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Gaël Charbau - Interview (with Françoise Pétrovitch) - Residency, Fondation d'entreprise Hermès - 2019

How did you meet Sébastien Gouju and how did you support him during his residency?

Françoise Pétrovitch : Before I met Sébastien, I had seen
the glass pieces
that he made in Meisenthal in 2011.
Then we met and I got to know his work better. This always involves an offbeat vision of our domestic objects.
In addition to the humour that he puts into his work, he has this tremendous capacity for getting close to the people
he collaborates with. Sébastien was acutely aware of what was at stake in this residency. His project was ambitious
and lots of artisans made an effort to help him. I’m sure that this was to a large extent because of his own commitment.
Regarding the implementation, I encouraged Sébastien to start with a preliminary study in the form of
a maquette and to think hard about relations of scale. That enabled him to work though some of the technical solutions that he needed to find
for working with leather and the structure of the piece itself,
in order to progress towards the final project. I think that
this piece is one of the most ambitious he has made.

The work you conceived during your residency mixes nature and naturalism, two terms that you use rather often
when talking about
your work.

My works are in effect inspired by naturalism, in both senses
of the word. In the literary register, because most of the time
I aim for
a form of sociological realism and – it’s true
in this case – a more scientific realism in which I study
the representation of fauna and flora. I am interested
in the representation of this nature in domestic space :
I have always found it surprising that nature should be summoned up in the protected, sometimes sterile space
of our dwellings. For me, a potted plant is a kind of oxymoron. We appropriate nature in an out-of-earth and circumscribed culture. I find this contradiction inspiring !

Most of the time, your pieces make us smile because you play on familiar forms that you displace into strange situations,
as if the animals, insects and plants had broken free
of their destiny. But you are very serious in your work
and you often construct your pieces on the basis of echoes between forms and materials, as if there were some “alchemical” order of the world that is out of our reach.
Is this same process in play in this new piece ?

Yes, that is again the case here, but it was most true
a few years ago when I wasn’t working so much with ceramics. I am interested in the intrinsic (and, in the case of ceramics, cultural) meaning of each material that I use. Back then,
almost every sculpture was made in a different material
and it was this material that determined – by its composition
or its essence – the design of the piece. For this new piece made in a leather workshop, it was therefore natural
for me to be interested in lamb, which is used essentially
in glove making, mainly in black. For me its fineness
and very soft fibre were close to the world of plants.
Black leather has its own history and it interested me
to combine it with a plant that has something innocent about it, which is a bit like the degree zero of sculpture, the kind in fact that anyone can have at home. I wanted
to combine this “dark” world of black leather (the black bomber jacket, the harness, and so on) with the slightly mawkish representation of a green plant. There is also that romantic atmosphere we find in Edgar Allan Poe, the fin-de-siècle atmosphere that is present
in Odilon Redon, for example ... and a kind of marginality
that is conveyed by that black. The plant allows me to go even further in that direction, towards a formal strangeness,
a dramatic luxuriance that contrasts with certain modernist dogmas in which control, simplification and mathematics
were vectors for a submission to nature.

This black, which is a non-colour, or the sum of all other colours, is
an element that breaks totally with the exoticism
of the banana tree, which is something we associate
with the seaside or the jungle climate, as if you were looking for a radical gesture that would definitively displace this form
in our imaginary. I can also see an ecological dimension
in this plant adorned with something animal.

Our imagination associates palm trees with that postcard image, in which their black silhouette stands out against
the sunset. I have tried to keep that very graphic element, which in fact I consolidated by painting the underside

of the bases in fluorescent orange, as a result of which
the sculpture seems to float in space. I am interested
in the way we try to recreate a small lost paradise
in our immediate environment, a nostalgia for a world
that in the end never existed. I did in effect try to reverse
the relations, in a context where I have no desire to be
the “right-thinking artist”. The environment concerns me,
of course, but I talk about it in a latent way, trying not
to moralize.

Your sculpture is ambitious in terms of its dimensions,
and one inevitably ends up wondering about the quantity
of leather that was needed. Looking at your piece, we also see all the skins, all the animals that made it possible and a certain ostentation in all this material accumulated here.

I accept this aspect all the more readily in that I chose to work only with pieces of material that could not be productive. Regarding ostentation, my piece does effectively talk about artificial flowers and the “decadence” at the heart
of the Huysmans novel (À rebours, 1884).
Working with the Ganterie-Maroquinerie in Saint-Junien
gave me access to that quality of material so that I could extend this story of the artificial plant made of fabric
by transposing it into leather.

Many of the artists who have been invited to work in Hermès manufactories have told me about the “vertiginous” feeling they had when they became aware of the skill and rigour deployed there. What was it like for you ?

It’s true that the discovery is quite extraordinary.
The first thing I felt when I explored the manufactory
was an intense emotion. When I saw a hundred people taking such care over what they had in their hands, it reminded me
of the encounter I had a little while ago with a violin maker.
The fact that
it was still possible to match the demands
of industrial production with the individual skills of the artisan
– that equation really knocked me out. Every morning I went
to the manufactory at the same time as everyone else,
which I can tell you is not my usual time ! I was happy to be back with my “playmates”. We got on really well. And I think
I feel more at ease in that atmosphere than in the Parisian
art world.

Did the artisans find it easy to relate to your project ?

It was more of a gradual thing. They showed curiosity, a desire to see, to understand. Things happened fairly empirically, because my project required a great deal of work. I think
that when they saw me spending hours and hours
on a machine, at a task that might seem to look like theirs,
that in a way helped break down the “hierarchies”,
which it so happens is what I try to do in my work. I can wear
a white collar or a blue collar, it makes no difference.
It was important for me not to get into a kind of forced imitation. Each element, and particularly the foliage, draws
on the phases of production at the manufactory. For me it felt natural to take on the craft within which I had just positioned myself. But my project also implied readjustments in order to stay connected with my way of seeing things, which is linked with that childhood sense of wonder. For example, when I was little, I would pick up a dead leaf and decree that it was
a spacecraft, one that might end up exploding, especially
if it was dry. This is something we lose with the years, because we concern ourselves with the usefulness of things
and not with their inherent poetry. Virtually all the elements
that go into my piece are elements that the artisans
have before them every day. What I really offered the artisans was a sense of something else within their everyday routine.

You talk a lot about domestic scale in your work, but here,
with a set
of five plants, I have the impression that you are leaving behind your habitual dimensions.

Absolutely ! For me, it was a chance to work
with all the possibilities afforded by the Fondation programme. Since my studio is not terribly large, and the equipment
fits its scale, I work within my means. My pieces therefore belong to the category of objects and to our everyday universe. This adventure enabled me to break free of these spatial constraints. I haven’t changed the scale
of these plants; they’re actual size: I have no desire to get into the megalomania of certain contemporary sculptures.
Personally, I have always had a concern
for realism. In a way,
I proceed half-hidden, without looking to make big statements. If there is strength, it doesn’t come from the size
of the muscle. To affirm the singularity of my pieces, I blend in with the surroundings.