Propositions for a Landscape (interview with Emmanuel Ropers, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ivry / galerie Fernand Léger)

ER : Did your first works contain any references to the public space?


DC : I graduated from Beaux-Arts, then the École du Paysage in Versailles; from the beginning I had always imagined pieces of art which were strongly linked to the public space.  My final project for the École du Paysage in 1995 concerned very small public spaces, a few square metres which were left over in the city. It was called The Ideal Garden. I was working with areas which were considered useless following a regrouping or development project ; some of these spaces had become public urinals. The proposals consisted of a paved floor, a wall covering, a wall text and benches. It's something that I could do again today. The first photos that I took for Notes on a project to come (1997 to date) were from the same period, where I was really interested in benches, borders, floor materials, the finer details of the public space. It was my day-to-day, and I didn't consider this assignment as a work of art. I was just trying to capture something that I found interesting.


ER : These left-over spaces remind me of a piece by Gordon Matta Clark (1), in which he identifies all the left-over spaces on a survey map. 


DC : Yes, but Gordon Matta-Clark concentrates on even smaller spaces, just a couple of square metres. It's a piece that I really like, which focuses on ownership in the public domain by asking the question : « Who does this belong to ? ». Sometimes one can enter a space which is actually private, but there are no borders to mark the limits. 


ER : Gordon Matta-Clark uses documents modelled on scientific or geographical approaches. I don't think that I have seen any documentation, strictly speaking, in your work, even though it is a component of conceptual art. 


DC : You're quite right, this piece is a cadaster, but there are also photographs. The photographic side is extremely detailed.  Gordon Matta-Clark shot his own films and photographs. That generation of artists was very concerned with the manner in which their work would be passed on. Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson re-worked their photographic transcription hugely, even though, today, the prints don't show it. 


ER : Almost all of those who have been interested in landscapes appropriate a cartographers vocabulary ; for example, it was often used in artistic circles in the 1970s, but it's not something that we find in your work.  


DC : Cartography is something that one touches on at the École du Paysage, I've worked on it but I have never made it a focus or, at least, I've never shown it. It really is an essential tool when one is interested in landscapes and territories. But it is something which can easily become too aesthetic graphically, and the tie-in with fiction doesn't interest me. 


ER : In Urban Ping Pong, you show a model which is associated with another area of artistic vocabulary, namely architecture. Is this a new direction for your work?  


DC : During Scenario Parmelan (2000-2004), the public commission project in Annecy, I used a model of a project in a scenography. If, today, the way in which the model of A Tire Track Becomes A Line of Flowers has been installed makes use of some sculptural tricks, for me this piece is really the project itself and not the model, which by the way is accompanied by a video projection of photographs taken on the site of the Ursulines media library. I wanted this project to be included in the exhibition but I didn't really want it to become an installation which would then become the scenography which I really didn't need to realise the project. Some architecture exhibitions are put into place by scenographers who use lots of tricks and devices, seductive effects, and I really didn't want to go in that direction to deliver the project for the Ursulines media library. 


ER : I organise exhibitions which deal with the relationship between the artist and the city, whether this be through direct intervention or through the use of visual or poetic matter. This is the first time that the question of borrowing the writing of architects, the scenography which you have just mentioned, has arisen.  It is also the boundary of this exercise which combines a dedicated exhibition space on the one hand and practices concerning urban space on the other.  In order to understand, firstly one must pass through it, and finally it is the transition which becomes the subject of interest : in other words, how does one become part of something which is happening elsewhere?  needs articulates this question of displacement of an experience and the construction of a real image. Effectively, your work produces documentation, but these are documents which have already been extremely worked. In this relationship between the model and needs, there exists a certain tension between a project for which the objective is realization and a document which isn't really one. 


DC : That's right, on the one hand there are the pieces, and on the other hand the documentation: models, photographs, etc. The question arises as to what one can show in an exhibition space, and further the connection between the exhibition space and life, which is one of the questions which lies at the very core of my work. In a contemporary art exhibition dealing with urban relationships the question is ; does one focus on the city or on the art in the public space, which are obviously two completely different ideas. The question which interests me is undoubtedly the position of art in the urban space, which then leads to the question of the place of the artist in society. In needs, these two questions were presented simultaneously. I intervene physically to work as an individual and as a citizen, but also as an artist by questioning my place in the city and in society. At the galerieFernandLéger, finding oneself two floors below street level is quite strange. The question of the connection between what the work of art is about and reality arises in lots of exhibition spaces. It's like a ditch. The exhibition space becomes a place for thinking, but in no way does it become a substitute for reality. The question today is to discover where art is at home, and for what reason.


ER : That's exactly what I'm getting at. The starting point is a gallery with a story which starts on the outside. And ever since I have been asking artists this question, it has become increasingly complex.  The pretext is the street and the city. But in the end it's a reality programme which proposes a view directly related to a walk, an individual walking, etc. The initial idea is not that of a dominating city skyline with maps and plans. And I find it interesting that you had to find a solution to the exhibition problem. Your proposals contain a kind of improvisation as regards the architectural space which raises the question of a public space acting as an exhibition space. During the preparation of the exhibition I can remember raising the idea of turning the street inside out like a glove. Following that idea through, the exhibition space is essentially a public space, what do you think?  


DC : That was the idea. That was how I imagined it when I organised Grand Car Boot Sale in 2007, in an exhibition space. There were two types of advertising: the classic invitation card aimed at the contemporary art world for the preview to the exhibition, and adverts in the press and pasted in the streets aimed at inviting the wider public to the boot sale. The audience was incredibly mixed, with people who had come to see a contemporary art exhibition alongside those who had come to a boot sale. In that piece the exhibition site was considered a prolongation of the street with the individuals who were using that same street.   


ER : Turning to another part of the exhibition, what is this dressed ceiling entitled Propositions for a Landscape (2009). How did this piece come about?


DC : When preparing an exhibition there will inevitably be things on the walls, on the floor, and which will inevitably take a classic form. Objects are placed on the floor ; a sculpture placed on the floor is regarded as sacred, an idea that I find rather dull. The reason that the public space interests me is because the piece is not simply an object, but rather a part of the surroundings. It becomes more a part of the moment of perception within the space than a mere object. At the beginning of my career I made films so that I could avoid putting things on walls or placing things on the floor. An exhibition in a classic space, a white cube with faultless white walls, where the entire space has been neutralised in order to receive an object, I have a problem with that idea. I am looking for the qualities and the faults which make up the personality of the place. That is what a landscape artist would do when looking for the potential in a space.  He would look at what could carry the project, like a slope or a river, the features he can work with.  In the galerieFernandLéger, apart from the quality of the exhibition space itself, two things strike me as important: the sloping floor, which is often used by the artist, and the ceiling covered in tubes and lighting equipment. The imposing presence of the ceiling is regarded as a problem. That is what interested me and what I saw as a feature. 


ER : The thing that strikes me is this idea of going where no-one has gone before, like this ceiling which you used in the same way as you used things which had been neglected in the city. And the way in which you place the objects on the ceiling has a certain domestic air. Is this quasi-domesticity important to you? This project is linked to community and it seems to me that it is similar to the simplicity of human relations which you are looking for in the public space. 


DC : The formal register where objects that I make use of are mainly domestic, that's right. Because these are objects that everyone knows yet hold no fixed ideas, a glass is a glass ; I'm interested in the fact that everyone knows what a glass is but that we all associate it with something different.  Some may make the connection with An Oak Tree (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin, a piece that I really like, which I would like to bring here, and in which a glass is no longer a glass. The majority of needs were basically domestic. They had a real reason to exist, they weren't empty or extravagant, things could be labelled fairly precisely. I use these means because they are extremely accessible and because they contain a certain strength, evidence, logic. 


ER : Are there any other hidden references in the objects that you have chosen ?


DC : The bicycle wheels on the platform are a double reference to Duchamp, on the one hand for the famous bicycle wheel and also because he is the first XXth Century artist to have used the ceiling, in 1938 with 1200 Bags of Coal, then again in 1942 in New York with Mile of String. The rest of the objects arrived by different routes each time. It's like a landscape where what one actually sees is a combination of different independent elements but which are taken in one sweeping glance. What I really wanted was not to have just the objects, but to be confronted with the developed and varied environment and a combination of different matters, linoleum, wood, colours, etc. I wanted to distance myself from the idea of something ready-made, attached to the object, and the quest for a symbolic meaning of the association between the two elements. Again, like a landscape the whole thing has no specific meaning even if it can tell a story. It is happy just to be, and appeals to the senses as well as to the intellect. The colour yellow, which covers a plank of wood and reflects off a wall, produces a simple reflection. But it also appeals to our ability to appreciate light and intensity, which is not to be ignored. Incidentally, I would like to concentrate more on the sensitive, rather than confronting the idea of use and function through reflections on the art issues, as has been the case up to now.    


ER : Concentrating more on the perception rather than the material is also a way to introduce an increasingly mobile relationship between the public and the object. The spectator is never planted in front. He is free to move around. 


DC : Yes, even though the piece is there and the situation is pretty perfect. When the floor is completely clear and movements are unrestricted, it's another way of saying that the essentials are elsewhere. One has to go further and maybe find out that the essential is in the spectator's movement. In this case the piece is a method of transport, a vehicle. This idea, which I have often used as a basis for my work, has been important to me for a long time.  


ER : In art the ceilings which receive the most attention are those from the baroque period, which have a very specific connection with space. Nowadays the spectator is no longer facing a painting, but is rather placed within an environment. These artists, who are not scenographists, have gone beyond the basic frontal relationship. Is that what you are trying to achieve?  


DC : This piece puts into practice certain ideas which I have had for a long time. For example with Promenade (2005) I used the idea of displacement by putting the emphasis on the floor and on the area which was above our heads while leaving the remaining space completely free. It was also a way of displacing the challenge of producing an object towards producing a space which leads on to another point and, in the case of Nuit Blanche, to rejoin another piece. Promenade was simultaneously a space and a duration. 


ER : There is a connection between Propositions for a Landscape and Seven Diamonds. Something is missing. Certain visitors came into the exhibition and saw nothing except white walls. Occasionally they had to be prompted to raise their heads. The diamonds hidden in the landscape have something to do with this idea, as have needs, by the way. The idea is to narrate something which has taken place elsewhere. You instil a certain distance with the objects, which are not really elsewhere but rather displaced. 


DC : Yes, displacing the challenge takes the project further. When I was first approached for this project in a park in Japan (2) I turned the attention away from the object and towards the environment. In this context the diamonds became very useful: I would like visitors to look at the landscape differently, purely because of the diamonds. needs worked in the same way ; I turned attention away from the work of the artist through simple and humble actions. 


ER : You mentioned a garden project which is a displacement inside the public space. It's another form of displacement, like A Tire Track Becomes a Line of Flowers (2006-2009) which is in the exhibition and which is the displacement within the public space. Do you know to what extent people realise that this garden emanates from another form?  


DC : The principle of allowing a space to emerge through the use of items which are not linked to traditional planning interests me enormously. In A Tire Track Becomes a Line of Flowers (2006-2009) the structure and the location of the former building site shaped the future garden. I don't mind if people don't see how a space came to be. Just like works of art, for me it is more important that they are there, regardless of whether anyone knows. In the public commission for the Scenario Parmelan in Annecy nothing leads to the conclusion that this is a work of art. My name has been omitted on purpose. It is more important to make the most of and enjoy the piece, rather than identifying it as a piece of art. Presenting something as a work of art often cloaks it in mythology; at the end of the day that can affect the way that some people look at it, often negatively. Art in the public space interest me precisely because the space allows, encourages the formation of a different view. I like the possibility of bumping into a work during my daily life. From one place to another one bumps into people, but also works, music, scents. Works of art become a part of life and are not restricted to the privileged few. On the other hand I distance myself from certain kinds of art in public spaces, temporary or seasonal pieces which are put up for special occasions and which often become pure entertainment, although that is never admitted. I'm interested in something completely different: involvement in urban projects, shaping the city or a space. As artists I think that there is a lot of work in this area. On the other hand there is not a lot of opportunity to develop this kind of project, apart from the great project by the Nouveaux Commanditaires, public commissions and the occasional 1% where the scope and architectural situation is extremely limited. There is no administrative service for artists who are interested in the public space. There is no competition to secure a job. A landscape gardener is called upon to create a garden where lots of artists would be more than capable of doing it. Engineers, other skilled people could be involved in such projects; that would make it all the more interesting, this mixture of skills. These are the kind of projects that I believe in today and which should be put into place. 


ER : You mention the gap which exists between the monument and the temporary, which is exactly what I have been trying to work on since my arrival at Ivry. Aside from these two tendencies there are no real solutions, especially in France. In order to work on public projects you could have become a landscape gardener. Why didn't you? 


DC : For a simple reason: there is a huge difference between the creative and the practical, and in this line of work the landscape gardener does not always have the chance to use the creative. Questions which arise in this job, the city, urbanism, etc.., are close to my heart but I don't want to look at them from the perspective of a landscape gardener, which is often very technical and restrictive. And projects which I managed, such as Quimper, can be extremely complicated to put into place. I don't think that the environment in which today's landscape gardener evolves (town hall, local urban servicing departments etc.,) provides the right tools to deal with this kind of project. Incidentally my projects do not result directly from a study of the landscape, urban or otherwise, which is precisely the job of the landscape gardener, but rather from an idea of how to design and shape a space. This type of reflection encourages the use of textures, patterns which are not strictly possible in the visual arts, without questioning the shape too much. For the ground, in particular, it's quite dull to cross if there are no patterns. It's not the same to cross a monochrome uniform 2000m2 as to cross the same space with patterns; immediately it feels more alive, more animated. The pattern is not there for fun, it's simply a means of creating a space which is less dull to use and to visit. I was faced with these questions when I designed the project for Annecy. Benches, for example: when we had decided on height, depth and length, which is more complicated than it appears because it imposes a certain seated position, the next questions concern materials. Metal or wood, natural or textured? What does one sit on? Is it hot or cold? It's a simplistic question, but that is how a project goes forward. Add to that the financial questions and the project advances ever further. The really interesting thing is that the project has a real purpose. It's not an empty gesture but a series of negotiations between creative desires and practical realities. The quality of the project can not be judged solely on the general aspect but also on the intelligence with which one has successfully negotiated the restrictions.  

(1)Reality Properties: Fake Estates, 1973

(2)Seven Diamonds, Tokachi Millennium Forest, Obihiro, Japan