Fabrice Samyn

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Recreating meaning from its gradual disappearance

Interview of Fabrice Samyn by Devrim Bayar and Olivier Meessen
The artist's studio, Brussels, 30 July 2008

Devrim Bayar: I would like to start with what I find surprising, and I don't think I am the only one, when I see your work: the interest in historical art. Without wishing to limit the sources of your inspiration, in fact quite the opposite, they are eminently varied and we will talk about them more - by way of introduction, I would like to discuss this original interest. Where does that inspiration come from and how does it contribute to your oeuvre?

Fabrice Samyn: In historical art, two aspects and the interaction between them strike me as particularly interesting: the sacred intent (without suggesting that it is not present in contemporary art) and the question of time. Today, and in the artistic field in particular, we live a relationship with the sacred that, as a result of modernism, is more linked to a direct sensory experience (as contrasted with a complex symbolic language). Therefore, when confronted with the historic representation of mystery, I endeavour to grasp the inevitable anachronism and regenerate a feeling of a gulf, which is accessible to a contemporary gaze. How can an old painting bring us into its presence, so that the time disappears between the moment when the painter was in a state of denial of thought to be present in what he painted, and the moment when the viewer sees it. It is the meeting of these two temporalities which interests me, or how a still life meets today's gaze or not, in other words what time tells us about presence and the presence of time.


In the series Vierges (Virgins), for example, I capture the dazzling experience of the surfaces of religious paintings in their current exhibition space, in order to challenge the notion of "immaculate conception" (translated by certain schools of contemporary hermeneutics as "a state of silence, an inner availability stripped of preconceptions about the real"). In the series Sinaï (Sinai), once photographed, the headless sculptures of Greek divinities become desert landscapes; an unthinkable subject for representation at the time! Likewise, the images of the genital organs of these sculptures reveal a  sacred virility transformed by the work of time into divine androgyny.
To summarise, historic art enables me to explore that relationship between Chronos and Kairos , the historic time and that of presence, i.e. the infinite number of intervals in a given space on a timeline. Then, my work questioning anachronism with regard to these traces of a distant time; what physical impact can its complex codes have today? Finally, facing historic art enables me to personify time as creator, as artist.

D. B.:  Recently we were talking about the question of sharing sensitivity, and how your artistic practice draws strength from everyday experience. From this viewpoint, drawings in dust seem to me particularly to reveal that poetry of that everyday poetry that you cherish: celebrating the present, right into its literally dusty, forgotten nooks and crannies, and suggesting, in fleeting traces, possible fictions. Do you think that art can restore enchantment to the real?

F. S.: My work attempts to reveal time, or rather natural phenomena of time (erosion for example) as creative. It tries to show poetically the reality of enchanting phenomena. In accomplishing its work, time talks of the timeless. So, by defiguring a sculpture, an icon of beauty, into a "serious burn victim", an ambassador of ugliness, perhaps it transfigures that beauty. By bringing together these two extremes, time neutralises their antagonism. By "decapitating" ancient busts, it uses representations to challenge their necessity.
When I draw by removing the dust on the walls and blinds of the city, my forms aim to maintain a doubt between the possibility of an accidental mark and the intention of a gesture. In the case of the flight of pigeons, how could the stealth of this moment have been "photogrammed" by the accumulation of dust? While hoping that, for the duration of a glance, the absurd risks being credible, because these drawings are inspired by the marks left by the impact of these birds against the windows. This work is a form of tribute paid publicly to the poetry of marks, which can be gentle or tragic, which enlivens the path of our everyday lives.

Light, which I treat extensively in my paintings, is the counterpart of dust. Biblical references about our nature connected with dust , as well as to light reveal the importance of that link in founding myths. In the semi-restored paintings, I remove the dust to create a patch of light. If I restored the painting completely, the impression that light makes on the surface would not be perceptible. So I show patches of light by using dirt. There is an interdependence between dust and light, "physicality" and the ether.  In my oil painting, I manipulate light sometimes by using a glaze, sometimes through areas of absence, or of deliberate wear, removal.  I use light as the subject itself of the painting, by seizing details like flames in the paintings certified or attributed to Georges de La Tour  .

D.B.: Your work is positioned in a very subtle way between the beautiful (the charm of the beautiful that you reject) and the ugly (no "trash" provocation in your work), to concentrate on the question of the representation itself. You re-visit certain fundamental questions in art history - the ban on representation, idolatry, debates about restoration - through phenomena that are thoroughly modern: work derived as "merchandising" products, work given the star treatment in the light of the flashguns ... Nevertheless, I am not certain that you are positioning yourself as a critic, but rather as a critical observer. What do you think?

Above all, it is a matter of asking myself questions, and probably I will always have to work to gradually experiment with the answers. For example, I wonder whether criticism has any impact at all. "To what extent does criticising a phenomenon change it?" is a fundamental question for me, right down to the most personal areas of my life. Discernment turned into a work of art runs the risk of becoming a condemnation. Beyond recognition of a failure, I look for foundations and a will to enchant.

So even behind the worst commercial attempt to reproduce the Venus de Milo for the nth time, there may be a determination to accept that beauty is armless (laughter)... I don't know. The same can be said about the project The Mausoleum Shop, where I ask the following question: is it not possible to recreate meaning from something considered sinister? How to recreate meaning from its gradual disappearance? Is it not possible to see in a candle which is the worst form of a reproduction of a work from Antiquity, the revelation of another question, which is fundamental in art, in other words vanity, or how a work of art is the mirror of our vanity, of our desire to live forever? In the case of these wax busts from Antiquity, I question particularly the vanity of aesthetic beauty, whereas with the candle in the shape of a head, it is more a challenge to social status. The original sculptures made of marble become, over time, the exhibition of a fall, which I find quite poetic. If time sometimes plunges us both into the absurdity of everyday life as much as into the violence of grief, perhaps it embodies a certain ethics.

Olivier Meessen: Through your questioning of the intentions of representation, particularly by appropriating existing works, how do you perceive what you do as an artist?

The practice of painting is essential to the extent that I question it. The act of painting corresponds to a carefree moment ... often preceded by the exacerbation of an inner struggle! The magic of painting occurs in the happy medium between the task of realising an inspiration, and a fortunate accident. It is a sort of metaphor in the relationship that one can have with one's own destiny.

Painting also enables me to tame the subject represented, and to distance myself from its potential to fascinate (an attitude to which I am greatly inclined). A representation has a dual meaning: what it narrates, and how that narration has been made possible. Then come the contexts of monstration and conservation, for which the work is an ambassador, without realising it. It would be fortunate if, ideally, these various layers of representation were as little in conflict as possible, the "grailesque" challenge being that of integrity.

D. B.:  Your artistic practice shows an interest in the spiritual. Can you explain the relationship between the spiritual and art in your work?

Like others, I think that through the ages, the spiritual challenge of art is to generate a contemplation which is not a fascination, to attempt to produce from the outset a beauty that inspires gratitude rather than suffering attachment. This challenge of differentiation between icon and idol remains a conquest for everyone. Art is probably one of the main tools in the laboratory of life, where we can experiment with this discernment. Among our contemporaries, James Turrell, by controlling our perception of light, leads us to look at the light in its own right: blue screens that are not answering anything, but rather celebrating a a silent mystery.

Viewers, like the creative artist, can decide to make art an object of fascination for themselves or not. The Mona Lisa has become an object of fascination it is own right, not for the experience that it creates, or the grace that it inspires.

D.B.: And do you think that you yourself have ever really looked at her?

That's a very difficult question, although I did spend a week in the exhibition room at the Louvre to make the sound recordings for the Vu d'Or. The Mona Lisa is so filtered by memory, by the discernible and by language that to derive anything other than consuming her image is difficult, for me at least.

D.B.: Talking of observation, I notice in your work a visual acuity and a very free grasp of reality, but also art, through your vision. While your gaze pauses on the dusty nooks and crannies that I was talking about previously, it also encompasses places and works of art. It concentrates on the navels in the paintings of Adam and Eve that it transforms into a cosmos, or on the heads of ancient marbles, which you metamorphose into lunar landscapes. Is that visual urge what drives you?

My work is questioning rather than a criticism. In that context, one paramount question is to know whether are still able to look.  Have we not seen these images reproduced ad infinitum until the works became legible information that viewers are merely recognising? Can we see works in some other way than through a collective subconscious and via the filter of memory?

D.B.: Talking about that, are their old works of art with which you have a special relationship, that you go to see regularly? Have you developed an intimate relationship with certain works?

Yes, for example with the works of Rembrandt, Holbein, Vermeer ... Vermeer, in particular,  has succeeded in representing that moment when we are surprised to be here, that moment when it is no longer the light that helps us to see objects, but objects that help us to see the light. Suddenly, the carousel of thought stops, and we land wherever our body happens to be. Vermeer is able to make us land where our body is. So he is able to cancel time.

D.B.: Working with you, I have also discovered or rediscovered several contemporary artists such as Idris Khan or Claudio Parmiggiani. Who are the artistic figures whose work you keep an eye on, and what strikes you as significant about their work?

In the work of Claudio Parmiggiani, I feel an attempt to reveal archetypal burdens, figures which create the architecture of the subconscious. He also explores the work in which absence generates presence, the way that the positive/negative duality can combine (in his work with soot, for example). I share that quest.

Through his superimposed photographs, Idris Khan gives time a new dimension. He explores the way in which a body of work, seen through the filter of time, condensed in time, generates an additional meaning.

D.B.: Not to mention his attachment to classical figures (Turner, Bach...) ?

In the case of the Bach scores, their superimposed photographs give the music a visual form that is as vibrant as the music itself. Through a simple gesture, Idris Khan makes musical notation, which is originally just a code, into a perceptible language. I love that alchemic work.

In a painting entitledThe Medium is the Message on which it was originally written "VERBO CARUM FACTUM EST" ("And the word was made flesh") and where I removed the varnish from the part corresponding to the wooden frame underlying the image, I tried to create an additional dimension by enhancing the concrete dimension of the work. Combining the symbolic and the physical, wondering whether it would not be possible to find a symbol in the very "physicality" of the work. Is the most precise symbolic meaning not contained in the sensory perception of the work? Discovering where the sensory is intentional. So my work is along the same lines as the work itself: a religious painting that represents the materialisation of logos, creative information. I use works by trying not to go in the opposite direction to their original intention. I strive to move towards them, while creating links with the present, in order to lighten our anachronistic relationship with them.

D.B.: Language is also extremely present in your work. Not only do you produce poetic texts to accompany certain works, but you also play on words in the installations "ICI" and "HIER". Not to mention the precision with which you choose the titles. What relationship do you establish between the plastic and linguistic registers?

They say that a poison and its antidote often grow side by side. Poetry has the power to release what everyday language sometimes constricts. The same is true of visual art. We know how much these days the real image and its mental counterpart generate insatiable desires, chatter, ideals that people criticise themselves for not living up to. In this context, an artistic work is positioned like a Trojan horse. This is particularly true for photography which for many users is, in everyday life, a tool for scheduling future nostalgia; how can this medium also be a source of presence, of self-effacement? My work explores that.


O.M.: I would like your opinion on whether giving works a title is a necessity or not. Is "naming" an easy or complex decision for you to make?
Sometimes titles refer to the work from which I worked, for example in the case of the photos of navels taken from paintings. Either I take the title from the source of the work, and I open up its meaning by making it correspond to a different viewpoint, or I change the name, or I don't give a title. For the series Vierges (Virgins - religious paintings covered in light), I do not include the titles of the initial works; the paintings become representatives of their kind in the broadest sense. In the same way, for the moulds of death masks of illustrious figures, I chose to relieve them of their names; so these images can become the essential portrait of a humanity, rather than of its existence.

Giving a title is a difficult task, and I have had a great deal of indecision about it. To the extent that finding it impossible to give a title becomes a pleasure in itself. I give titles to works, but often I change them as time goes by. The fundamental intention of the historic works, which may have only been semi-conscious at the time when they were produced, is revealed with greater clarity when looking at the new works, and so on. Perhaps when I am on my death-bed, I will have to change all the titles again, or perhaps each work will have to keep all its titles, ennobled by the conflicts between intentions? That being said, that would not contribute to the considerable practical role that titles play in the organisation of my work. So it would probably make sense to find a happy medium. Generally speaking, my pictures examine the incongruity of the representation in the broadest sense (including mental), and in particular, the inevitable obsolescence of anything which is frozen in time. Titles contribute to that task, in themselves, and in their vulnerability to change.  

D.B.: When we set up our exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels, I remember that you were worried that your work (particularly the candles in the shape of a bust) would be interpreted as cynical. What do you think of cynicism, an approach that I find rather common in contemporary art?

Indeed, it is a very prevalent attitude. For me, cynicism is a paradoxical intention: not to have any congruence between words and actions. Any desolation deserves to exist and be heard, recognising that cynicism consists of feeding on what you are criticising. For example, artists who live from denouncing the mercenary nature of art. Ultimately, this paradox engenders schizophrenia.

The public also brings about the cynicism of some artists to justify the mechanisms that some of them employ in their own life. Man people are cynical because it is difficult to rise above this lament, be creative with your own life and overcome certain suffering. One solution is to recognise artists who operate in the same way. The consensus of art acknowledges that everyone's cynicism is right. Building up idols who reflect the attitudes to which one feels attached and from which we do not feel strong enough to stand out from the crowd. But this process of idolatry ends up by harming the artists themselves, as they confine themselves to remaining loyal to a source of recognition, however painful it may be.

The question is therefore how to smile rather than snigger. What is necessary is to bring joy without its counterpart. I am less interested in emotions than in the possibility of feeling, in that mood beyond a binary form. The sound installation Le Vu d'Or came about when I heard a mother explaining to her child that the Mona Lisa's gaze was following him all around the room, and so the child asked whether she would continue to look at him even in the next room. That moment was both funny and full of meaning that made me laugh. I hope that we find that initial intention in the work.  

O.M.: You spend a lot of time preparing certain works. Here, am referring to the logistic and administrative negotiations. How do you feel about that workload? Is it an integral part of the activity of creation, or is it a heavy burden which forces you to manage your working time in a way you would prefer to avoid?

Some logistic aspects do not form part of the activity of creation itself, such as obtaining permission from the museums to photograph the paintings. On the other hand, visiting the location can lead to some surprises, such as wandering around the Palazzo Pitti all on your own one Monday: that's exhilarating! I am not against the idea of ordering a photo, but often that is more complicated than doing it yourself. For paintings to restore, sometimes the research takes a lot of time compared with the actual work. But as you traipse around the auction rooms and the flea markets, the motivation not to be distracted enables you to have a targeted approach. It is true that my relationship with time is fragmented by the practical organisation required by each of the various media that I use; it is a challenge to keep the big picture in mind. The forms resulting from my work explore time as much as the labour itself. Perhaps these forms are only the symptoms of this everyday life sorely tested by the idea of time, sometimes wasted, sometimes saved, fleeting, embroidered, kneaded. I think that the zest for life requires us to find the time to remember that we have it. From a practical viewpoint, I suppose that my desires will evolve and my wish for simplicity will force me to be more efficient or adapt the way I work.

D.B.: To stay on a more practical aspect, you have worked on old paintings worth a lot of money, belonging to collectors or bought at auction, and on others that you have picked up at a flea market, for example. Is your different depending on which of these cases is involved?

What is important is not to prevent yourself from doing one or the other, if you have that possibility. To choose the paintings, I tried to stay aloof from the subjective criteria that make a work valuable, in order to focus my attention on other types of criteria. I also work frequently on copies, tormented by the question of the representation and, therefore, the question of a possible original.
O.M. By way of an epilogue, could you tell us something about your future plans like the one with your composer friends?

With some pianist and composer friends, we are thinking about questions of synesthesia, and trying, via this interlinking of the senses, to restore the body to the focus of attention, rather than treating it as a catalyst for the attention.  In other projects connected with music, I am writing lyrics for a singer/songwriter and I am also working on a film featuring opera singers.