Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Michel François - 2009 - Des frontières très minces [FR, interview],
Interview , 5 p.


Hans Theys

Paper-thin but indestructible borders
In conversation with Michel François

Michel François (°1956) currently has exhibitions in Lausanne, Rome and Brussels. In the autumn of this year, S.M.A.K. is mounting a large retrospective exhibition of this artist’s work. The least that can be said of his work is that it is thematically cohesive and continues to develop in terms of form. His very first mature works were an inhabited, tapering ‘apartment’ in a display window (Appartement à louer, Galerie ERG, Brussels, 1980) and a residency at the Fondation pour la tapisserie in Tournai (Araignées, 1983) organized by the artist Tapta, where he collected spiders and reproduced their behaviour in large drawings reminiscent of spiders’ webs. Last year he showed mainly small sculptures, in galleries in London and New York and elsewhere.
    In Los Angeles he built the installation Domestic, inspired by the migration problems on the Mexican border. That work led to the current sculptures which occupy an entire space, but are very economical and simple in intent. Though François’ themes have changed little, they now have more depth and breadth. His sculptures still resemble formal reflections on the art of sculpting, but at the same time they speak about the place of the body in the world, the body as a porous structure, the border between the private and the public, the emergence of politics in our physical behaviour and the way we are constricted by invisible, intangible or paper-thin but indestructible borders.

- What are you showing in Lausanne?

Michel François: There are three classic galleries with parquet, ornamental frames and zenithal light, built at the end of the nineteenth century, not unlike the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. In the first gallery I am showing a work called Blindé: four glass sides of a bottomless and roofless cube measuring 2 x 2 x 2 meters. We bashed the middle of each pane with a sledgehammer until the panes cracked so you can’t see through most of them. The work puts you in mind of a large display cabinet designed both to show something and make it inaccessible. Normally a display cabinet makes the exhibited object a private possession. That effect is heightened here by the visible traces of attempts to break into the display cabinet. The more determined your efforts, the more obscure the glass and the more indiscernible the object. So on entering the museum, you are immediately greeted by an object which closes in on itself, which is impenetrable and shows signs of a movement that produces an unintentional, contradictory result…
    In the middle gallery I am showing an installation called Pièce à conviction. It is a snow-clad, rectangular area on the floor traversed by the tracks of a cow. The work was based on a photograph I came across in an American newspaper showing sandals to which an illegal Mexican immigrant had attached elements suggesting cow hoof prints, with the intention of misleading American border control agents. Originally I wanted to construct a strip of desert because I loved the idea of moving a piece of border territory, but I soon realized that snow would also say something about the Swiss borders. The snow is real and is made by a concealed cooling unit…
    On show in the third gallery is a work entitled Self Floating Flag. It’s a fluttering white flag set in motion by an air current forced through a narrow aperture in the hollow flagpole. Normally I would hide the compressor which is part of this work, but then I really liked the disproportion between that large, noisy machine and the lightness of the childish flag…
    I love the formal relationships between these three works. Blindé reminds you of scratched ice and snow. The flag is white. The three works conjure up an image of a clear, calm and peaceful moment and an image of exertion or movement. The white colour of the flag contrasts with the effort required to surrender or to maintain political neutrality. Each work contains a contaminating element: the cow tracks in the snow, the cracks in the reinforced glass and the huge, noisy compressor which belongs with the flag.  

- What are you showing in Rome?

François: First you see a drawing which consists of black tape stuck to a glass front door, giving the impression that the glass has cracked and been repaired.  However, it doesn’t take Romans long to recognize the map of their city. It’s a work I made with François Curlet for an exhibition in Athens. Later on I showed it as part of my first exhibition at the Bortolami Gallery. First you see what seems to be a casual drawing, which appears to be the result of a moment of violence, but then you recognize a structure…     
    In the first gallery you see the sculpture Pièces détachées (Parts) which consists of thin iron bars and small but very powerful magnetic balls. It’s a sculpture that comes into being in a lively manner, you can work quickly, its appearance changes constantly and you can easily create different tensions by adding a bar or changing direction.
    In the next space you find the large sculpture Scribble, which is based on the scribbles people make when buying a pen: an international gesture, a meaningless doodler. Scribble is a three-dimensional elaboration on this meaningless gesture. The sculpture consists of thin aluminium tubes covered with plaster cast. Displayed in the same space is the photograph Autoportrait à l’Etna (Self-portrait on Etna), which shows a weak and weary man leaning forward as he stands on the edge of a cable car wrecked by the last eruption.
    The exhibition works in several transparent layers. The uneven structure of the city map on the glass front door is complemented by the anarchistic structure of Scribble. You can see right through the sculptures, which allows me to play with the space while retaining freedom of movement… At the end of the gallery, 3.5 metres from the back wall, I had a false wall erected. I then cut a hole in it. Through the hole you see a video projection of solitary tumbling wine glasses. I asked a professional juggler to learn to juggle with wine glasses, which is no easy feat. It took him months and he broke hundreds of glasses in the process. When he was ready, I filmed him from above, in the dark, with the falling glasses lit at a certain height by an invisible beam of light from the side. Occasionally the juggler misses a glass and you hear it shatter on the floor. The sound volume of the video is very loud. The glasses look very elegant as they tumble through the air. There is a great contrast between what you see and what you hear…
    On the floor in the same space is a copy of the Financial Times, open at the stock markets page. On the newspaper is a burning candle, suggesting that there is no electricity, no table, nothing anymore because of the recession, but there is someone who, despite everything, still reads the stock market data.    

- What are you showing at the Hufkens gallery?

François: I am showing similar things: an archive of several static structures which relate to each other movement-wise. In the large gallery on the left as you come in, I am showing Golden Cage, which I exhibited in Basel last year. The cage consists of four sides of one-and-a-half-millimetre-thick tin from which I cut as much material as possible in A4 size without the structure collapsing. What is left resembles a fragile grid. I covered the grid with gold leaf. A sort of reversal takes place as regards value. What remains, the waste, is covered with gold leaf. Our attention is drawn to what separates us, not to the content. It corresponds to the movement of the immigrant who fantasizes about the border. There is no difference between the American and the Mexican desert, the people project their hope and values onto the thin border between the two. This work is about the same thing, but in the form of a golden cage. The A4 tin cut-outs are in the middle of the cage, like faded treasure. Originally I was planning to hang a few colourful pieces of fabric from it, like fragments of clothing (as in the sculptures in New York and Los Angeles you saw last year, which hang from the sculpture as if people have lost bits of skin in their attempts to cross the border), but I changed my mind…   
    Occupying the entire space on the street side is the sculpture Pièces détachées which you can see through two door openings. I love the free, elegant, sensitive, experimental and rhizomatous way in which the separate parts of this work cross a space, but also its temporariness and the fact that the sculpture is totally reliant on the invisible power of the magnetic balls… In the space bordering on the garden, I am showing Blindé, and in the small room higher up I am showing Scribble. Each work speaks about a movement. The cage and the glass pavilion define and intensify a desire to resist a movement or a form of violence. Scribble and Pièces détachées suggest a movement because of their structure and the way they were freely constructed and meander through the space.   

- In 1996, while working on the catalogue for Limoges, we discovered that the word ‘formal’ had a pejorative connotation for you, whereas on the basis of ideas about the literary form I had encountered in Flaubert, Wilde, Kafka, Céline and Gombrovicz, I believed in the possibility of making new images and a new world by relying on the form. Now you are talking about a meaningless doodler. How do you see the relationship today between a meaningless form and, for example, political or poetic involvement?  

François: It is about making works which are as far removed from the figurative as possible and whose content is as powerful as possible. I look for abstraction by starting from the form, all the forms, in the hope of evoking intense content. Of course the form of a work must be in order. That’s our job. But a work is only successful if you have found a form which tallies with the project’s intention. Intention and content mean the same to me. In the recent exhibitions I tried to put the emphasis on the differences between spaces and to attach value to the thin border that separates two places.   
    That intention was the result of a residency in Texas a few years ago, where I started reflecting on that strange border between Mexico and the United States of America and on its impact on ordinary lives.  It is a line on a map or a wall in the middle of a city like Berlin or Jerusalem. All bodies are confronted by similar separations. How can you express this? For example, by using and perforating thin tin and covering it with gold leaf. The sculpture should be as thin as cigarette paper and a vestige of an act that creates a void. The separation has to be fragile and there must be something insignificant about it, while at the same time suggesting or being given a value. Covering the tin with gold leaf or perforating it are formal solutions which serve a purpose, an intention. The starting point for Pièces détachées is the desire to have a sculpture grow in a space as quickly and as freely as possible so as to create the sense of a momentary apparition, of something that can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, something that is achieved with few gestures and materials, but embodies enough tension to play with the entire volume of a space in the form of a network. Thanks to the incredible power of those new magnets you can make a new form of sculptures which are articulated like a skeleton, our body or perhaps any sculpture…
    The reinforced glass pavilion reminds us that people constantly project values onto objects. The display case plays an important role here. I take this idea literally and show a glass case without an object, which someone appears to have tried to break into, thereby turning the actual glass case into a sculpture or valuable object. I used the packaging to speak about greed and the desire for something unattainable. For me this means the same as saying that we are both the question and the answer. By combining the symbol and the object of the desire in one and the same work, you create an image of striving for control, but also of losing control.    
    The same applies to Scribble. There is a clear loss of control. All this is of course linked to what you compared to Ice-T’s famous Home Invasion your essay Binnen zonder kloppen (Enter Without Knocking) written to tie in with the exhibition Mest, brandnetels en paardebloemen (Manure, Nettles and Dandelions) at Witte de With. It is about a form of contamination. By going beyond the predictable, Scribble contaminates the exhibition space. The sculptures also relate to the idea of creating a core or a dispersion, of course, as you explained in your 1996 article for the Limoges catalogue. It is still about concentration and dispersion, adversely affected territories and crossed borders: it is about formal questions which speak about sculpting, but which can also embody a political meaning.  

Montagne de Miel, February 19th 2009

Translated by Alison Mouthaan