When drawing aims to freeze space and time
“I still represent an action frozen in time. I then have the impression of taking a photograph of my imagination. Most people see it as a narrative, whereas I can’t tell where my characters were before and where they will be afterwards.”
How did you become an artist?
I first followed a path related to cinema, because I wanted to be a director. But I gradually realised in college that this wasn’t what I wanted to do (it was the construction of images that interested me more than a narrative art). I continued, however, until I came up against a wall, and after years of trying out various experiences as a director or technician without daring to enter competitions at specialized schools.
At the same time, I started drawing on my lessons with my ballpoint pen, which naively helped me to concentrate. When I scanned them I realized that there were more drawings than text, with recurring characters and the beginnings of a universe. So I started animating these drawings on After Effect, locking myself away for a few months to come out with a satisfactory result, which won a few local prizes. I then befriended this work that had appeared by itself, and started drawing all the time, which was not at all my primary objective. I realize today that none of my choices were in the direction of cinema. From 2013 on, drawing became my main activity. Two years ago I finally put cinema aside for good, which allowed me to free my mind to open up to new perspectives, from street art to tattoos.
MECHANICS AND TIME
Were your two recurring characters present from these first works?
My first drawings represented the eyes of the little character, then the mechanical universe appeared. The big character appeared later, in less happy moments. I realized that the whole was coherent and I gradually put them in situation. I don’t illustrate an animal species or an imaginary world: everything in my drawings is metaphorical and these two characters represent two poles that we all have a little bit in us, one with a thoughtful and posed aspect, accompanied by another rather dark, more emotional and anchored in the present. While as a teenager I didn’t know how to deal with these two dimensions, I learned that perhaps the best thing to do was to balance them, and to alternate between one or the other depending on the moment.
For a long time I kept an illustrative and scribbled side for the little ones, which brings them closer to the Shadoks. Conversely, I try to give the older ones a texture of old stone, something very old, mineral. The two are thus graphically opposed on the question of time, which is of great importance in my drawings.
Time has both a practical and symbolic dimension in your work.
The two are linked, and I now try to metaphorically link all the components of the drawing, including the medium and the manner. Each piece takes a lot of time, but this meticulousness is visible to all, including those who would not appreciate my universe. This slowness denotes in a society of speed, and it has often been reproached to me, especially when I was at school. Never finishing on time prevented me from getting good grades, and being forced to speed up hurt me at that time. Art has helped me enormously to turn my faults into qualities, and thus to better live my personality.
Is your relationship to time also symbolic?
I always represent an action frozen in time. I then have the impression of taking a photograph of my imagination. Most people see it as a narrative, whereas I can’t say where my characters were before and where they will be afterwards. I know nothing about the context, nothing else but that moment I wanted to show. Capturing characters falling or jumping interests me, but the temporal or narrative dimension of the drawing will be constructed by the viewer’s gaze, which will also put the image in motion. The physics of my universe is changing, because it too is metaphorical. Objects are sometimes very heavy, but can also become very light, and pull people up.
How did you gradually develop your mechanical universe?
I have a visual memory, and when I see a shape that I like, I immediately store it. Once in front of the painting, I will draw from these memories, and from this accumulation of reality will be born the general aesthetics of my drawing. I didn’t want to situate myself in the pure imagination, where everything would be floating and too smooth. The fact that the supports with which my characters interact are the waste products of our society gives the whole an almost post-apocalyptic dimension, as if everything exploded. Waste does not mean for me who has been thrown away, but rather the residue of a society already in the process of decomposition.
In the cinema, I like making-of books containing concept-art sketches: imaginary creations thought up for the film by photo-engineers or architects and which more often than not don’t even appear in the final film. But I love these very concrete drawings, which could be made, even though they are pure views of the mind.
Your machines are built through an accumulation of lines and shadows.
The small drawings, the purest, without mechanics, are the most complicated. Sometimes I get stuck on them, whereas on the big ones I know that I have plenty of time to see the mechanism unfold. On a small one I have no room for manoeuvre, I have to know what I’m talking about when I launch my character, which requires a lot more concentration.
The fewer elements there are, the closer we get to the human and to a quasi-psychological side, even if it remains metaphorical, whereas through mechanics I talk about more general things, a way of seeing the world.
How do you see your universe evolving?
If for a while I had the impression that I was stuck in my universe, I now know that it evolves in a rather subtle way. I won’t switch to colour, because gradients and shadows are my colours. The Mechanics of the Void was the apogee of what I had done until then, and this relationship to the void was through the use of white, referring to death and loneliness. But as I was writing the text for this exhibition, I wondered if I could give a matter to this white, question what is behind it. Very gradually – it’s a work that will take years – I try to make my characters interact more with the white than with mechanics. In some drawings the white becomes fabric, or a support. Suddenly the void becomes matter. This evolution can also be seen in smaller details: my first drawings were more spider-like and nightmarish. These machines sometimes go through rather organic periods, and others more mechanical.
How did you write this decoding text, you who say that you only perceive your creations in snapshots?
I wrote this text the way I glue in the street, that is to say for people. It’s not advisable for an artist to know too much about how things work. I found it difficult to return to a certain form of naivety after it was written. I first think visually when I draw, to be surprised myself by what I’m going to achieve, otherwise I’d be bored. That’s also what the characters in my drawings are for. For people it’s a doorway to interpretation, but for me it’s a necessity that breaks the monotony, and gives me a valve on a drawing that can sometimes take me a month.
Can you go back to your use of the ballpoint pen as your primary medium?
I often say that I didn’t choose it, that it imposed itself on me. That’s why I call myself Mani, because for me it’s the hand that works and transcribes. With a ballpoint pen in your hand you don’t have the feeling of having to master a technique, it’s only a drop of ink at the tip of your finger that draws. The simplicity of the object allows me to concentrate on my work without having to think about the technique. I only use gradations, which will allow me to create shadows, reliefs, and from these arrangements will gradually be born forms that will compose the drawing. Being very slow, I have enough time to think about the composition, but if I had to make a preliminary sketch or think about the dilution of the ink, I would lose a certain form of spontaneity.
So your design is built in one shot?
I insist on it, and even if it sometimes takes me a week or a month to make a drawing, I manage to keep this spontaneity. These are moments that are not always easy socially, because when I leave my studio I’m still in my line. That’s why I only work on one drawing at a time. This process nevertheless evolved in the street when I discovered Indian ink. I remember trying to draw on photos or inlay my characters as if they were alive among us, but it didn’t work. The trigger came through the collage.
On your site you name your videos “Meditation Sequences”; why?
When I show my drawings, whether in the street or in a gallery, I want to propose to people to stop and take the time. I have the enormous luxury of being able to take time in my life to reflect with myself and develop a vision. I am in front of a mirror 8 hours a day, which is hard, but it is also a chance. Saying to people “Look at yourself” is like calling out to them so that they can take that time as well.
THE STREET AS AN EXTENSION OF THE IMAGINATION
What does the street bring to your work?
It’s more for the people that I became interested in the street. With my drawings I propose very intimate little things, a tiny entry inside my brain. In a gallery or on the Internet it is possible to keep this dimension, but in the spontaneity of the city I had to change scale, because sticking my drawings to their original size would not have had the impact I was looking for. By enlarging them, it’s as if I reduced the size of the passers-by at the same time so that they are the same size as my universe, which helps identification. For example: I live on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse in Lyon, where the inhabitants have to struggle daily to climb. When I proposed a character who worked hard by pulling heavy spheres, I got a lot of reactions, because they thought it was great to feel accompanied in their ascent. If today few of my collages interact with the street like this one, I would like to make more that are in tune with the place where they are pasted, like Levalet’s works.
This passage to the street was therefore essentially for the others.
Part of my pleasure comes from knowing that people are at the same height as my drawings, because they then leave their simple imaginary aspect. Indeed, I consider that I only show the world, certainly with my aesthetic filter, but it was important that people could understand that I am talking about them. Another important element was to propose for the first time a few months ago a text around my drawings, whereas I was not used to put words on my purely graphic universe. With this text I gave interested people an instruction manual on how to apprehend my universe.
How do you want your work to be perceived?
My work is like a mirror on ourselves, inviting people to look at themselves. It doesn’t point at things, but shows us in different situations. I probably see the world negatively, but even though I’m inspired by painters like Giger, I didn’t want to explore this too dark aspect of the human soul without proposing an alternative vision, and I tried to start from their technical approach with a little light and humour, because otherwise I would have been caught in the darkness, but I also wanted to save myself at the beginning.
Why did you choose collage?
I started with stencilling first. As I was doing animation I wanted to do the same thing by improvising to put characters in all situations, which was funny but much too long. Very quickly, for greater coherence between my different tools, I wanted to develop everything that had to do with ink. It was Parvati who directed me towards dried Indian ink, which allows you to obtain very soft gradations when you rub it. I found the same gesture I was doing with my pen, which was exactly what I was looking for.
All these collages are unique pieces.
I don’t see how I could do otherwise. I want each piece to be new, and I can’t do the same thing twice, because I get bored very quickly. In every drawing I think about where I am, what I want to talk about. Sometimes I get stuck like everyone else, I don’t know what to talk about, and maybe then it’s harder to move forward than if I was going to draw from things I’ve already done, but I want to.
Since the street is an extra – but not indispensable – dimension, you don’t necessarily need to stick a lot.
Sometimes for a month or two I don’t stick to anything because I’m working on too many projects at the same time. But very soon I’ll want to go back to a large format, and then I do several of them all at once. Even if I wanted to bludgeon the street I couldn’t, because if painting a character already takes me a day, a mechanical element quickly keeps me busy for several days. Moreover, having a bigger studio than before, with a wide wall, I can’t help but make large formats. And even if it doesn’t matter that a collage takes a week to be made to last three days, it’s not viable to work only like that. I glue as soon as I can… but it takes time!
How do you view the ephemeral aspect of your work?
I think that everything is ephemeral, so from the start that’s what allowed me to dare to exhibit. Indeed, I told myself that I had nothing to lose, and that if I didn’t like my drawing I wouldn’t show it to anyone. When it’s for the street, if after a week I still don’t believe in it, I don’t take it out, and please I stick it on. If there are two days left, I don’t care because I did it. Thanks to the photograph I take the next day, he’ll end up at worst in my book. In any case, I don’t glue it so that everyone can see my work, but so that at least one person will be surprised. You can’t control the street, and regretting a drawing that disappears too quickly would be useless. Besides, there are sometimes surprises: I pasted one in Paris last year that still holds, and that I find every time I come back to the corner. But I assume that my collages won’t stay. Temporality is therefore not a concern, and as my work is about time, the ephemeral aspect also gives it an extra dimension.
When you started sticking in the street, did you feel like joining a pre-existing artistic trend?
Of course, when I started out on the street I didn’t feel legitimate, because I knew I was joining a historical current that I didn’t have the culture to join. Then I started to hang out with a lot of street artists, who at first accepted me humanely. Artistically, I don’t feel at all different when I’m stuck in the street, only the gallery changes. I feel a bit more legitimate now, and closer to the young generation of illustrators than to graffiti or the first paste artists who were in something more concrete like Pignon-Ernest, until Levalet today.