Interviews with Performa 15 artist, Pauline Curnier Jardin and Curator Charles Aubin
Dorothée Charles (DC): What is your artistic background?
Pauline Curnier Jardin (PCJ): Everything started when, as a child, At the age of 8, I went to an audition at school and ended up performing in an experimental musical with 5 other kids and 4 jazz musicians. We went on tour for 3 years. Many years after this incredible experience, I found myself in art school, where I was pondering whether I should study dance or theater. I had the chance to join the only fine art program (at the École Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris-Cergy) that had a contemporary dance course (practice and theory), as well as a proper cinema workshop. That set me on the path I’m still following today. Working at first with drawing and painting, I quickly connected with a group of people who favored Vaudeville and Ghost Train performances over traditional art practice. Comedy troupes, bearded women, and jumping beans were part of our collective imagery. We started a cabaret of sorts, or perhaps more of a circus, where becoming a character went beyond an aesthetic sensibility, and became a medium for art making. This experience was the starting point of my stagecraft, tying together often divergent realms of opulence, pastiche, laughter and kitsch through a visual grammar of exalted bodies and surprising forms, vibrant colors and profound feelings. Working through a Rabelaisian sensibility of the Carnivalesque, I privilege grotesque and primitive forms, with a passion for a celebration of the mundane. I then discovered Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Jack Smith, all while keeping in my heart Jacques Demy, Fellini, Roland Topor, and Jean Eustache. Today I’m making films and performances; I’m “making things.” I’m working with dancers and choreographers while building up my cinematic language. I paint bodies, human and non-human.
DC-What stories are you telling in your work?
PCJ: Firstly, I explore existing phenomena, whether tangible or immaterial, such as feelings (loneliness, grief, or joy), historical or mythological characters (Joan of Arc, Bernadette Soubirous, Demeter), locations (the nuclear plant, the circus, the battleground) or objects (the cave, the flint). Then I tell their stories; I invent new symbolic languages based in folklore to explain their fundamental essence through allegorical sequences. Human beings, language, love, death… these archetypes are restructured through different media, from painting, drawing and collage, to music, performance, photography, and film. This is my artistic motivation! Coincidences shape my work, bewitch it and lend it an “animist charm.” If an occurrence arises, it must be considered through my lens and be re-enacted. The universe I produce is populated by non-functional objects, art or decorations, animals, and monsters. The main character is often depicted as a female; naïve but magnificent — my dream doppelgänger — who cannot see the truth or access knowledge.
DC-Performa is celebrating the Renaissance in its 2015 edition. What are some of the works being commissioned for it?
PCJ: I met Charles Aubin, one of the curators at Performa, last fall. Very quickly we started talking about the Renaissance. I remember we had exciting conversations; I had a lot of problems with this theme because at first I didn’t realize to what extent I was actually “into” it; how close some questions and authors were to my world. Initially, I tried to convince him that only the Middle Ages interested me, because of that period’s primitive drawings, the golden glitter in the paint, the magical content, the absence of perspective... I told him about a procession I’ve been filming for a couple of years in Sicily, furiously baroque, a sort of cult of fertility with Saint-Sebastian as the main character, and Charles reminded me about the Living Nativity I did for Christmas 2012, as well as the film I shot with characters taken from Italian mannerist grottoes… I had to admit all those works are indeed very “Renaissance,” and that I do have something to say about the pre-Renaissance, Mannerist, or Baroque styles, at least. I think that was the point at which I understood I could carry out such a commission.
DC-How did you celebrate the Renaissance in this new piece (through, for instance, the use of heroes, drawing, writing, actors, costumes ...)?
PCJ: I celebrate it in an accumulative way, which is indeed a very Renaissance method, if you think of Rabelais, Bosch, Palissy or Arcimboldo. My performance will tell the story of 4 grotesque characters, first dressed up as kinds of “occultist -land-dealers” but very quickly ending up in only their underwear, playing in a magical puddle where one large tongue wearing a jacket made of shells is singing for them. The four friends function together like a single organism. They are constantly digging up the matter of the puddle, where they many oddities and objects of beauty that transform their bodies. Stones and fruit morph them into regenerative animals, drag queens, surgeons, witches…But I don’t want to say more!
DC- Could you explain the title of the performance The Resurrection Plot?
PCJ: The process of finding this title has been a long one. From the very beginning I wanted to translate Renaissance to “rebirth” and “resurrection.” First the title was the House of Resurrection because it was literally a house that I wanted to build, a house offering new lives to the audience. But I thought that was over-considering my supernatural gifts and I changed the nature of the location. Then came this idea of making a “resurrection puddle” – a place where 4 people would come to start a ritual and change their lives and bodies. A bit like in some Indians rituals where peoples go into the water . And a bit like the ancient Egyptian cosmic waters that carry people into the realm of death… The word “Plot” plays with all these meanings:. conspiracy, mystery, etc …but it also refers to its agricultural origins; a plot is a piece of ground. And indeed, the Renaissance marks the historic turn from feudalism to capitalism, and more specifically, the time when land started to be divided into several “plots” in order to better manage yields, as well as mutinous workers. And finally, a plot is a potential future garden, which I imagine to be playful and full of hope.
Dorothée Charles (DC): For Performa's tenth anniversary, you chose the theme of the Renaissance. Can you elaborate on this choice?
Charles Aubin (CA): Since Performa 09 and a whole program on Futurism marking the 100th anniversary of its manifesto, RoseLee (Goldberg) decided to bring back a key historical moment at the heart of each Performa biennial. Firstly, it's a way to demonstrate how fundamental live works by visual artists have always been to the larger historical art narrative. And secondly, it's a very effective way to prompt conversations with artists, and imagine new works together. We usually regard this historical anchor as a starting point for exchange, rather than as something the artist should “illustrate.” In 2011, RoseLee brought back Constructivism and Liz Magic Laser was profoundly inspired by Mayakovsky's Living Newspaper, for instance. In 2013, Surrealism was our entry point, which actually prompted me to invite the Molly Lowe, as I could see her work strongly resonated with photographs by Jacques André Boiffard.
Last year when we were in planning stage of the upcoming biennial, as a stimulus, RoseLee came up with the idea of jumping back in time and looking at the Renaissance, in order to insist on the fact that visual artists have always been involved in staging live works, be they public ceremonies, pageants, or urban processions. In fact, these Renaissance artists were wholly immersed in political affairs, and these events functioned as political stages, where allegories and tableaux vivants depicted mythological themes, but actually served as commentary on current affairs. Giorgio Vasari himself designed costumes, chariots, and floats, and directed the procession for the celebration of Francesco de’ Medici’s wedding to Joanna of Austria in 1565, emphasizing the rapprochement between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Holy Roman Empire.
DC-The artist Pauline Curnier Jardin will be presenting a performance commissioned by Performa. Can you discuss why you chose to feature Pauline and her unique universe in the 2015 program?
CA: “Universe” is the right word! What’s exciting about the way Pauline works is how she thinks in terms of systems. This is not to say that they're rational; on the contrary, they’re extravagant cosmologies. Pauline has this very singular style of working by accumulation and creating encompassing worlds. The oeuvres of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Nikki de Saint Phalle immediately come to mind. I know she’s also very much influenced by Leonora Carrington and Carol Rama. In her work, Pauline juxtaposes incongruous elements and lets them produce surprising new meanings. I had seen her theater of objects (Le Salon d'Alone) in Paris a couple of years ago and its quirkiness stayed with me. I knew she had worked on sixteenth-century Mannerist grottoes for her film Grotta Profunda and I was eager to hear more about it from her. So Pauline definitely came up as a very natural choice when I started preparing Performa 15. From our very first studio visit at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Montmartre, to our latest Skype conversation on Sunday, she has constantly been in the process of building the work, adding new layers. The Renaissance was our starting point and from there she drew the idea of rebirth, which naturally led Pauline to animals with the power to regenerate, such as lizards or cicadas. And Bernard Palissy’s odd menagerie was added in the mix. I guess Pauline would say “in the soup." Rabelais and his exuberant style is also a reference point, as is Michel Foucault’s episteme of the Renaissance. Also Pauline was quick to express her problems with dreadful aspects of the Renaissance such as the European conquering hubris that laid the foundation for a massive exploitation of other continents and populations. This will also be embedded in the work. Her performance will be a multi-layered baroque journey, which will be sung and danced by her group of performers.
DC-What are some of the other artists from whom you commissioned work, and how did you approach them differently?
CA: Two other key Performa Commission artists I'm working with this year are French choreographer Jérôme Bel and LA-based visual artist Erika Vogt. In both situations, we work hand in hand to create brand new works. Jérôme has presented his work at the Performa biennial a few times before, but this year we wanted to push him in a new direction. We asked him to conceive a new work for the city of New York. In the past, he's subscribed to the "performing art" system of production by which you compose a cast, create the work, and then the cast goes on tour. This time, Jérôme is working exclusively with New York-based performers, professionals and amateurs that we found. They will all collaborate to execute the work according to Jérôme’s instructions. The other new element is that the work titled Ballet (New York) will be shown each week of the biennial — I see it as a leitmotiv —in a different environment each time: a downtown dance studio, a midtown art gallery, an uptown theater. It will be very much about how these contexts frame our expectations and experiences as audience members. We’ve also been in conversation with Erika for almost two years now. I challenged her to take her Artist Theater Program to a new level. It’s a quite informal group she has gathered around her, composed of LA-based artists such as Math Bass, Shannon Ebner, and Dylan Mira. We're working together to imagine how a live exhibition could unfold in a theater, here at Roulette, an Art Deco gem in Brooklyn. There’s an interesting dynamic to the idea of “the politics of the hang:” artwork by some artists will become props or background pieces to others. We’re working through Roland Barthes’s concept of "idiorrhythmic" (in short, different rhythms cohabiting harmoniously within a community), and hopefully the audience will feel and understand this experiment of living together, on stage.
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