Pieces of string to make up Humanity
“When you look at what’s going on in the world, you can see that life, whether it’s symbolically ripped away by the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of seconds, or lasts a hundred years, is still very fragile.”
How did you become an artist?
I didn’t become an artist, I was born that way. It’s not my profession, I don’t have a career plan. On the other hand, I can’t do anything else but create, creation is a kind of disease. From the age of 7 I automatically painted impossible things. Moreover, I don’t know the exact definition of the word artist, I just consider myself as a guy who paints and not something else. Painting is my language.
Why did you choose spray paint as a means of expression?
I first used chalk, then the enema beaker, the paint can and finally the spray can. When I accidentally discovered this tool in a shop, I liked it very much, because with the spray can the paint dries immediately and the writing is immediate, as with a pencil, which is very interesting in terms of the material. The problem that arose was the risk that the colour would fade or change. I always worked with elements that could disappear the next day. But the paint in my colour bombs doesn’t move. There are yellows that I painted outside 20 or 25 years ago and which, despite the snow, the rain, the cold, the wind, resist.
How do you choose locations and supports?
I like rotten places, which have a life, wear and tear. I also use fences, which for me are like large, flat canvases that allow you to move around easily. At the time there were hundreds of metres of them. Now I use them less. They are often broken places, sometimes symbolic like when I go abroad to South Africa or East Germany.
Birth of the Mayflies
You made your first Éphémères dans la rue in 1963: could you go back to that moment?
It’s true about their name, but they had revealed themselves a little earlier in my work, around 1957/1958, through the Empty Landscapes. These shadows appeared in particular because it was said that I belonged to the Impressionist or Expressionist currents. I was then sixteen or seventeen years old and out of vanity I could not bear these affiliations. Out of pride, I wanted to express my personality and not that of others, to affirm something of identity. I believe that to be pretentious is in fact to claim something.
Could you come back to the choice of the name Éphémères, and the symbolism of these forms in relation to the history of the 20th century? One thinks in particular of the shadows of Hiroshima.
I found the definition in the Larousse dictionary. An ephemeral is an insect that lives twenty-four hours, and I think that human beings, even if they live a century, are very similar to an ephemeral. When we look at what is happening in the world, we see that life, whether it is symbolically torn away by the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people in a few seconds, or whether it lasts a hundred years, remains very fragile. Even if the complexity of this question will be dealt with by philosophers or sociologists, we may wonder what our usefulness in time is. Even if man disappears in fifty thousand years, this will be nothing compared to the billions of years that have passed. Our small 1.4 kilogram brain can harm half the planet, yet 1.4 kilogram does not weigh much in the universe.
Why did you choose a minimalist and repeated form?
You can think for five years about kicking someone out, but it’s one word that will be enough to kick them out, without having to add to it. It’s ultimately minimalist. All my work, all my research is concentrated in the minimum of words, the minimum of signs, that can be understood by everyone without exception. By their minimalist aspect, my Ephemera acquire a timeless and universal dimension.
One can find there the influence of Jean Fautrier’s Hostages, or Pierre Pinoncelli’s Shadows: the idea of traces, of erasing the collective memory.
In reality I don’t look back. When you meet someone, it’s the future that’s at stake. When I think of a painting, it is for what it will be tomorrow and not for what it could have been yesterday. I’m not an historian. I don’t pretend to read the future in a cup of coffee, but I base myself on an emotion I feel at a given moment in relation to a context. I believe it’s better to do things before than after. One day there will be people like you who want to know about our times, who will think that 2017 is a pivotal year, and they will look for information.
What is the idea of your current work?
I’m working on the idea of the pieces of string: I think we are made up of a set of them. How many teachers have you had in your life? How many lectures have you attended? The pile of knowledge that is generated in this way is all pieces of string that make us not replaceable by a computer or a robot. No one will be able to imitate you, no one will be able to be what you are, not even the most sophisticated machine. It was Edmond Rostand who said that if he had had other teachers, other parents, or other friends, he would have been someone else. We are made up of infinitely small pieces that record our entire existence. If we accumulate them, we realize that this sum is monumental. All the more so if we add to this all the forms of prostheses that accompany us today in our daily lives, such as computers or cars …
Evolution of the artistic scene
Could you come back to the Abattoir installation at the third Paris Biennial in 1963, which you did in particular with Pierre Pinoncelli?
At the 1963 Biennale I was asked to paint a wall around an abattoir, inside which was exhibited, among others, Eduardo Arroyo, a Spanish painter who had represented four dictators: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar. The Ministry of the Interior wanted to blow up the place because it was not right to show these images. But we are talking about another time when Maurice Papon was Minister of the Interior and André Malraux was Minister of Culture. At this Biennial, there were 56 countries, including the United States, which had presented a superb hall with pieces of twisted planes. Nevertheless, I believe that the renewal of the artistic scene took place a little earlier with artists like Yves Klein.
On that occasion, you wrote the following: “It took thousands of religious doctrines, civilizations with sages, prophets, thinkers, philosophers and men of good will for us today to have torture chambers, concentration camps, borders and chewing gum men”. This seems to underline an absurd dimension of progress.
I am not qualified to say that it is absurd. Everyone is trying to survive in relation to the times in which they live. If you are a humanist, if you have a respect for man, then yes, this progress is absurd. But we live in a society of billions of individuals where each people develops its own notion of survival. I think that in some ways the horrors of the Second World War existed before and continue to exist today. There were groups of people who were massacred 15,000 or 20,000 years ago, all with their skulls smashed in the same place. The horror continues today when people are starving or dying of thirst. In 1139, the Second Lateran Council forbade the use of crossbows, which were considered unfair. Later, it was progressively forbidden to use the air to bombard populations or to use chemical weapons for the same reasons. This curious development is not understandable, especially when the use of anti-personnel mines or flame-throwers is tolerated.
What has been the evolution of the public eye?
I was certainly of the first generation but I didn’t publicise it. I let things happen. In the beginning, it was mainly the police who were curious to see me: once, they had kept someone for 6 hours who was simply taking pictures of my work! Solzhenitsyn used to say: “There are cracks that with time make caves collapse”. I took up this sentence on my own: while in the 60s and 70s I was thrown out, I got closer to the generation of artists who appeared in the 80s, like Miss. Tic and Jérôme Mesnager. This phenomenon of mediatisation was extraordinary, but it happened forty years behind the United States, with people like Jean Faucheur or Ernest Pignon-Ernest. However, we must not forget that street artists often had difficulties and lawsuits, at that time and afterwards.
take the street
So why did you choose to paint in the street?
It was hard to get accepted into a gallery. So I went to the street. I think you never say no, you say yes to something else. I didn’t say no to painting but I turned to a different mode of expression. Whenever possible, I find that a gallery is an ideal framework for an exhibition, because it puts its humanity into organizing an exhibition, especially by taking financial risks.
You were one of the forerunners of Urban Art.
I can’t say if I was among the first in the world, I don’t know what was in Japan or Africa. As far as France is concerned, you’d have to ask Ernest Pignon-Ernest who is much more orderly than I am! To come back to this passage to the street, there are two currents: those who, like Marcel Duchamp, use things from the street to divert them and enter the gallery. I’m probably one of the few who have done the opposite, by voluntarily going from the gallery to the street. You also have to realize that while today going to the street opens doors, at the time it tended to close some. But my work has always been the same inside and outside.
How do you see Urban Art today?
I think everyone is right: being contemporary is judged by an era and a need. If we need to listen to Mozart, then he is contemporary, the same goes for Molière. I can’t know what will be contemporary tomorrow or in 50 years. It takes thousands of first prizes from conservatories to make a great soloist and I think it takes millions of painters to make a great painter. When you have Duchamp or Malevitch at the same time on the artistic scene, you have to catch up with them! There are extraordinary painters around me, but there are thousands of quality painters today. If you open a catalogue you can see that in one month there are more than two hundred vernissages in Paris, that’s huge! But there’s no point in reinventing the wheel, it’s useless, and spending your life doing it would be stupid…