sébastien gouju    

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in conversation with Sébastien Gouju

Sébastien Gouju’s installation Moss Garden, tailormade for the Vitrine Paulin in Solre-le-Château, formed part
of Cent lieux d’art²’s spring exhibition.
The artist chose to play upon the transformation brought about by
the gradual recuperation of this venue for domestic uses, after it ceased trading as a butcher’s. Using posters
as if decorative wallpaper from an abandoned interior, here placed on the outside of the window, Moss Garden
was subjected to the vagaries of daily life that transformed its appearance, month after month. Carole Boulbès,
a historian and art critic, interviewed Sébastien Gouju in February 2012 in order to discuss this installation a posteriori,
and to examine its place within the artist’s oeuvre as a whole.

Carole Boulbès: Can you remind us of the context within which you created this work? How did it fit into the town,
and in what way did it alter the urban landscape?

Sébastien Gouju: Cent lieux d’art² invited me to occupy the Vitrine Paulin, the window of a former butcher’s shop
in a small village in the north of France, Solre-le-Château, near Maubeuge, which has become a structure for presenting
contemporary art within a rural milieu. It has artist residencies and organizes exhibitions three or four times a year,
with conferences organised in parallel. It all began when the woman who owned the butcher’s ceased trading
and decided to make her shop window available, so that the shop would continue to live. It was her way of continuing
to be involved in the community. It is surrounded by shops and there are plenty of passersby. So for the past decade,
people have become used to finding new things to look at in her shop window. These usually play upon the unexpected,
but I chose to play upon discretion, intervening on the window without trans-forming it. I drew my inspiration
from the decayed rendering above the window; it was a way of working with metamorphosis and the transformation
of how we look at things – a way of sneaking into people’s habits.

CB: In fact, these rather outmoded decorative patterns look as though they have been left behind, forgotten.
It takes a while to realise that they are part of an artistic event. Do you wish to operate within the “infrathin”,
avoiding shock tactics? Such discretion, bordering on obliteration strikes me as all the more surprising given
that during your training at the Studio of Typographic Research1 in Nancy’s School of Art²  you must surely have worked
on issues of legibility, communicability, visual efficiency...

Observing the details along the way is what interests me, rather like the wonderment of childhood – it’s the details that
are full of meaning and enchanting. They are full of imagination, unlike over-spectacular events that leave little space for
the individual. That’s what happens with advertising: the slogan is often too legible, obliging us to see the world from
a single perspective. By favouring a certain degree of visual economy and ecology, it’s possible to find things with great depth
in spite of their apparent superficiality. With the infrathin, or the “little to see”, there’s something that avoids the risk
of propaganda, to use a rather strong word. I wondered if I would make use of existing posters, but in the end I preferred
to use forms and perception rather than messages and language. Floral decoration in Swiss typography probably doesn’t exist...

CB: In his essay entitled Atlas, Georges Didi-Huberman’s portrayal of historian Aby Warburg aims to obscure history of art
“by overlaying it with a laminated map of the memory, a complex geology of vestiges.” The patterns on the window
also have this effect on me; it’s more a question of illuminating things than obscuring them. What links do you have with the past
– with ghosts of the past?

SG: There’s a quotation of Jean-Luc Godard’s that I rather like: “The past is not even the past, it is always present.” I was struck
by this notion. I try to feed off history of art as much as possible, but in a rather anachronistic fashion. Within the notion
of obscuring, there’s the notion of avoiding a chronological and linear approach to history, trying, instead, to remove
the barriers between artistic trends, bringing forth ideas that have long been held to one side. The past is that which permanently
pops up again in the future, in so far as history, for me, is not linear. With regard to art, we have moved from the decorative
to the pared down, but have technological developments lead to new concepts? Can we speak of progress? Is our Western history
really leading us towards something better? And is it an authoritative example to be followed? I short-circuit these histories,
grabbing hold of them. I recognize myself in this approach, which is that of historian Aby Warburg. I prefer curves to straight lines.

CB: Coming back to the ready-made, I wonder what you make of Jacques Villeglé’s ripping down of posters, of Camille Bryen’s
and Raymond Hains’ expressive means and, in another vein, of Bertrand Lavier’s photographs of a blank window.
I feel that these works, which play around with the misappropriation of urban signs (posters, typography, windows), ultimately come
to a rather simple conclusion: that there is beauty in chaos. Would you go along with this vision of creativity and of the world?

In chaos, there is beauty – forms inevitably appear. I quite like the way in which the Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists)
incite us to look at things. But that occurred during the “Trente glorieuses” (the Thirty Glorious Years post WWII), when society
was booming and growth was glorified. I seem to be doing the opposite. Most of the time, these artists took posters off the streets
and placed them inside exhibition venues, whereas my approach says: other things appear in what you see. One form calls forth
another. It’s an invitation to look for other unexpected forms within everyday forms. The difference between Bertrand Lavier and me
lies therein: he puts window photographs into a museum or gallery context, whereas I prefer to go about questioning the nature
of beauty within an everyday context, directing people’s attention to details that normally pass unnoticed. That’s a very different approach.

CB: Do chance, fortuitous processes and, in a more scientific vein, serendipity, play an important role in your work
(I’m thinking, in particular, of your drawings with juxtaposed technological or scientific illustrations)?

SG: By sampling minute instants, I’m making it known that it’s the route that interests me more than the destination. I try to feed off
perceptive encounters rather than prejudging a result or elaborating a system, which means that my work leads off in many different
directions. I’m always very sceptical about chance, and equally wary of theories about the unconscious. I wish to choose, to select
the elements. I don’t pick out images by chance; I try to comprehend why I put certain ones next to others. Perhaps the answer is to let
the senses speak: let yourself be surprised, going from point A to point B without looking. Finding oneself in America rather than
India wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? Yet, at the same time, there’s a notion of control: I always think of cooking when I’m drawing.
I don’t notice the rational link between the ingredients, but there’s something similar to flavour and taste that ensures that things work
well together. What is it that makes a melody work, or notes harmonise? Similarly, with sight, I give pride of place to the senses.
But as I’m somewhat perverse, I also take pleasure in deceiving these same senses, for sight can play tricks on us. Can you be sure
you saw something correctly? It’s always better to experience things, spatially. My objects and installations encourage this. There is no truth;
history is not linear, it’s only made of contradictions and opposites.

CB: The search for connections between visual signs, shapes, materials and colours seems, almost unconsciously, to guide your choices.
Can you show us the role of this associative principle in your work and explain the challenges, for you, of the language games of your
connections and objects?

SG: In some pieces, I play with words, notably in Décrocher la lune (Achieving the impossible), where a sort of post-Magrittian puns is at play.
Moss Garden, for example, comes from a song in Brian Eno and David Bowie’s album Heroes;it’s a musical element that seemed very pictorial,
like driftingthrough the undergrowth or a garden. This idea seemedright in connection with the floral pattern of the tapestry.
For me, the most important thing, the starting point of these associations, surprising as it may seem, is a strict observation of things around me. Observing things in a tactile, perceptive (mainly by sight) and gravitational fashion. This occurs by observing shapes and materials
prior to exploring with language, rather like the way children handle things before any form of categorisation or barrier comes into play.
The starting point really does lie in establishing contrasts and dialectics between matter and the material constraints that slightly thwart
the shape or image portrayed. On the face of it, I’ve no rules except that the process and materials always feature upfront.

CB: Can you come back to the question of gravitational perception?

SG: I’ve no stylistic allegiance but I’m more interested in the notion of the pile than the pedestal which, as far as I am concerned,
is a show of power. On the contrary, what pleases me is when the material flops. I’m thinking of Jesus falling in In God We Trust,
for example, or of the way in which the blown glass of the light bulbs spreads outwards in Garden Party. The material has the upper hand.
As in Un air de Famille (a family resemblance) or the Château de sable (the sandcastle), I’m interested in the material used to mould pieces,
and I bring to the fore hidden materials or those that are destined for the scrapheap; it’s a way of allowing them to be seen.
Décrocher la lune
is a romantic landscape in front of us at night, but it arises from the association of an image and some nails.
Play is an important element.

Carole Boulbès
Art critic and professor of art history at Nancy's National Art School


_1 ANRT : Atelier National de Recherche Typographique.
_2 ENSA : École Nationale Supérieure d’Art.