmogony.
At the time, I was fascinated, like a lot of people, by the discovery of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. We’re pretty sure that the tomb is structured in layers, as a representation of the emperor’s environment, moving closer and closer to his more intimate sphere. On the outside, the army; as we come closer to the emperor, with continued excavations, we’ll come closer to his private universe. What did it include? His children, his garden, his wives? We know that beneath the army, there are artisans and other tradesmen. I imagined what the last garden must look like, a ghostly intimacy. I used these postcards for their ghostly dimension. I also used an illustration from an encyclopedia, The Garden at Eichstatt, the first work on botany, by Basilius Basler, in which he inventories all known vegetable species. America had just been discovered, so there’s tomatoes, potatoes, cacti. I also wanted a symbolic dimension, as in Dionysos; representations from mythology are a fulcrum. There’s a stag, which is an important figure in both pre- and post-Christian mythology. There’s also an underwater diver, which everyone takes for a Martian.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on currently?
I’m heading toward the synthesis of Dionysos and a series called SSHH, which is composed of three-dimensional objects whose shape is determined by an assemblage of objects—objects of our obstructions, our renouncements. In a word: objects of consumer society, those we buy with great enthusiasm and that eventually threaten to suffocate us. I created sarcophagi with a bunch of objects that I wanted to get rid of, that I stuck together to create different shapes. They’re very labored, they’re polished, lacquered, in fact they rather quickly become shrouds, like the Dionysos series. It’s a kind of sublimation of this clutter: will it be the death of me, or will I make it into something positive?
I’m also finishing a project around portraiture that I started nine years ago. I’d long asked myself how I’d deal with a portrait. I wanted the person I was depicting to remain his or her own subject, I didn’t want to appropriate them, or objectify them. So my idea was to introduce a fourth dimension, meaning time. I asked a number of people to sit for me, in front of a camera, and to stare into the lens for two minutes, without moving, playing the statue, as though they were themselves a photograph or a painting. The result is the appearance of the image, then its disappearance two minutes later, and then it reappears. It’s a digital display, meaning that it’s presented in a large vertical screen, so it has the format of a portrait. When you see these portraits, you first think that you’re looking at a photograph, that what you see is a still image. Only by looking closer do you realize that lots of things are happening on these faces, that they’re very much alive. Some blink, you can sometimes perceive certain movements. It’s very poignant, because the face we put on and maintain for two minutes is a very authentic face. I’ve noticed that if you can see the trace of a smile, that trace constitutes the person, because you can’t hold a grimace for two minutes, it’s too long.
So that’s what I’m doing now, but I’m mostly bent on finishing the Dionysos series, which means a lot to me. I haven’t completely finished, there are still two or three works that I’d like to formally explore, work on the drapery and on the base’s base, because the Dionysos are not just plinths, they’re sculptures, and as such I would like to give them a plinth. I’m working on it, and I’m also trying to invent a way to show my work. I have to say that in the past few years I’ve participated in a ton of shows, in a ton of different things, and I really felt like I was there, like the other artists, to serve another aim than that which really motivates me. I’d like to be able to display my work as I think it should be seen, or in any case in the best way possible. I’m not making parallel art, what you might call art brut or art of the insane. I’m addressing my contemporaries. It’s a game, all this. When the atmosphere is stimulating, it can go very far. When I spent time in New York in the early ’80s, it was at the beginning of what we now call street art. Keith Haring, Rammellzee, Dondi, Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf—something was going on between all of them, their work echoed each other. As a spectator you could follow this, live it, it made you grow. The lack of interlocutors, for me, that’s where it happens. Choosing a gallerist, an institution, a policy, a press outlet—these choices aren’t stamped by curiosity, or ambition. I can’t just ignore all this, while I work. I’d like to have enemies, you see. There’s no subject, not any more, because no one wants a subject, they only want the object. That’s why I spoke of the body, of plastic surgery. It’s not complicated though! It’s super exciting, even. Eros and Thanatos, that’s where everything happens, no?
Translated from the French by Madeleine Compagnon
Picture: Fabrice Langlade, Dionysos, still, 2014