in conversation with Simon Castets
Simon Castets: Let’s start with your most recent project, your solo exhibition Standby Mice Station at the Kunsthalle Basel. The title, and certain elements of the installation, bring to mind a hamster cage. Can you tell us how you chose these words?
Camille Blatrix: I had just bought a record player and I was looking for records, especially the ones I used to listen to when I was young, like post-punk stuff, post-rock, emo from the ’90s and so on. Lightly worn vintage vinyl records.I would look at the covers, read the lyrics, which are both violent and melancholic, optimistic and completely disenchanted. For the exhibition, I wanted a title that sounded like pop, catchy, almost like a brand, and at the same time abstract, like Tongues on Thrones, Archers of Loaf or Lazy Comet. Something animal and technical, alive and static, that would resonate with the exhibition, which at the time I envisioned as a suspended animal station. As the words went round in my head, I came up with the title Standby Mice Station / Weather Stork Point, a sort of arrival point: I wrote it in large letters on the whiteboard in my study and kept on working, to see how I would live with it. In the end I only kept Standby Mice Station or “Stand by my station,” if you read it quickly. It sounds halfway between an operating manual and a declaration of love. To be honest, I’d never thought about the hamster cage connection, but now this aspect seems obvious. I envisioned the entire exhibition while crouching in my daughter’s bedroom at night trying to put her to sleep, surrounded by her toys, nightlights and stories. I tried to somehow transpose this small, timeless place into more of a world of grownups, therefore necessarily a little more disenchanted. It’s fun to realize that the result looks like a hamster cage—actually funny or disturbing.
SC: Elena Filipovic’s text introducing the exhibition speaks of the “inexplicable affection” that characterizes your sculptures, echoing your expression of “emotional objects,” often used to describe your work. Do you think this expression still reflects your interests?
CB: I’ve actually used this expression a long time ago and, although it explains my work fairly well, I still find it ambiguous. I believe I mainly create objects and that any object produced on this Earth has an emotional potential. The emotion is what the living being projects on an object, whether this comes from a Chinese factory or from a small lab on the sea in Brittany. Furthermore, nowadays for a huge number of people an iPhone is much more emotionally charged than a rustic table. In my studio I like getting into violent emotional states: that’s why I listen to a lot of music, my work sessions take place in a state of total immersion, and I have photos of my wife hanging on the wall. I am not ashamed to let myself be overwhelmed by hyper-egocentric feelings, because in the end I enclose them in fairly cold objects which are then set in places that are also cold: it is exactly what we do all the time with the photos of people we love on our phones. Photos used to be kept in small handmade silver boxes or hung on a necklace, while today they are kept in a mass-produced plastic box. Yet, the love we feel for the person in the photo remains the same. The definition of “emotional objects” is therefore pleonastic: perhaps I take the sentimental potential of an object a little more into consideration while producing it compared to what happens in a factory, and above all I allow myself to be guided by emotions, rather than by a production system, while creating it. Starbucks mass-produces substandard coffee, but they sell it with your name on the cup while you’re listening to jazz music—they distract you by adding emotion to the actual finished product to prevent you from thinking about the production process behind it, because at that precise moment you feel at ease and you can listen to your favorite jazz tune together with the person you love. I try to integrate this aspect into the production of my sculptures, to put jazz and froth inside them, not on top.
SC: The now rare marquetry technique is often featured in your works. Can you describe the origin of your interest in this ancient technique, the possibilities it offers and the tension it gives to the representation of decidedly contemporary images such as the “grumpy cat”?
CB: Marquetry is very time-consuming and requires a lot of commitment; it involves a strong dose of frustration: it takes a whole day of work even to create one wooden eye. At the beginning I would watch tutorials on YouTube and the decision to actually use this technique came gradually. Initially it was basically a way to produce figurative works without having to ask myself too many questions in regard to style. In marquetry there aren’t ten different ways to produce an image: it is a technique quite akin to logotype; it’s essentially about synthesizing, and the illustration is first of all influenced by the constraints connected with the medium, the direction and the color of the wood etc. At one point I achieved a certain freedom in working and learning, because I could easily depict the first images that came to mind, like a cup of coffee or a heart, just to practice. Now I feel more comfortable with it, I appreciate that marquetry is like a trademark and at the same time it’s totally impersonal. If tomorrow someone recreated the same image using this method, it would look exactly the same—it’s just a technique to master. This forces me to really address the question of the subject, of the value that each image has for me, of its importance along the exhibition path—which brings us back to the question of emotion. Marquetry takes me away from the subject because it make things uniform, imparting the same character to each image. At the same time, to spend four days on an A4 image you must really convince yourself that it is important and get passionate about the subject being represented, otherwise you risk going crazy very early. Once again, it is this contradiction that I like, to try to escape technical standardization through hyper-emotionality. I also keep thinking that the more time you spend with an object, the more ghosts go with it. I have always used marquetry as a means much more direct than my sculpting, as a window on much more narrative things, images taken from outside that often get to relate to context or decor, like the poster of a mountain in an office, the photo of one’s idol on the bedroom wall or pictures of flowers in an Apple store. And I have the impression that, whatever you choose to represent using marquetry, the subject always loses some of its vitality to become more harmless or melancholic. For example, I have recently reproduced Elon Musk’s Starship rocket, trying to be as realistic as possible, but despite all my efforts it still resembles a ridiculous Tintin cartoon rocket, which gives this megalomaniacal, delusional and dangerous project an almost comical and outdated element. On the contrary, a much more personal image, like a sincere picture of my sleeping wife and daughter, almost turns into a Nivea advert.
SC: A children’s play table is right in the middle of the exhibition. Where is it from? Is it a continuation of the family ready-made series like the ones from 2015, when you included works produced by your parents in an exhibition in Scotland?
CB: Yes, exactly: these are some of my daughter’s toys, the ones we gave her for her first birthday. I had never thought of this work as a continuation of the family ready-made series, but I really like the idea. To exhibit these objects means to reject the production effect and the importance of craftsmanship, emphasizing my interest in what the object evokes rather than in the ability needed to create it. Oddly enough, these ready-made pieces are often the most charged works because they are inhabited by ghosts.
SC: What industries do you find most interesting for their designs in general, and what are the objects you care about most, your most precious assets, both from a practical and a sentimental point of view?
CB: I am hyper-materialistic and at the same time I am not at all, definitely because I am attracted to consumption but not necessarily to possession, which gives me a false impression of freedom, or in any case makes me feel less guilty. I often think of John Fante’s hero, Arturo Bandini, in The Road to Los Angeles. With his first salary, he buys an expensive suit, wears it proudly while walking, has a great time, then finally realizes that he doesn’t give a damn about it and gives it to a boy on the street, which does not prevent him from doing the same thing later. I read this story when I was 18 and was deeply affected by the attitude it describes. Today I have a bit of the same approach to my own work, I fetishize my objects even if they feel completely foreign to me. I’m starting to make a living, but it hasn’t always been so: in the past, as soon as even one cent got to my account, I would spend it rather than save it. I lived in a squat, but I had a pair of Westons and a nice box with shoe polish. When I looked at my Westons, I would say to myself “it’s all right.” It was like watching a love movie, you forget that you are alone for two hours before starting all over again from scratch. I remember the first time I went to the United States for an exchange experience with the École des beaux-arts. I spent almost all my scholarship money on clothes to wear to the airport, to pretend I was someone else, and then had to make do with what was left of the funds for the rest of my stay. More than form, what attracts me about design is the experience it offers, what the object reflects about ourselves and others. No matter what the specific production sector, I just like watching a shape evolve in its environment. It could be my tools in the studio, my cars, my coffee machine or, more recently, my daughter’s toys; this part of my work is quite free. I go to my studio with all these images in mind and I make things. But what really fascinates me is understanding how we live with all this, for what reason pressing the accelerator gives the impression of being the king of the world. Sometimes I watch videos of guys asking their partner to marry them on top of the Empire State Building. It’s moving, because they are truly in love, the feeling is real, but I can’t help thinking that they are completely crazy and nothing of all that is true. That moment, that second, that tension between pure emotion and normalization, is what I’m looking for. Taking possession of something that belongs to everyone—love, a landscape or a pair of sneakers. Painting one’s car in a different color than one’s neighbor’s, writing Kurt Cobain on one’s Eastpack backpack.
SC: The banality of exception? In a text about your work for Artforum, Annie Godfrey Larmon evokes the work of Konrad Klapheck, as he too offers a description of objects “apparently harmless but psychologically charged.” We could say that the link with Klapheck is also established through a sort of flattening of the machine, thanks to which objects lose their function and are reduced to their surface. Can you tell us about the cases in which your sculptures have the ability to move?
CB: When they are able to move, it’s often very small movements, which enhance their dysfunction, as if they were flawed. Museums are similar to cemeteries in which objects with an often mystical function are fetishized. I find all this fascinating: I imagine my sculptures as relics devoid of their function and, when they move, I like to think that they are exhaling their last breath, the moment right before the end. I am currently working on a series of glowing sculptures, which contain fires or offerings to revive an extinguished flame. These movements are often strongly connected to melancholy, to a sort of repetitive and romantic latency.
SC: The importance of music has come up several times during this conversation. In the Basel exhibition you can hear the notes of Stand By Me by Ben E. King coming from a walled part of the space. What made you decide to organize the space in this way, through architecture and music? What other roles does music play in your work?
CB: In general, music is ten times more effective than art in immediately conjuring up an emotion, an atmosphere. But I like it when you don’t completely understand things immediately. There is something exciting in that frustration. I’m impressed with the way Christopher Williams sets up his exhibitions, for example. I felt dizzy when visiting his exhibition at MoMA. Since my first exhibition at Balice Hertling I’ve chosen to enclose all the space. I like the fact that the invisible can tell something—like Cinderella, who is left without a shoe. Lack is emotional. The closing of a room, opening of a window, or a draft blowing on a curtain are often more moving than a sculpture. A noise arises. Music has this power, but in a more volatile way. I use it sparingly—very short fragments of super-famous pop songs; only moments, as if the exposure time was reduced to a very short action that is repeated endlessly—a kiss, a shooting star, an explosion. Just enough time for a quick coffee, get out of the shop onto the street, and we still have the chorus of the tune we just heard in our head, which adds to another moment that we are going to live. This is how I work on my exhibitions: ultra-compressed syntheses of evanescent feelings and pathos. In music, I like bands that condense all their anger and love in a two minute song. Instant intensity—like an espresso.
Kiss, shooting star, explosion
in conversation with Simon Castets
In the middle of Nowhere
Courtesy: the artist and Balice Hertling, Paris
CAMILLE BLATRIX (b.1984, Paris, France) lives and works in Paris, France. Blatrix graduated from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. In 2014, he was awarded the Prix Fondation d’entreprise Ricard and the Prix des Amis des Beaux-Arts de Paris. Recent solo exhibitions include: Standby Mice Station, Kunsthalle Basel (2020); Art Unlimited, Art Basel, Basel (2019); Les Barrières de l’Antique, Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, Brussels (2019); Fortune, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris (2019); and Heroe, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2016).
SIMON CASTETS is Director of Swiss Institute, New York.