Melbourne Festival Visual Arts Coordinator Simon Maidment met with French artists Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni on the occasion of their first Australian exhibition Les choses qui tombent [‘sometimes they fall’] accompanied by Chris Sharp, visiting US born, Paris based, curator and critic undertaking a curatorial residency at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces.

Les choses qui tombent exhibition, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne International Arts Festival October 2009.

Simon Maidment: So Fabien we were just wondering, to begin with; the title of the show and conceptual framework of the show how did you come to it and what is it?

Fabien Giraud: Well I think the first thing we were interested in was a very basic sculptural question, discovering the space debris and space junk; things that are falling back from the space conquest, from the sixties and seventies, back to earth now. Actually Australia is a big place for this falling down of objects. And we found this object, I mean this is a replica of the original object [pointing to sculptures], which is a gas tank and we just like the idea that it is almost like a ready made but just it’s been through two major forces. Obviously it’s an industrial object that was flying in space but then in the end it fell back to earth and went through the force of the atmosphere. Usually objects get pulverized and they [turned into] dust and we don’t see the objects back on earth. But this object went through the atmosphere, was crushed by its entry in the atmosphere and crushed a second time on its colliding to the ground. We just like the idea that it was a sculptural form. The original object reminded us of a Henry Moore kind of shape, very, I don’t know, round or oval gas tank, perfectly shaped.

SM: Almost feminine.

FB: Yes, it reminded us very much of Henry Moore’s sculpture, and this modernist era of apprehension of the form.  So yeah that was the basis of this object.

Raphaël Siboni: There is also the idea that usually when NASA wanted to destroy like a satellite or something, they control the re-entry of the object so its been pulverized when it re-enters the atmosphere but this one is like an uncontrolled re-entry. And so thinking of uncontrolled shapes, sculpture was the start of the show.

FG: And I think for us it was important to work with this idea that basically since there is supposed to be the end of history from the nineties, and the whole fantasy, cultural fantasy of the event, not a historical event like an uprising of the people or something, but something that falls from the sky. Something that’s like any kind of Hollywood movie from the last ten or twenty years it has been about. You see its amazing its just asteroid hitting the earth or the earth going upward with a tsumami, and everything is coming from something which it’s not, which is not a force, the forces are just external. The fantasy is that we externalise the forces not on a society level but on a kind of transcendental thing. But without the idea that what happens, what comes back from the sky, it’s not this UFO thing, it’s actually just a gas tank. You know, like that was the big mythical space conquest and it’s now all just falling back

SM: We spoke at the opening about those forces you mentioned, that there was something in there of importance in that the forces that were sculpting the object that were no longer the hand of a person; forces outside their agency.

RS: Yes – because it’s kind of an ambiguous shape because it’s been made by man, a more complex shape created by man but at the same time its when you think of it just like a pure force that shaped the objects’ form. Then also the other idea, when we started working on it, and even in the photos, there was no real way to have an idea of the size of those tanks and no size reference and this made us start thinking about the object as, like when you think of it in the universe which don’t have a sense of what is its size is and so we start making different scales of the same object, trying to replicate it, and at one point trying to provide the same feeling for the people in the exhibition – so that you never know what is the right distance to have between you and the object.  Which is something simple, which you never know. Like if you always have to refind this gap between you and the object.

FG: I guess it is something which runs through the whole show. Like when you walk up to the plinth, it can be empty or have wedges underneath or painted completely differently then I think this whole idea of what is the reference point to an object or what is the reference point to an event itself. It is just the institutional frame of something that gives it its scale, because things have to be scaled to in order to be experienced and so I guess we wanted to link it to this idea that in space there is obviously no reference point because there is no comparison and what happens, you know, when things fall onto the earth and then we experience this comparison. But we wanted to keep it loose by making all of these different scales, and different adjustments, of plinths.

RS: Like the size of the plinth is based on the size of the object so at one point we also thought we could use an empty plinth because when you see the plinth there is no more need for the object because you can have a sense.

SM:  So just on that, you’re referencing that in space, the lack of light means you use a different reference point or reference media or technology to identify an object and find out its shape, laser or RADAR or whatever, because visually you can’t tell its scale if there is nothing else around it to show us by contrast.  An audience member in here is seeing this object crashed in the desert but also potentially on the other side of a planetary system or right up close to them in a vacuum. But there was something within that explanation that I wanted to potentially touch on, which is what you said about the framing of the institution as a reference point for an artwork, as you have done, did you want to extrapolate on that a little bit? How you were thinking specifically about this institution, or the institution as a construct?

FG: Quite recently we have been interested in looking back at the history of institutional critique from the 70’s, and how from a narrative point of view, about all the narratives we bring into this sort of dry gesture of Michael Asher, these people we are quite fascinated with, and we, many works we work on now are going in that direction, so it’s not this institution as Gertrude, but more a very basic question of how, when we experience, what happens, what is the frame, what is the frame of experience today? If we pass the cynical era of the 80’s and 90’s, where old values are put down, I think we’ve passed this era now, it’s how we can re-question the idea of experience, which is not just flat, and which I understand as this cynical era of art…

SM: We are arguably entering what Gerard Raunig calls the third phase of institutional critique, which aligns with what you describe. I wanted to pick up on the lack of cynicism or sarcasm within this work. The appropriation of the forces on the Modernist form, which are forces that are not your hands but the hands of gravity – the dust hitting it at high forces – and also the use of the white plinth as iconically Modernist; it is light hearted in some sections of this show, it is not done with any sense of cynicism.

RS: I think if we want to sum up, there are many connections between the pieces but also there is this very simple idea that at one point, what is this experience or this event, when someone is facing an object that is art, so with the copper plates we can speak, facing technology that totally obsolete,  it’s just this very relation that we…

FG: We like the idea of thinking about art as a historical nerve. And some nerves die out, like 16th century nerves, if you think of art like nerves. They die out like a dead nerve that didn’t work anymore. And it goes through the show, this big copper mezzotint that we made which is this 17th century technique, as a dead nerve, kind of late, something which stored there and which is not…

SM: And also the use of the clear glass in the lens rather than the modern refractive glass, preventing you from having the proper “photographic image”. The interest in an obsolete technology or an obsolete practice is also an adjunct to that with this idea of the artist sort of stopping at some point, and the force of something else completing the work. Really completing the work – the object here or in the case of the video, the lenses no longer refracting – and that abstraction, the end image, isn’t a filter or something you’ve done, rather that it’s something the process has produced. The other day we talked about the forces of the sun; I wondered whether that was also in your minds as to the choice of materials and the way you finished the black sculptural works?  Given you started off looking at ways in which you could make them and the first step was going looking at the RMIT ceramic centre.

FG: yeah, yeah, yeah…. with work in the studio for sure…

RS: Also I think this idea with the video and the mezzotint of a dead, I don’t know, what? A dead sensor.  So like, you can think of mezzotint as a continual processing like, it is still ongoing but not so efficient anymore – it just like the camera, it keeps recording something with no output, just pure…

FG: You asked this question about the surface of things, of these objects, I think we wanted to, I don’t know if we succeeded so much in that way, but we wanted at some point that the surface of an object can become the object itself…. its not just like the ceramics being glazed or something, its about the ceramics being shaped by its surface, you know its like because there is so much tar, bitumen and so much latex, but the objects are always about the effect in a way, that the effect can become the surface, effect can become such a material thing, such a dense thing that it becomes a material you know, it’s not just a coat on the surface of things. Then it becomes so thick that some things are actually sculpted in the surface of the object. But maybe we could move onto the video and explain a little bit…

It’s a lens that we brought in California, it is a 35mm lens, quite mythical from the 70’s… basically we did a very simple thing, we just replaced every glass lens inside this object of which there are about 12, and we replaced it with clear glass so its a very simple and regressive act in a way because  I like this idea that for centuries we have been polishing optical lenses to record the vision that our eyes were grasping.

SM: ….to replicate the physical of the eye, the shape of the retina.

FG: yes exactly, and the framing of reality obviously, because what happens in the optic (the camera) is that you can have a right angle on it so you can frame….

RS: it is very simple because the light goes through, it goes through the optical lense as if there is no optic in a way, so at one point when we shot the movie we can see the sunset we have shot in a way, as a machine would see it, it is like a non- human….

FG: it’s like an optical lens as a prosthesis, we cancelled it by doing this, so when we shot the movie, we can talk about the movie, but its, this film we just went in the desert, here in the middle of Australia and we shot directly into the sunset with very high definition camera, a Red Camera, which is supposed to be the most advanced camera now that you can find on the market, obviously it will be obsolete in one year, three years, but this is the camera and we put this object which is as if we didn’t have a lens, in a way you know like as if the light was going directly onto the very high definition sensor and I think the idea was really how could we record day as just a quantity of light touching the surface of earth if you see the day as this, when day goes by and sunset happens, it goes from white where the sensor is saturated by light to the very dark, obviously this very high sensor lost in the desert facing in the middle of nowhere facing this very old technology of the sun. If we say that the sun is a piece of technology.

RS: this very simple idea of two technologies facing each other in an empty space and how….

FG: if the sun is a technology.

RS: like there is nothing in between these technologies

FG: I like this, I think we were we were fascinated with this idea of high definition as a contemporary myth of the image – that high definition has potentially no limits, obviously it is a marketing argument that they try to exaggerate so maybe it’s that with mezzotint is the technique to this high definition sensors which I see as a very tactile thing, the sensor’s really feeling its like photons hitting the surface of a thing. We like this idea that in two years they say they are going to bring out a camera which is 25 times HD, so this camera we have is 4 times, this is should be 25 times HD, but then you know like 200 and whatever.

RS: then the shot, the actual footage of the camera there is no video projector that can…

Chris Sharp: That’s strong enough to actually project it.

RS: there is not enough resolution so like the shot of the footage is waiting for the future – like waiting for its support you know.

FG: but not only that, but its waiting for the body to support it, because our brain can receive only so much definition. Scientists can define the eye in terms of definition, in terms of pixel ratio. I mean obviously you cannot see every particle of the world when I look at this wall. Like this idea, I think that when you film in this supposedly very high definition camera where does it stop? Because who are you filming for? Since as humans we cannot perceive it so then you know you are catching something for something or someone that is not there yet.

RS: they started like recently to make prosthesis with nanotechnologies for blind people so now they are working on a system for the eye that is 10 pixel by 10 pixel, so the world for those people is like 10 by 10 so you can have a sense of the space at some point like we could see something in high resolution that our brain can process.

SM: Also in terms of the development of contemporary perception, it’s a well known learnt trait of a couple of generations ago, if you put a single frame cut into a film no one would be able to see it, consciously. It’s like this idea of subliminal mapping of 24 frames per second one of those frames was not enough for people to be able to see, but now you need a quarter of those frames because everyone has grown up with the technology, it’s been mutated to develop in response to exposure. Photographers say the human eye cannot quite reach 16 bit level of detail tonality but that people using digital imagery and photography regularly have been tested to be able to increase that, the more they kind of practice, until they go blind or whatever from overuse. The really interesting thing there also about the time, so this image is something for the future, and it’s something to train or mutate humankind via the Red Camera or other technology, that captured something which, while the rest of the world catches up to experience fully, is so many million minutes past when that light was spat out from the sun. So you have the idea the past event, when it was captured or when it was emitted,  that interesting idea about it as well. Time then, coming back to that sense of obsolescence or circularity in these works, is really pertinent as well.

CS: I think when you titled the show Les Choses Qui Tombent in the sense of things that fall from the sky and these technologies that fall into destitute and become obsolete. I mean it’s pretty coherent in the sense that a lot of what you’re saying in that the human eye becomes obsolete, to a certain degree until it can catch up with this technology. But human vision as we know it falls into destitute so in that sense it’s….

FG: Yeah I think as we talked about this dead nerve, you know what I mean by dead nerve? Obviously one man looking at the sky the third century after Christ, and one man looking at the sky now; his vision is a dead nerve, the guy from the third century, because we cannot relate in any way to this idea of a dome, a black dome in which shines some crystals that they used to see. This vision, the way he was looking at the world, fascinated us because we went through the gallery and we went through all these revolutions, that we cannot, still our eyes functioning, our brain functioning but this nerve, this kind of tension with the world is dead and I guess too art’s, I like this idea and we discuss it a lot, you can cross times, you can make nerves reappear, reactivate  them.

RS: There’s also ellipsis connected with this idea, because at the same time it relates to our definition of technologies but also there was this idea as Matthew Brown [Melbourne Artist] told and when he first heard about the movie we made, he thought of this first time when the reptiles go out of the water and they see for the first time and they didn’t have the eye focused and it’s like the first vision…

FG: Wide open to something that they cannot grasp. I love this idea….

RS: Also I think in terms of the cinematic, removing the lenses it’s also, because so many people keep saying that video is not as good as the film, saying that film is much more like the human eye. So actually the movie we made is like the theory made real – it’s what the camera sees. There is no interpretation between…

SM: It’s a humanisation almost, it’s an attempt to make what replicates the human eye but that is the sun hitting that sensor.

RS: It’s like the truth you know, I mean they say that about cinema, but this is like pure recording of the world as it is, just photons hitting the surface of the sensor.

FG: I think we forget too much that when we invent, technology is not images, we invent sensors, you know, to sense the world. Images are just like some interpretation of this but if we take the camera down to what it is, a sensor, as it was in the chemical analogue world of machines, in the digital it becomes, for me this very sensual thing. Which goes completely opposite to whatever people say about digital being just a recording medium. [laughing]

SM: It’s that interesting thing also, not to steer the conversation here but just as an aside, about the past and the future and what becomes what at different times. The analogy of the space race and the analogy of the cold war being fought on that level and that everything was about societal progression, and now it’s completely redundant to the point where you’re highlighting it crashing back to earth and it comes back as art rather than coming back as society’s future; well future is contained – that’s the sculpture of it.

FG: This idea that in the 60’s and 70’s, now our idea of the future is really that everything will be about the immune system, you know, against sickness….

I think we see our bodies as a potential, or just the earth, as being hit by these things, or earth as rising, the sea rising, the earth collapsing and we are here as a very weak units, and the whole flu thing that’s been going on in the world for one year now, it’s like you can see how much we just became very human – we want to have a shell, we want to have something to protect us on a very sort of biological level and in the 60’s and 70’s with space conquest, and it’s quite interesting that actually now people are thinking again of going to the moon, but they don’t know how anymore. There’s this whole debate, but we can’t do it anymore. In the 60’s and 70’s eventually this whole thing, this idea of going outward, going to the exterior was a very deep thing as it is not today, now the exterior is coming from all over, from the biology itself, from our inner degeneration of cells, and that’s why I think the space conquest is not interesting and it’s just regressive.

SM: Take us through the mezzotint work.

FG: The mezzotint, it’s very easy to explain as this obsolete technique that we were interested in, this mezzotint that is a technique that is used to make, as you know, very black monochrome and very rich backgrounds in engraving, and we wanted to do this thing, this object, which is nearly an object which is not really a drawing or painting because it’s never to be printed, and it is not really a sculptural thing but it is just a subliminal thing, something that stands there, it is inked, and the ink never dries. The ink is always ready to be printed… this print ink is very sticky, and this objects stand there, as we titled the show, yet to be written, yet to be told, and it’s there as… I don’t like the world ‘potential’, but as an open monument, or form… an open something!

SM: So it stands in for the art, it becomes the art aura, like the aura… when you look at a piece of art it is contained ‘here’, and not having the drawing or the print, this becomes the aura, it has potential, it is not real art, but it is real art, because everything is already there

FG: Yeah I see it as an interpretation…

SM: …an interpretation of what’s going to happen, in that what is printed, or what it goes onto is left up to the viewer? It goes back to… not unfinished, but again, the incomplete…

FG: For me, it’s not really incomplete, I think one thing that fascinates me in  our culture is the use of glue. Glue is a very fascinating thing because it is not a material in itself- you know, I use glue as a material because glue is made for gluing objects. But you know, I think it was Neil Bohr, or some very applauded physicist that said someone came to visit him and asked ‘What are you studying now?’ and he replied ‘Glue, because glue is the most fascinating thing’. And actually when they do studies on glue, they say they still don’t know actually what it is, but on a very basic level glue, is like when you take an object, you break it- if it’s a vase for example, the glue is a synthetic molecular chain, because the molecules have been broken in the object, and it is a synthetic bridge for them, between these two molecule chains in the object. And what is interesting is this idea of affinity, because glue will not glue all things together, there needs to be affinity on a molecular level between two objects, and the glue is making this affinity. You know what I mean?

SM: I do

FG: So it’s kind of a fascination with this idea that maybe an object, a really interesting object, or situation, should be like glue. Maybe this thing that is always open- because glue itself is like an open bridge, a bridge leading to nowhere.

SM: So this became the bridge between your conceptual idea and the illustration of it, potential illustration through something and then the final material almost deadened, and this is the synthetic molecular chain between those.

FG: You could think of it that way… I just think of it as glue


RS: There is no real difference between the idea of the work and the work itself, like, I don’t think of the work as an illustration of our idea. I think they are on the same level, both the work and the idea, because you can put ideas (and works) together in a controlled way. And so we don’t want to translate ideas that shapes the work with those different systems, on the sale level.

FG: I think, that when you talk in this language, it is very different. Well, not very different, but just this idea of inscription. Starting an image with this inscription in the mezzotint, that you can find a secondary, ‘ultra’ image in the small projection that’s there. You have this relationship supported by the wall. Then we wanted to have an element that was just the raw copper that we brought to use in this project; we wanted to leave it as we had gotten it. But this thing was big chunks of copper coming from a mine in China, so getting it into Australia and into a factory! [Laughs] In the end, in the process of the transportation, there were some marks on the surface – accidents in transportation. So we just decided to ink the whole surface of the copper. As if it had to be printed.

RS: But as I was doing the etching, I preferred the act of etching to the actual outcome of the etching – the process was important, not the result.  And in a way, just by the act of inking it, transformed this hard material object into nearly an image.  A normal copper plate, just with this very slight modification.

SM: Its that very modification that becomes the drawing of the transition into different states and transportation here. Which is again, like all of these three, the potential future of our understanding of it. In the same way we cannot fully technologically or physiologically present or receive the video work, in a way that fully grasps definition. These are also sitting here in a way that, they are sitting here with the potential of future critique. The framework also allows for exponential improvement.

RS: I think what is important between these three is, cause at the very beginning, this was just the idea to reduce drawing to a pure idea. To reduce drawing as the ultimate expression of the self. Layers and layers of gesture; so this one was see a gesture that is not related to a self. It’s just like pure transportation; its pure act.

FG: There is no gesture actually.

RS: It’s just traces of an event. Just like transportation.

CS: What’s the significance of the size?

R: It’s just a standard size; the pallets for the pieces as well as the trucks involved in transportation all have a standard size.