Interview with Lili Reynaud Dewar, I Sing The Body Electric

February 8, 2016 | By Dorothée Charles
Lili at Hotel Rotwand, Zurich, August 2013 © Nicolas Murer

Lili Reynaud Dewar was born in France in 1975 and currently lives and works in Grenoble, France. Her recent solo exhibitions and projects include Clearing, Brussels, BE (2015); Index, Stockholm, SE (2014); New Museum, New York, USA (2014); Outpost, Norwich, England (2014); Frieze Projects, London (2013); Le Consortium, Dijon, FR (2013); Le Magasin, Grenoble, FR (2012); and Kunsthalle Basel, CH (2010).
Her work has also been included in a number of international group exhibitions, including the 56th Venice Biennial (2015); the 12th Lyon Biennial (2013); or the Paris Triennial (2012).
She co-founded the feminist journal Pétunia in 2011.
Since 2010, she has held a professorship at HEAD, Geneva.

Lili turns to New York with her new exhibition, I Sing The Body Electric, at  C L E A R I N G, from January 29 to March 6, 2016. She shares with us her views.


Dorothée Charles (D.C.): The show at Clearing NYC takes its title from a poem by the American poet Walt Whitman: I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC. Can you tell us more about this choice?

Lili Reynaud Dewar (L.R.D.): Well I love the poem, that's the main reason for using it. I love its rhythm, its length, its directness, how it balances between casualness and lyricism. I like to bring literature inside the exhibition space, by literally copying texts on various formats: panels, drawings, curtains, and, in this instance, the silk scarves. Like some direct, physical importation of text within the exhibition format. I also like that this text is somehow a classic piece of American literature, that it is maybe kind of too obvious, that it is in some way already at disposal. I usually like to use and enlarge and display texts that are very direct, like the very sexual novel of Guillaume Dustan I had used for my show at New Museum, or Sun Ra's political pamphlets that I had used for my show at Kunsthalle Basel. 

To be more specific about the poem: it is Whitman's broad consideration of the body that interests me here. The body's depicted in every possible sense and context: from its appearance within the social realm (the modern city, the workplace, the leisure, the family) to the precise and concrete listing of the inner and outer parts that compose a body. There is also a chapter against slavery where Whitman discusses the absolute impossibility of alienating bodies. The poem goes from the social to the physical to the intimate to the political body and back again. 


D.C.: Red carpet, silk scarves with printed text and images (superposition of your red naked body and flowers), videos, sound, plants are all types of works you organized, displayed and played with to tell the various bodies in echo of Whitman’s poem. What are these bodies?

L.R.D.: It's my body!! The show's articulated around the repetition of images - moving or still - of my own body and around my voice reading Whitman's poem. My voice is pitched and slightly accelarated, which makes it a bit robotic, but it is definitely my voice and therefore my body. The voice is this part of our body that is altogether very physical and ungraspable. In the techno track composed by MACON the manipulations on my voice make it sound somehow digital, artificial, not so human but still quite "here". Similarly, in the videos, the color of the paint on my body is quite saturated, at times very real and at other times a bit fake, exaggerated. The images on the scarves images are stills from previous videos, the ones I showed a few months before at the Venice Biennial, and their repetition on another format is maybe a way of addressing (and making fun of) the fragmentation of bodies in today's digital world: our ability to appear in so many places at the same time, of displaying ourselves on so many formats, of multiplying our presence on so many channels. 

Flowers and plants I like for their potential to depict the living and the decaying. Besides, it is somehow an obvious subject for art and for artists. I love Mapplethorpe's flowers, I love Georgia O'Keefe's flowers. I think of this show as a celebration, really. 
 

D.C.: The exhibition is organized in 2 spaces. Can you describe the composition of each room and the relation between them?

L.R.D.: In the first room there are 2 large video projections (they are actually an exact 16 by 9 feet projection size) and 2 carpets of the same size (an exact 16 by 9 feet) with scarves dispersed onto them. The videos show me dancing, my body painted in red, in the "ruins" of Okwui Enwezor's show All the World's Future at Venice Biennial, where I presented an installation My Epidemic (small modest bad blood opera). The Arsenale and the Padiglione Central of Giardinis are emptied of the works they once hosted, all that remains are parts of the scenography, wall labels, construction and deconstruction materials. In the other room are 4 speakers I built myself, covered with felt in bright colors, with plants growing out of them. Each speaker wears a scarf. The speakers play the techno track MACON composed for me, with my voice reading Whitman's poem. There is also a carpet with many scarves printed with text: the different parts that compose Whitman's poem. 

Between the two rooms one goes from darkness to broad light, the sound of the track leaks of in the video room, but gets really very loud when one goes in the second room. I liked the idea that one can not really have a conversation in the second room: the sound is too loud. During the opening, people would spend some time by themselves in the second room and get back to the large room to talk together like one does at an opening, but then they'd have to be confronted with my naked body and my dance moves: there's no escape.


D.C.: Whitman rewrote this poem during his life time. You are using images and films from previous works. This exhibtion is also a question of cycle. Can you tell us more about it?

L.R.D.: Indeed Whitman revised the poem each time a new edition of Leaves of Grass was published. Each time, he would change a word here, the punctuation there, add a sentence, edit one out, etc... The last part of the poem, the ones that lists the parts that compose a body, was added I think, to the third edition. Its quite an obsessive process, but I find akin to describe any artistic process, it seems like a very normal thing to do. I wish artworks could be revised every time one shows them. I like the instability, the ever changing set of mind that presides to art making, the vulnerability this shows, the non-definitive, never fixed nature of artworks. Anyway one could say that every time something is being shown in a new context, it is different. I like to repeat, re-use, displace, replace, re-cycle myself. Repetition is an important part of my practice, I don't have that many different ideas or concepts that interest me, I suppose.


D.C.: What is your next project in the U.S.?

L.R.D.: This spring I will be in Memphis filming a performance on the subject of teeth, a part of the body that I find super interesting in that it is at the border between inside and outside, it is political charged but also super intimate. I am working with a grill maker who will fabricate grills (this kind of metal armor for teeth cherished in rap culture of the 90s and 2000s) for the performers. The performance and the subsequent film will also emphasize on trash: I will produce new sculptures: enlarged grills, and I will collect all the waste we (the performers, the filming crew and myself) will "produce" during the time of this project. The enlarged grills will serve as waste containers, or trash bins if you prefer. This is a way to recall Memphis's most important contribution to the civil rights movement: the sanitation strike that led to the assassination Martin Luther King. I am happy to work again with performers and in a group. This is something I haven't done in the past three years as I focused more on the dance videos which I make alone, with no assistance during the filming. I am just back from Memphis where I met different performers from the stand up comedy and spoken word scene, who will participate in my performance. It was super interesting and I look forward to all of this taking shape and spending more time in this city that fascinates me.

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