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Didier Trenet, interview 

by Marie Maertens

The curator Jonas Storsve recalls in a text that you graduated from the Beaux-Arts with some difficulty. Were you then focusing your practice solely on drawing?  

Completely, furthermore like a lot of people the activity of drawing comes to me from childhood but I continued to practice it at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. I think that it is just as much a question of temperament as of the quite developed taste that I cultivated for comic books. It is also what pushed me to take the entrance exams for the school even though I had little knowledge of art and art history. Also, I like the idea that drawing allows me to take advantage of a certain autonomy. Drawing is a direct medium, not requiring any significant material. Perhaps sometimes, it appears to be a sort of refuge but it is also a means of staying independent in relation to what I might discover, first as a student then in relation to other practices.  

Did you also take classes in painting at the Beaux-Arts?

The first year, I was in a very small school in Beaune which provided painting and sculpture courses in a very classic manner. Another discipline encouraged the scientific approach of the plastic arts and taught geometry or the perception of perspective. This teaching is perhaps considered as being a bit archaic but I continued at Macon, where a cursus was available such as the one given today, that is to say with artists’ involvements, exhibitions or projects to be carried out… I spotted the artists who interested me and I had the intuition that something was happening between language and non-language, between writing and drawing.  

In fact, the text is still important in your current works…  

IYes, writing counts a lot for me because I had the opportunity of discovering an artist like Marcel Broodthaers and a certain complexity which might lie in his relation to the image and to writing. As a student, I developed a way of working for drawing consisting of intuitions and tastes very focused on landscape and eroticism… At the outset, it was totally imaginary, then that period of the apprenticeship of museums and art history could be found in my works in a very direct manner. Teachers initiated me into periods belonging to the 18th century with the drawings of painters and draughtsmen such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Antoine Watteau or Jean-Baptiste Greuze… 

And you experienced a sort of “revelation” in Vienna’s Albertina Museum!  

One of my art history professors who was a curator of the Musée Greuze at Tournus, proposed me the project of an exhibition there, following a trip that I had to make to the Albertina in Vienna. It was like an initiatory circuit that also included the musée de Besançon, which possessed a small drawings department and a collection of sanguine drawings by Hubert Robert and Fragonard. Drawing was still at the centre of an interest I went on to develop in the literature of that era, which turned out to be an important period for our modernity with the emergence of sciences and philosophy nurtured by the minds of Diderot, Voltaire or the Marquis de Sade… For me, it was a process of permeation and exploration. Consequently, in my universe very different elements coexist together that I would qualify as crossings. As a student, in parallel I developed sculpture projects and installations which corresponded well to the practice in the 1980s, fostered by the teaching and by the artists who familiarized us with Daniel Buren for instance. Although it was a little bit complicated for me…

Is this also why you decided to use a classic technique, for example the three sanguine, black stone and white chalk crayons?  

That was part of it, as the idea was to work from materials used by those 18th century draughtsmen, but making it into something else and pushing it further… Hence the desire to spend some time in Rome, in the Villa Medici, following the Hubert Robert/Jean-Honoré Fragonard duo, that I wanted to experience as if I was “reliving it on the spot”. My initial idea was an approach to landscape in the widest sense, which also led me to produce drawings about Italian wine for instance. Even though the connections do not seem direct, the goal was to summon together all the materials and substances with the inner character of a landscape. 

You have also conceived part of your works in a style closer to Piet Mondrian or referring to Japanese gardens. Is this another crossing?   

My work is about research into a sort of exteriority and the fact of trying to sideline ourselves, to nurture a critical approach in relation to the art itself, a form of ethnocentrism and western vision. In Rome, I realized to what extent we were profoundly Latin, that it was the core of our culture, so the next crossing had to be in Japan, a country that seemed to me the most dissimilar in nature. I was able to stay for 3 months in a Japanese residence in the Tokyo suburbs, located in a market gardening area. There, I worked on a project connected to agriculture in a workshop in which the local inhabitants also took part. The drawings were created around this market gardening environment, recalling Zen gardens a little bit, within a wider notion of landscape and parameters forging its invention. This new crossing took me somewhere else and this is the reason why drawing suits me so well, allowing me to evolve without any historical or geographical limitations.   

In fact, you make a raw material from all these sources, in the manner of a library of images?

We could compare it to a library of images but one that would be somewhat chaotic! I would also be inclined to call it a stroll, an empirical approach to things, comprehended one after the other. It is also for this reason that my latest drawings appear to be a synthesis of my first works with different forms of resurgence which reappear regularly. When I began my latest images in a large format, I realized that I was in the process of redrawing a trip I had made a few years ago to Russia.  

Do you put your various series on the same level, without any hierarchy? And, furthermore, is a precise subject important to you?  

Working on levels, which are seemingly a common thread, reveals itself in the questioning connected to temporality, therefore a relation entertained with more or less distance to current events, to a geography or historical elements. I am also nourished by the reading of books about history and anthropology or by authors questioning the notion of “being”. These motors are what are going to give the impetus to a series of works, without actually having a subject at the outset. Nevertheless, notably for an exhibition, I try so that a form of story or a framework can determine the formats, the materials and then the titles. This is then interlaced with various references but I want to position myself in a kind of timelessness and try to give the drawing a reading as open as possible, while triggering some questions from the viewer. Contemplating the drawings is part of my work and of its relation to history.   

Is your work linked to memory?

In fact, some of my first questionings were about collective memory as I try to understand how common identities are born. It seems to me that one of today’s concerns revolves around a form of crisis of modernity, questioned by many thinkers.   

Indeed, you make reference to Gérard Wajcman, who envisions the artwork as an open window on history…   

Yes, and this idea can be found notably in a radio recording by Daniel Arasse, where he analysed a series of Annunciations, while explaining that it isn’t about a lining on a garment and a preoccupation with the real but truly about a framework where history is taking place. With regard to painting, we talk about contemplation, which comes from conTemplum, where the word temple comes from. This echoes the Greek era when virtual frames were drawn in the sky in order to observe the flight of eagles and determine oracles. I like the idea that a drawing is a journey either about contemplation or meditation. The drawing is constructed within a framework in order to talk about a story.  

Can we go back to the techniques you are using at the moment?   

I employ two main materials which are walnut stain and black crayon, even though the walnut stain can be applied with a pen. Sometimes, I add a bit of sanguine which was used for sketches as early as the 17th century, perhaps even before, therefore this really is the material for drawing. Then watercolour came into my work and little by little colour imposed itself. Before, I had made a work all about Nicolas Poussin, by recapturing elements in the composition and the way in which his landscape was being constructed. There are the Arcadian Shepherds in my latest works, whilst another drawing refers more to his Echo et Narcisse, in my work called Trois fois Hélas. In Ovid’s text, an exchange between Echo and Narcissus is a dialogue at cross purposes in which the word ‘Alas’ becomes a leitmotiv… which is what I render a little bit in my own way… For me, drawing is a way of cutting myself off from reality. At that precise moment when the hand is drawing, you are no longer in a moment of observation but in a kind of sightlessness. The drawing is that moment of abstraction because the temporality of the action is accompanied by that of the eye.   

After having digested all of these factors, do you make your drawing quickly?   

No, it’s extremely slow, even though I observe very different temporalities. Taking notes and things a bit more immediate materialize in the form of sketches, therefore the moment when I want to seize the idea within the instant. Then a very lengthy temporality remains, in parallel, during which everything surfaces little by little.  

In fact, you realize works in very different stylistic practices…  

Yes, because it’s also in relation to what I’m looking at. There was the memory of the influence of Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte, and the relationship with writing, then the 18th century, Rococo and the ornament…Afterwards, the connection with Mondrian and Bauhaus architecture, inspired by the architecture of Japan where the first signs of modernism are to be found. Sometimes, clashes can happen in an approach that is also humoristic. In a certain way, I have snuggled into what I call a transvestite style or a distorted one, at one moment I felt the desire for my work to be summarized and amassed in what I reproduced rather like in a schoolchild’s exercise book. Everything that might be about the idea, the concept and what was already written in notebooks was used again, recopied and became new and integrated into its own existence in those exercise books.

As you also make pieces in volume, in parallel does the drawing take on a more material-like side? 

For me the two practices are connected and I carry out a kind of coming-and-going, sometimes also making my sculptures like drawings in space. I can also conceive a large wall drawing, in particular a fragment of an enlarged notebook on a 9 metres long wall. But in the work of these notebooks, I demonstrate a distance in relation to the material, via a more conceptual choice and by taking a tougher stance with my intention, only showing quite rough depictions in black and white… In the next crossings, the material has begun to surface and the distancing has been lessened. I have even included an aquatic element with watercolour, allowing the water to become like a character, who would link the drawings together. There is also the influence of Japan where elements are conceived in a different manner, in keeping with beings.  

Marie Maertens 

January 2017