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Interview with French Artist Boris Chouvellon

French artist Boris Chouvellon is one of the Etant donnés grantees for 2018. He has benefited from a three month residency at the Show Gallery in Los Angeles and describes his experience in this interview.

What was your residency project?

The residency project, entitled CRUISING ON EMPTY and supported by the SHOW Gallery of Los Angeles (directed by Margot Ross), is linked to the city, its suburbs, roads, and coastlines. The automobile, one of the most influential products of postmodern society, and the road, one of the most intrusive infrastructures in nature, form the central elements of my project.

I wanted to circulate, alternating between pure, empty landscapes and others saturated in signs, in spaces adapted for settlement. Hunting out the vacuity and vanity of the spaces available, I searched for entropic ruins, that mechanism that suspends, abolishes in fact, time and its linearity, according to the artist Robert Smithson. I was met with new landscapes in the form of the infrastructures that offer rest, food, and entertainment such as diners, motels, gas stations, amusement parks, even abandoned swimming pools. All of these are an integral part of - and are often at the origin of - the iconography of my sculptures and installations.

In effect, they occupy our unconscious, returning to a certain period of modernity. I work on this typology which is rooted in the 60s.

I wanted to come back to the same iconography found in the texts of Bruce Bégout (Common Place: The American Motel; Zeropolis: The Experience of Las Vegas; L’éblouissement des bords de route (The Glare of the Roadside, in English)), Marc Augé (Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity), and Mike Davis (City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster; Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, The Ecology of Fear). I also focused on the book Learning From Las Vegas by architects Venturi, Scott-Brown, and Izenour who theorize on form in relation to function, to the banal, and to everyday, so-called “duck” architecture.

My understanding of the city came about about through lengthy, preplanned journeys that allowed me to superimpose one place on top of another, alternating between panoramic views and little snippets of image, all united by SHOW Gallery as the point of crossover.

What have you been able to produce in this framework, how is the residency coming along? Can you introduce your new creations or describe how your research is progressing?

I distinguish between 5 major sections of time in my residency. This has allowed me to produce different types of work within several different substructures.

1/ The first timeline was the constant taking of photographs and short videos from start to finish. The process was quite simple, I had already identified routes on Google Earth, and during these journeys I would follow my interest into certain sites, leaving me the opportunity to stop or plan a longer visit to a specific location. One week, I kept crossing the bridge above the port of Long Beach (Seaside Freeway), entering and leaving through different terminals. I would constantly return to the same place, and that is a theme that recurs in my work. Light, which is vitally important, was strangely lacking since I stayed during the coldest and rainiest winter for a long time. This produced images very different to the usual pictures of constant blue skies. In the first month of my residency, I made several trips to suppliers to find the materials I needed to construct my sculptures. It was a real scavenger hunt, with the metal workers sending me to their distant colleagues several tens of miles away, for example. All of theses visits allowed me to access a vast array of shapes, available to me if needed. During these car trips, I was always mindful to look for wheel trims at the side of the road, which I would later to cast into concrete and decorate in gold leaf. There was an exciting aspect to each find I made, and it was also an opportunity to meet people, like in the dumpster. I noticed at that point that everything can be recycled and that the action of picking up trash can become lucrative business for some underprivileged people.

I think the residency led me to go beyond simply landscape and objects as my photographic subjects, bringing my attention to the representation of men, women, and, first and foremost, those who helped realize my Bombay Beach sculptures.

2/ The Second Timeline was the exhibition Cruising on Empty at the SHOW Gallery; in short, the creation of new works in the studio.

First was the plaster casting of the roadside wheel trims, then the concrete prints, and finally, decorating them in gold leaf. A motif of the road and the fallen reign of the age when the automobile dominated the structure of work organization, they are also an object fossilized in concrete, like shells left on the roadside after the tide has gone in.

The piece Everywhere is nowhere (Hollywood) was essentially a hybridization between the shape of a kebab/shawarma and that of a disco ball; two rotating shapes that exist all over the world.

Petrol Blues, the central piece in the exhibition, was the back end of a fuel truck, one side being a polished mirror face, the other covered with a deep, dark blue oil painting. The whole thing was displayed in the middle of the gallery, suspended by cables. Resulting from the simple act of taking part of a container--the truck--this sculptural gesture becomes a sort of sign, a dual sided emblem. The mind of the onlooker is left open, and mine backtracked to the Steven Spielberg film Duel (1971) where the Californian landscape is submitted to the invasive presence of this haunting shape in the sun, the other side swallowing the light in the obscure abyss of the painted structure. There is a collection of a dozen magnetized color photographs on the wall (a selection of all of the photographs taken during this residency), like samples for a potential film that onlookers could form themselves from these shattered snippets of image.

A photograph, a manifestation of the entirety of my research during this residency, assumes the eponymous title Cruising on Empty. During the very short time to install the work at the exhibition, just three days in fact, I revived the piece Ma ruine avant la votre (Hollywood) (or, My Ruin Before Yours, in English).

This exhibit took place only one month after I arrived, with the idea being to have the exhibit ready just before the Frieze art fair, meaning I had the chance to meet numerous professionals and collectors.

3/ The third time period was devoted more to professional networking and the discovery of other art spaces I hadn’t had time to discover. So I saw museums works such as those of Chris Burden, Ed Rusha, and Nancy Rubins, with whom I share artistic similarities. I was also able to meet other artists involved in the Artist Run Space. I was able to pursue my research into more “natural” (wild, abandoned) spaces in surrounding canyons such as those on the coast.

4/ The fourth time period facilitated my participation in a collective exhibit in Palm Springs at the Contemporary Modernism Pop-Up Gallery. This exhibit, which hadn’t been planned, proved that projects can be developed quickly. I was able to meet a lot of new people there, in organized receptions hosted in the homes of various collectors.

5/ The fifth section was the Biennial of Bombay Beach, where I had gone to scout out locations in October 2018. It’s nested in an abandoned seaside station on the border of Salton Sea. In this place, which has suffered both ecological and economic damage, a group of patrons, artists, and philosophers meet regularly to regenerate it through the arts, music, performance, and many conferences. Each artist can transform abandoned places (houses, land, caravans etc) through artistic means.

So I was invited to revive two pieces that had already been created and that made sense in this environment. The first work, Ma ruine avant la votre (Bombay Beach), is a six-meter concrete star in the space, elevated in the air at an angle by steel reinforcement bars. The star motif and the title of the work question superficiality, inutility, and reveal how many symbols of glory are really just void of meaning and thus destined to erasure and disappearance - “decorations” questioning vanity, the famous memento mori; a fallen star.

In what way has the residency been an important milestone in your work?

It has allowed me to expose my work to a different territory, which has confirmed the universal approach I have to my pieces. My work was received well. I also saw a field of possibilities, of dynamism, quick thinkers with invitations and lots of projects lined up. I have already been able to sell some pieces, and to continue selling I am considering going back to LA to take part in other exhibitions.

As this residency comes to a close, what are your aspirations?

At the end of this residency, I hope to continue working with SHOW Gallery despite the distance between Los Angeles and Paris. I think that in order to really solidify the relationships I have established with all of the professionals I have been able to meet thanks to this residency, I will have to continue going between the two cities. What I do with all of the photographs I have taken during my time remains to be seen, but they will be useful in identifying shapes and objects that I can inject into my sculptures. There is also the collection of portraits, which is a whole new field of research for me.


Étant donnés Contemporary Art is a program of the FACE Foundation, developed in partnership with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, with lead funding from the French Ministry of Culture, and Institut Français – Paris, the Florence Gould Foundation, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Chanel USA, the ADAGP, the CPGA – Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art, and private donors.