Verging on the Intolerable
Interview with Charlotte Waligora
Charlotte Waligora: In reference to your 1997 exhibition in Brouzes du Larzac, a short article in Le Monde described your figurative work as « nasty little pigs . . . verging on the intolerable. » Did you understand how your work could be seen in this way?
Agnès Baillon: I heard about this article from someone who, upon entering the gallery, said to me, « I hear that you make animals. » He was a veterinarian, which gave me a good laugh. Nevertheless, I thought that the article was just a little too much. I remember thinking as I read it that it was deliberately provocative, that its words were completely out of phase with the work I was doing. At that time, I was working with a pink resin that might suggest the color of pig skin. The book Truisme by Marie Darrieussecq—in which a woman is metamorphosed into a sow!—had also just come out. The character’s transformation in that book was described so that readers could identify with it, feel like their own skin was being transformed. I knew already that this matter could get under people’s skin, so to speak, but it was only the color that reminded them of pigs. I don’t think that there’s anything piglike about my figures, not then, not now. People often see themselves in my sculptures.
CW: Do you deliberately avoid any possible connotation in your subject matter? There’s nothing in your figures that lets us identify with them, no sign or other pattern that invites interpretation, except for gender. Only a few “swimmers” provide viewers any distance from the disturbing figuration they are confronting. This lack of distance often makes people uncomfortable. You were talking about identification.
AB: I try hard to avoid storytelling, all identifiable temporal and cultural signs. If I define the figure—if I give him/her an accessory or look (clothes, jewelry, hairstyle) with a temporal or cultural meaning—I limit the viewer’s imagination. As it is, there’s nothing to let the viewer stand back visually from the subject, to get some distance. Because of this absence of distance, viewers project their own experiences, frequently their anxieties, worries, and doubts. There is an immediate mirror effect. Often I have noticed that happy people find my work happy, while the opposite is also true. When I talk about hairstyles—you mentioned the lack of hair; it’s true that my figures are hairless—they are either stylized or absent (that concept again). This deconnotation is intentional, a deliberate choice. The best way to reach a universal dimension is to make my figures universal. The only really distinguishing features among them are their expressions and body types. They are human, unique, and just as varied as humans are. I work until I feel or believe that I have succeeded in introducing a presence, that I have transformed the resin into a human presence. The figures become personified, nearly alive.
CW: Is the desexualization of your subjects, both children and adults (they are, in fact, ageless), also a deliberate choice? This lack of a sexual dynamic carries us implicitly to childhood, when the perception of other beings and of the world is both « virginal » and innocent.
AB: Recently I was photographed nude in my workshop, where I was put in direct relation with my sculptures. It was surprising and disturbing to be alone, stripped naked, alive and sexual, among my works. It was then that I truly understood that my sculptures are not sexual, even though they display sexuality. Of course, I already knew this, but the realization was devastating and final (laughs). This lack of a sexual dynamic was not premeditated and was never part of an official program; I simply never wanted sexuality to influence or disturb the perception of the work. The paintings of Jean Rustin, for example, are to me all the stronger because of the absence of sexual gestures, which makes the fragility of Rustin’s humanity that much more moving, whether the characters are nude or not. For my part, I wanted the clothing on the body to reach a point of transparency. The nudity of my figures reinforces the absence of possible identification. I think that sexuality instills a connotation in the artwork. It is a defining gesture that goes against what I want to do and say. What interests me is the presence of the being. The eyes are more important than the gender, which only projects the figure towards the outside world. The eyes open the way to the inside, a way of inviting viewers to an encounter, intimate and silent, with themselves.
CW: There is an elaborate connection among scales and sizes that creates a feeling of strangeness.
AB: I have always tried not to work on a human scale in order to avoid (once again) breaking the link with the imaginary. After seeing the Ron Mueck exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in 2006, I thought that anything bigger than human scale led inevitably to monumental statuary. I was thinking of fascist-era sculpture and socialist realism from the 1920s-30s, which to me lacks all sensitivity. I try to reach and create a sensitive and intimate dimension. When I saw the Ron Mueck exhibition, I felt that this was possible in monumental works, too. His gigantic works made me dizzy, a lightheadedness that comes when we are invited into a universe—the intimacy of the figures, in this case—which we enter unsure of ourselves because we are now in a poetic dimension, even if it is one that reproduces a facet of reality. I began making heads larger than life, even though my full-scale statues are smaller. This makes people uncomfortable; they often ask if my figures are normal people. This is very interesting, because realism—the facial features and nonidealized body types—gives the impression of a living portrait, whereas the applied scale, which is approached systematically as greater or lesser than reality, gives this feeling of strangeness.
CW: You studied painting under Leonardo Cremonini, but then you chose to sculpt. Would you care to talk about this transition from one medium to the other?
AB: I chose a teacher with a strong personality in order to eradicate the influence of my parents. Later I had to kill the master in order to finally be free. I am basically self taught. When I was at Beaux Arts, I made paintings with a capital “P,” the major art form par excellence. Leonardo Cremonini’s demanding standards and the obligation to excel as a painter provoked a “masterpiece anxiety,” as Cremonini’s assistant, Skira, used to say. As graduation approached, I began making my « little man » brooches, and it was Skira who noticed my work and thought it very amusing. He also saw that I was having fun and enjoying making them under relaxed conditions, that I was able to work freely in that style. I was working in a medium where I had not been expected. He took them to show to Caroline Corre and considered exhibiting them. These “little men” grew up progressively and got bigger and bigger. Nevertheless, I continued to paint, and for a while I was working in both media. I would paint characters that were headless and under water, then I would complete their bodies by sculpting their heads. It was absolutely essential that the two always be exhibited together, until the day when I finally became a sculptor.
CW: Do you still remember Cremonini’s remarks about your work? Did he leave a lasting impression on you?
AB: I answered that question in the tribute that you wrote about him, which I quote here. “It was fascinating to listen to him talk about pictorial matter and the meaning of the visible. He often talked about how the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ had to live together in the same work as two separate entities, not blended but harmonized, balanced, and presented distinctly. That was his greatest lesson. Cremonini believed that we are made of the hard and the soft (flesh and bone). In order to produce an emotion, to pass it on, we had to find balance, while avoiding flabbiness. He also had high standards for observation: avoid reflexes and facile effects. This rigorous sense of observation that he wanted to instill in us, and which he stressed, was in his eyes the key to reaching what he called ‘sensitive intensity.’” That sort of sums up everything I just said, doesn’t it? I also told you that “he wanted to guide us to the development and translation of a personal vision of reality. He wanted our imagination to be enriched, but we couldn’t call on our imagination until we had improved, through serious and meticulous efforts, our observation of the real.” So what else can I say except, yes, he definitely made an impression.
CW: Your sculptures—whether in bronze, resin, or papier-mâché—are painted. Is this a way of making the raw material disappear, of playing with the final texture, but also of heightening the realism of the features, eyes, the color contrast between the lips and teeth?
AB: A bronze sculpture is like a painting with a capital “P.” It’s lethal. I mean, it is too noble, it can’t be touched. It is dead matter that, when raw, neither lives nor moves. If the bronze is to come to life, the sculptor must adhere to a series of systems that have already been explored, e.g., Rodin’s non finito. Whether I’m working with bronze, resin, or papier-mâché, I want to feel matter that is as alive and transparent as the human body with all its imperfections. The paint adds to the flesh effect. I use glaze to increase the transparency of the flesh. I have always painted the eyes. It is the paint that creates the eyes and expression, for “the eyes are the mirror of the soul.” When I paint, I combine a realistic expression with an opening to the inside, the universe of feelings. The paint is therefore both a part of and the final touch to a sculpture. It is often done at the very end. I also don’t want viewers to understand immediately what the raw material is. This, too, is a way to push them to question themselves, to sharpen their curiosity. This work of making the raw material disappear betrays the fact that I am constantly searching. I always question work that is under way, what materials to use. I have yet to commit myself to a way of working from which I might not one day turn away, nor do I wish to. I need to experience a certain giddiness, to take risks, to try, to be wrong, to doubt.
CW: Your portrayal of the body, its shapes and facial features, is “realistic.” Nonetheless the viewer sees with the naked eye that reality has been left behind, as if you willed, or sought, to poeticize the subject. I see a poetic reality in this. Although in a completely different manner, your faces are as timeless as those of Giovanni Della Robbia (1469-1529) and of Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400-1464). We could also draw a connection between your figurations and those of archaic Greece (c. 620-480 B.C.), of Old Kingdom Egypt (I am thinking of “The Seated Scribe,” c. 2620-2500 B.C., Louvre), and of Etruscan sculpture in general. To attain this poetic adaptation of reality, the artist must have observed perfectly and “tamed” what is strictly imitative representation. In your workshop, you have hung up a number of photographs from which you work.
AB: When I was a child, there were many reproductions of Flemish paintings in my mother’s workshop, including those of Roger Van der Weyden. By then I was already drawing portraits inspired by the figures in his paintings. I found them fascinating. What I loved was the realistic facial features in the work of Van der Weyden, Memling, Van Eyck, and more generally in Flemish painting at that time, which was highly stylized. It was this mixture of opposites that attracted me. I go often to the Louvre to look at Egyptian and Roman sculpture. What appeals to me is how these works are both alive and stylized; some faces are both antique and contemporary. The Egyptians were aiming for eternal life, and their sculptures are fragments of life “preserved” for all eternity. A visitor once said, looking at my sculptures, “This is the archaeology of a peaceful society.” Some of my collectors who see my work as dolls speak of reassurance. I grew up in Larzac, where political activism was very strong. I was filled with this sort of energy that I can now use for my own values. I am a humanistic activist. My starting point is reality, a reality that I enhance and try to surpass. I begin with photographs, which stir in me emotions that I then attempt to reproduce. The photographs are often of injured people, handicapped people—people considered imperfect. The theme of the human body is so vast that it can be treated in an infinite number of forms. What never changes is the determination to go beyond what can be seen as a poetic adaptation. That doesn’t mean mere embellishment. For example, in 2008, I went to see the Jan Fabre exhibition The Angle of the Metamorphosis in the Louvre galleries devoted to the painted works of the Flemish, Dutch, and German schools. I loved this exhibition, in which I found contradictions and connections that excited me, most of all because they were between a living, contemporary artist and works in the Louvre, that temple of art history. The Self-Portrait as the World’s Biggest Worm, installed in the Rubens gallery, was incredible. There was an obscenity that was “verging on the intolerable” (laughs)! The installation was very disturbing. There was a physical, sensual appeal because of the worm’s rolls of skin, which mirrored the rich sensuality of Rubens’s flesh. The worm itself was extremely phallic, sliding over a pile of gravestones. This exaltation of sex and death juxtaposed was interesting and disturbing, all the more because to create this sexual/mortal dimension at the Louvre took a lot of nerve. I don’t especially like Rubens, whose painting seems too flabby and flowing to me. Fabre brought a certain balance to Rubens, extending and completing—even correcting—his work.
CW: Your bronze fragments of painted faces move in that direction: they are as disturbing as they are attractive. Recently you gave up resin for papier-mâché. Is there a connection with the Scorsese film After Hours that you were speaking about, in which the main character ends up covered in papier-mâché and turned into a sculpture after a night of hellish, nightmarish, seemingly random events?
AB: The body fragments that I saw in the Louvre were very moving, as I was saying. I began making fragmented faces in painted bronze in 2008. My latest efforts come from what I see. In reality, I encounter whatever coincides with my own research, where I sometimes find answers from looking at my personal icons from an ever-changing angle. I talk to them, question them. My fragments are almost archaeological; they have that archaeological miracle in them, a way of bringing back today what was doomed to death and destruction. It’s a little like the principle of the Fayoum mummy portraits. I have kept the realistic features while using bronze, a material that I find lifeless and which points us directly to the past. The viewer can imagine these “broken” faces as they once were. Always the same desire not to break with the imaginary. Over the past two years, everything has changed. Recently I decided to test my figurations with a papier-mâché technique. The surface is first painted then rubbed to create a fresco effect. I have realized that I have an underlying desire to return to the origins of an archaic, primal form of expression; a need to return to the source, to purify, maybe to relieve humanity of its sophistication, to better depict it at its most pure. The texture of papier-mâché painted and rubbed gives the impression that the figures continue to live despite the passage of time. It is soothing to create beings that will outlive us—a small victory over death. But theirs or ours? The film After Hours had a huge effect on me. The idea is brilliant: life inside a sculpture and salvation by the sculpture, which becomes more alive than the man inside. In any case, it is his only way out.
Translated by David jester