ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Johan Creten - 2012 - Steeped in History [EN, interview],
Steeped in History
Conversation with Johan Creten
Johan Creten (°1963) speaks with a soft, strangely broken voice, like cracked stoneware. His work is based on old crafts and has a baroque way of not saying things. It is made in the most traditional and hi-tech workshops in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Sèvres, Miami, Monterrey, Rome and New York. Like dark angels, his images rise up before us flourishing and writhing in a hazy, erotic indefinability, like something unspeakable that endeavours to spew itself out.
Johan Creten: I collect small renaissance statues. They were made to be held in the hand and viewed from all sides. Every side of a renaissance statue tells a different story. Anyone making sculpture today can relate to Rodin, Brancusi, Henry Moore, Judd or Félix González-Torres, but basically I look at sculpture from a broader historical perspective. One of the sculptors who really appeals to me is Francesco Fanelli (ca. 1590–1653). (He shows images on his laptop.) Here you see a few examples of variations on a theme. In the image on the left the theme is a Saint Michael with dragon, but the picture on the right relates to a legend from Roman history. A deep chasm opened in the Forum Romanum which got bigger and bigger until a young man, Marcus Curtius, realized that it would never close until the most costly possession was sacrificed: the strength and honesty of youth. Sitting astride his horse, he leapt into the chasm. The sculpture is no thicker than a finger, but the concentration and stratification make it oh so intense and strong.
The composition of images from the renaissance and the baroque is often complex so if you don’t take the time to look at them properly, you don’t have the slightest idea what they are about. Take this Flora by Soldani Benzi. Her naked breast references truth, the little bunch of flowers in her hand tells us who she is…
I learned these things from an older couple who owned an antique shop. We met on the village square when I was eleven years old. I was trying to paint the church, using a small easel. We arranged that I would go to their house every Wednesday afternoon. They gave me things to hold and, for example, in the case of a glass object they would ask me:
“What can you see? What can you feel?”
“A hard edge, a sharp base?”
“What does that mean?”
“That the object wasn’t made in a mould, but with a blowpipe, which was cut off there.”
And so on and so forth. Those people were thrilled to have the chance to speak to a boy. It was all about quality, the stories, the complexity, the tactility, etc., all elements you have to take into account when assessing an artwork. So it was quite natural that later on I worked with Robert Miller in New York and now with Peter Marino, people who share the same sort of passion.
Here’s a photograph of my studio in Paris. It’s very small, but through the window I can see the passing bateaux-mouche. It looks a bit like Venice. Among my unfinished sculptures are older works of art. An image by the Italian sculptor Fontana. And a head from Gandhara: a former kingdom located in what is now roughly Afghanistan. Its style reflects the encounter between the Greek culture taken there by Alexander the Great, and Buddhism. They are Buddhist statues, but with the wet drapery of the Greeks. It’s a Bodhisattva Maitreya with lots of jewellery, which suggests that he was a prince. There is such sensuality in those statues. Next to it are a sculpture from India, a sculpture from Mali and a small one made by Eskimos. The migration of symbols is fascinating and a key to understanding my work.
Here you see an objet d’art made by Bernard Palissy, a pioneering French potter. It is a sort of bas-relief and while it looks seductive, its beauty and decorativeness are not the essential point; it is about something else, about animals like frogs, salamanders and snakes which are difficult to understand because they come out of the water but live on the land, or because they come out of an egg on land and then go and live in the water, or for example because they shed their skin. Those themes, whose layers of meaning have largely been forgotten, concur with the idea that clay is a material that can change from one state into another using the magic and the power of fire.
Palissy was a romantic person. He burned his furniture, parquet floor and books to feed his kilns and to develop new glazes. There is a statue of him in front of the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres, made by Louis-Ernest Barrias in the nineteenth century. He looks dejected, he is dressed as a protestant. Next to him is a stove in which he is burning books; under his arm he is holding one of his objects. I lived and worked in that historical porcelain factory for three years. In 2005 the Louvre invited me to show work in the museum and I was allowed to choose a space. I opted for a lesser-known, almost obscure gallery which is devoted to Palissy’s work. I identify with his endless quest in an aggressive and impatient world.
I made my Petite Vague pour Palissy in Sèvres. It is a piece you have to look at from different angles. My sculptures are impossible to reproduce in one photograph. For me it’s all about dynamics, growth, eroticism and also about the ‘tordu’: the twisted or distorted, and all presented under the guise of pure beauty, the result of the glazes, the colour contrasts, etc. But also just because of how an object feels when you touch it. For this piece I used a glaze that was developed in Sèvres for Marie-Antoinette, but I combined it with a nineteenth-century glaze in a format they hadn’t used for stoneware in Sèvres since the 1960s. So as a contemporary artist, I reintroduced old techniques into a highly traditional French company and added new ones. That meant living there for three years; it was the only way I could learn enough to innovate.
The little balls in the Vagues pour Palissy derive from a Hopi rain sash which I bought from Indians on the edge of the desert when I was living in Arizona for three years. It’s a knotted fabric worn by women during the marriage ceremony. The fringe symbolizes rain falling from the sky. It’s a fertility image; it also makes you think of seeds, fruits, peas or pearls.
I love the work of Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Richard Serra, but personally I found it impossible to make a tabula rasa of our roots and to abandon the whole history of art with all its magnificent story lines. Of course history is a heavy weight on your shoulders. I can well imagine that artists want to throw that aside and have done so, but I can’t get away from it, I have to do something with it. Even during my first exhibition, in 1985, when I made work for a gallery specializing in early art in Paris, it had to refer to the historical context: the Louvre, the Yerebatan Cistern in Istanbul, The Quarantine in Sète, etc. During the daytime I kept the images in their own art cabinet, at night I carried them round in Pigalle and in the metro. I saw the art cabinet as a laboratory in which to display one’s vision of the world and one’s existence by bringing together elements which form a complex whole.
As a student at the academy in Paris, I made work which not only had to survive in a white cube, it also had to embody meaning and give as much as possible to the viewer without a didactic context. I didn’t want to make work that could only survive if handled in a particular way. You have to be able to leave it behind in a museum, or even at a flea market. The story must be powerful enough to survive in that context too. That concept is one of the main characteristics of my practice, even if these days I show my work at Transit, Emmanuel Perrotin and Almine Rech.
The French were quick to appreciate my work. There was no visceral reaction to the use of clay, but a respect for the political, social and cultural subject matter of my work. Eagles I showed at Villa Arson in Nice in 1993, I will now be showing in Belgium for the first time. It was an exhibition about the far right in France, but under the cloak of decorative, brightly coloured earthenware. A cockerel in the colours of the French flag, but with a glaze known as ‘enflammé’. Always different layers of meaning.
My work homes in on ‘le jouissif’, the pleasure that goes hand in hand with making and looking. I make all my clay works myself. Sometimes it takes two or three years to make one work, which in a time of instant art and over-production is a real luxury.
For the exhibition at Dhondt-Dhaenens I want to mix old and new work. On show outside, for instance, you’ll see The Tempest, a 3.5-meter-high, hollow bird resting on a two-metre-high steel plinth. Viewed from the front, the bird looks as if it’s standing upright, from the side it looks as if it’s leaning forward and from the back you see that it’s hollow. The form reminds me of an ancient olive tree whose bark is what keeps it standing. But because of those changes in form the meaning changes constantly too.
I will also be showing Why Does Strange Fruit Always Look So Sweet, which was exhibited at Chatsworth, and The Community, a series of bronze facsimiles of anthropomorphic beehives. The imaginary bees go in and out through the mouth and the eyes. The image is about language as honey, the world as something healthy and the gaze as something positive. It is about cooperating, but also about protectionism. The hives are partly gilded, reminiscent of the heads of knights.
Works on show inside the museum include The Cradle: a bronze, two-metre-high image, half of which consists of the gilded, bronze cast of a real cradle. The cradle was a sort of basket the mother would sit in in front of the fire while dry-nursing her baby. I found illustrations of these cradles in paintings by Brueghel and Esaias Boursse and in the Netherlands I had them copied using willow withies. This feminine form balances on a mushroom-shaped mooring post, a ‘bite d’amarrage’, which also makes me think of mushrooms in allotment gardens.
A large part of the exhibition is about collecting and about preserving our roots. So there is Le rêve de la baronne, a heavy bronze table which looks like a guéridon draped in velvet and symbolizing the higher bourgeoisie: the table on which the proof is displayed. On that small ornamental table is a model of a temple, la Maison Carré in Nîmes in the South of France, which was built by the Romans. There is a door at the back of the table and the roof of the temple also opens. It is a work about private and sacred space, about our first house, our first secret: a blanket over a table. There will also be a series of six ceramic wall pieces called Octo, which are modelled on dried ray fish, once considered to be mythical creatures. A bronze version was shown in the ‘Beauté Animale’ exhibition at the Grand Palais.
In the work entitled La borne we recognize the boundary stone, but also the pillory and the hearth. For me the work speaks about the way in which communities are happily and unhappily set in their ways, locked in established patterns of thought or mindsets. Progress liberates us, but it weakens us too. La borne has a plinth in which the vertical line of the Gothic morphs into the spiral of the baroque. For me that plinth stands for the idea of progress. The same plinth features in the six-metre-high Column at Middelheim in Antwerp: the baroque column, which has been absorbed by its natural surroundings, takes on the form of an octopus, but from a different angle looks like a mother with a child and from yet another angle like a head with a fat nose. This column is part of a series called the Colonnes révolutionnaires. It is not pamphleteer art about sexual freedom, about anti-globalization or about the Arab Spring, but it is about everything, in my own way.
There will also be owls on display, the many layers of glaze forming their skin. Consequently, certain details disappear, while remaining vaguely legible. The last layer of glaze looks curdled, like the skin that forms on a cup of milk that has gone cold. Rodin used plaster of Paris as skin, dipping his statues in plaster to make them homogeneous. Medardo Rosso did the same with wax. I use glaze to give my images a ‘skin’.
I am also showing Plantstok (Dibber), a gilded bronze cast of a tool belonging to my great-grandfather. Even as a child I could see that this object embodies the complete essence of what a statue is. It is like a ‘resurrectio’, like a resurrection or an erection. The functional handle makes it a human figure, it speaks about the sex of survival, about plants and continuity. My roots are in the earth. Clay carries the taboo of the manual worker, of the labourer, of the peasant. Under no circumstances may anyone who works with his head touch the material.
I’m not sure yet if I will also add a torso from the Odore di Femmina series. From a distance these female torsos, made up of hundreds of hand-modelled ceramic flowers, look like mussel banks. When Don Giovanni refers to the ‘odore di femmina’ he is referring to a woman’s perfume, but also to menstrual blood and sweat, to what differentiates the sexes. The image speaks of seduction, but it also instils fear. You don’t know how to deal with it, you know that all contact with the statue will result in wounds to the statue and the viewer. The strange thing is that the wound disappears in the piece as a whole, the statues are not restored, but touched up. The fragility is part of the life of this sort of statue, and at the same time it tells us something about human relations. The statue seduces through its intrinsic beauty, and through its materiality it says something about human relationships.
Montagne de Miel, August 27th 2012
Translated by Alison Mouthaan