The 2019 Daniel and Florence Guerlain Contemporary Art Foundation Drawing Prize

Claire Morgan 

Interview 2019

You work with various mediums, such as drawing, of course, but also sculpture or painting. What are the connections between these works and how do you start them?  

I work with all of the mediums together. For instance, I can affix notes, words or shapes, like triangles, circles or rectangles onto sheets of paper… then I am going to play with these constructions until the connections appear. I almost have the feeling of carrying out an investigation and I observe wherever that leads me, visually and conceptually. Because, to be honest, the most fascinating often comes out of the frame! The work is not linear and does not always advance there where I want it to go. So, if I can reflect beforehand, finally it is the least obvious combinations that suddenly appear often spontaneously.  

Do you work in series or in relation to exhibitions?  

Actually, exhibitions regularly bring about a whole group of works and form the basis for reflections that I continue to explore. It’s like a new opening where the mediums are mixed together.

Yet the paradox is that the paintings and drawings demonstrate great freedom while your sculptures are so perfectly arranged… How do you combine geometrics with more expressionist work? 

It is interesting to note that the different works often have the same starting point, but the painting and drawing are going to be seen as more visceral. In fact, sculpture is more controlled as it requires techniques which don’t allow you to let-go, rather like taxidermy. I don’t want to reveal how the work is made as it must be perfect. That also allows me to keep a distance when faced with an animal which was alive once and accept an existence that is no longer there. 

Is taxidermy also a way of granting second birth to the animal that you respect a lot and which is one of your recurring subjects?  

I would consider it more as an aesthetic fact, being aware that I don’t kill any animal as I find them already dead, but for me this is not a rebirth since I don’t control anything. My desire is rather to capture and immortalize a moment…even latent.  

Why is it important for you to carry out the taxidermy yourself?  

This part of the work is technically difficult but it represents a real face-to-face with the animal. Death is part of life. A lot of human beings try to avoid this truth which is not morbid to my mind. I also use animals to show that we too are animals, but we behave as if we are the dominant species. We talk a lot about destruction on earth and towards the other species populating it. We are great manipulators, which is what I wanted to show in a new series of drawings where I leave my footprint. Human presence is evident everywhere and I do take a form of responsibility for that.   

When you talk about “traces of taxidermy”, what are they?  

I work on my taxidermies over a sheet of paper, as residue and fluids regularly result from the handling. Furthermore, I study the way animals move a lot and I try to maintain that fluidity in my drawings. This allows me to evoke life and movement. My research doesn’t only hinge on the fact of capturing time but of exploring a moment, which, otherwise, would go by too quickly. I think that slowing down and preventing movement makes events even stronger. 

Your first exhibition in the United Kingdom, in 2004, was realized with food, did the ephemeral nature of this show already illustrate your considerations about time?

Yes, but there was also a permanent piece made of flies that I grouped together in a cube. Then very soon, I worked with birds that I could find easily in the forest and whose anatomy is relatively similar to our own. In order to grow, they educate themselves mainly by sight, while other species react more to smell or to hearing. Then again, I have always wanted to handle elements in suspension, so it made a lot of sense.  

When you work with birds, does that also involve their “migration”? Does this very newsworthy word, at the moment, demonstrate the fact that your work bears an underlying meaning?   

Totally, even if some pieces do not make a direct connection to it. I hope that my work can awaken different levels of interpretation, even more so on such sensitive subjects. I am concerned by environmental and political questions but I don’t display them like established facts and want to show them with some degree of ambiguity. Whatever art explains, beyond a certain point, it is essential to know how to let go of subjects to be able to delve into them more deeply. Otherwise, we hit the limit of the experience.   

Nevertheless, for some of your works, ecology appears in a more direct manner, in particular with the arrangement of plastic bags…  

I use them a lot, but I don’t want them to be connected only to the idea of recycling. At the moment, plastic is becoming a real problem as it is used on a massive scale in a society where consumerism is becoming incontrollable, with no regard for the surroundings. But this doesn’t necessarily make us happy, even the opposite. I try to become aware of the psychological impact within a global issue.  

In particular, you have shown plastic bags in installations in the form of cubes or other geometric figures. Isn’t it ambiguous to talk about nature, the sky or landscapes in these kinds of cages?  

The sky can be a cage too… but the opening lies there where we find beauty. At school, I was already interested in the connections between art, mathematics and physics, that could be reconnected to geometric abstraction, even though I don’t want to make a direct connection with my work. Finally, it’s the drawings which demonstrate my various methods the best: the first part is made more of lively, intuitive gestures, while I work hard on small details afterwards. I try to re-transcribe the spirit of the animals, by capturing their general movements, before getting as close as possible…  

Concerning lively intuitive gestures, some drawings and paintings can show more directly the influence of Anselm Kiefer or Cy Twombly… 

Yes, and numerous others, as for a long time I was interested in what artists had to say in addition to what they were producing. Consequently, I looked a lot at Francis Bacon, for instance, even though the subjects are very different. I admire Cy Twombly, aesthetically, but also in his relation with mythology, coupled with his great freedom. When I begin to work, I have a process to follow in mind but often it turns out be difficult to accomplish. The most interesting is when the work takes on its own direction and makes me lose control. It’s difficult to accept, but it’s fascinating.    

Do the animals in your work have a particular meaning?    

No, because my assistants can also bring me animals. For some pieces, sometimes I may want a theatrical and spectacular beast, but I don’t choose them for specific symbolic reasons but rather for those connected to their physical appearance. Sometimes, I want them to look violent or gentle, without wishing to define a narrative character. I am looking more for a connection between a form and the animal’s essence, by observing how they interlock and what they can become or provoke.   

So, you don’t consider any storytelling for your pieces?  

That depends. For instance, when I was invited to the Biennale Nationale de Sculpture Contemporaine in Quebec, in 2016, the theme was about the renewal of the world and the artists had to comply with it while, as in my case, staying very open-minded. Generally speaking, a scene with an animal can be interpreted like a landscape. On the other hand, some of my drawings are dictated by more immediate events. In particular, I am thinking about a series developed just after a dreadful shooting in the United States and my having been inspired by pastels with weapons. I am interested in the limits of violence in general and ask myself the question: How does an artist imagine a human being or a weapon? How do we deal with the fact of moving into action or not? When we become aware of control, hasn’t it already lost its power? Therefore, how do we analyze this data and deal with our fears?

Your work seems strongly connected to everyday life and current events, more than to mythology as some critics have noted…   

Yes, it’s a lot more connected to the contemporary world than it appears. Some have evoked the myth of Icarus burning his wings to interpret the birds that often appear in my work, but I think that these writers talk about mythology because I treat essential and fundamental subjects. A connection can be created, I don’t deny it, but it is not my initial desire. The Metamorphoses of Ovid are not my bible and, although I don’t find them uninteresting, they are not initially part of my thought process.  

Is your work about the ambiguity between reality and fiction?  

Perhaps reality is not real or is revealed by a fantasy we are pursuing…  

Marie Maertens - January 2019