| Geordie Groenhuysen | Avril 2020 |
Who are you? What is currently on your mind?
I’m first and foremost a photographer.
Whoooaaaaaahhh this is deep and meaningful. What is on my mind? Art. I’m going to talk about what I do. I’m working at the moment on a new series called Les Fêtes Galantes de London Fields which is very linked to this place here which is called Les Fêtes Galantes and it’s a project that I’ve been working on now for three years. I’m working and building the set so it’s all happening in my studio upstairs. So before taking the photograph, there are a lot of things to do. Like collecting props, creating the props, building the props and customizing the props. I started to shoot it four months ago, which is essentially where I present my work in photograph. I shoot in non-digital, analogue, so it takes a lot of time. The film needs to be processed, then scanned and cleaned so it’s a very long process and it’s nowhere near completion. That’s what’s on my mind at the moment. That is what I do.
You seem to celebrate the female form through some of the art and photographs that you create. What is that for you exactly? I’m speaking mostly about your nudes.
Yes, in my piece Boudoir I’m referring to a specific opening night in the 1720s, the first art gallery in Paris. There was no such thing as an art gallery before that time. It was either the aristocracy who would commission a painter or the church. After this opening there was a change in Paris where some people thought, I want to be the middleman. The middleman, meaning the go-between the artist and the buyer-collector. They were the first gallerists and agents.
At that time nudity is the theme and very much en-vogue after the death of Louis the XIV. With a need for emancipation and liberation because the king wouldn’t die, he was tedious, he was a bigot, a warmonger towards the end, which was a disaster. He dies, celebration! And you see that pretty much until the French revolution and the art in France is all about love. The depiction of the Goddesses and the Gods are frolicking in the fields.
In art, in opera, it’s all about love, art and literature. Look at Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this kind of conquest is definitely the period that interests me. The nudity here, that kind of libertinage. (Referring to his celebrated Boudoir piece, which stands behind him in the room.)
What artists inspired you as a young artist and are there any artists that inspire you today?
In photography I think who really inspired me was Jan Saudek. He was a Czech photographer who was working under the communist regime. In Prague he had kind of tiny little basement half the size of this room and he was creating the most fantastic photographs. He was shooting in black and white and then hand touched them with colour. The colours remind you of those postcards from the 1960s that are heavily retouched. When I came to London he was nowhere to be seen, I mean he was already established in Paris at the time and this was in the 1980s. He’d escaped Czechoslovakia, came to live in Paris and was very appreciated in Paris but then no one knew it. I remember his first show here. It was in a gallery that no longer exists, which was on Portobello Road. Nicky, a photographer and curator was the first one to show Saudek’s work. It was outrageous. It was absolutely full on. So in terms of influence, someone who really made me appreciate photography is Jan Saudek.
Your work is staged. What is the reality for you in a piece? You are there in some way of course but how do we find you? What is the intention?
One piece is called ‘Wendy’s World’. This character is my alter ego and Wendy is always there. She’s looking at what is being conveyed and organized in the space ahead of her, before her. And that’s me. I’m conducting all of these images. I’m directing. It’s very close to theatre design what I do.
I like how you use plastic miniature figures in your work. You use them to draws your audience onto your stage so to speak. You’ve shown some work at the V&A Children’s Museum. Your work is dollhouse like. Can you tell us why this is part of your inspiration.
I think my work is very accessible. There are layers, a kind of interpretation. If you look at this piece Boudoir it draws people to it. I saw that at fairs, or in galleries people come to it and they go “o o o o o o h h h” doll house, fantastic and then they get closer and all of a sudden you have the “OHHH” depending on who it is, it depends where people come from where you have these reactions. Since I started this Les Fêtes Galantes, this gallery and showroom, most people love it but there is this shock element. Mostly French people really like it because they can relate to it.
Are all the elements in a piece, just as important as each other or are there elements in your work that are more important? Like the story for instance or the execution itself?
The visual is essentially what is important. There is a story that we are constantly referring to, the theatre. I’m not a wordsmith. I’m not a writer. If I have a choice of going out and someone says do you want to go see a play, do you want to see a movie or do you want to go see a ballet, say contemporary dance. I will go for contemporary dance. Essentially I get bored very quickly with theatre because it’s about words. I’m not very good with words. It takes me time to kind of process them or process a story. If you give me visuals, music and body (he snaps his fingers quickly) contemporary dance, that’s what I need.”
What is the hardest part of being an artist?
It’s not the hardest because I’ve done it for 25 years and it’s essentially all about self-motivation. It suits me because I’m quite driven. I initiate everything. Everything I do it comes from an idea I’ve discussed. I don’t depend on other people. So I’m quite disciplined. I have to wake up. I don’t like people telling me what to do. I can’t deal with the idea of working for someone else. From the age of 25, the first jobs I was doing in London in order to eat, I realize that I couldn’t sustain it for very long because I felt there must be something better than that. When photography kicked in it happened slowly and I thought this is the best way. You have to have discipline.
During the time that you’ve been an artist is there anything that stands out success wise that makes you feel emotional? Like an award or something that happened to you in your career that you were really happy about?
There are some. When I was in architectural photography I was one of the prize winners. I won best architectural photographer. It was big you know. It was done in a very big way. They fly you there to Germany, everything is very professional and that spoke to me because this is where I was at the time and this is what I was doing. It was a great recognition.
Which favourite artist were you most excited to be showing with in your career so far?
Erwin Olaf. He’s a Dutch photographer from Hilversum.
You lived in various places. Why London?
It’s the connection through the family, my English grandmother living here and definitely not fitting in, in Paris in my early 1920s. I had the feeling that there must be something else. That’s why London. I went to live in the States for a little while, three or four months but then I came back to study again thinking there’s obviously some far more exciting place to be. I’m not saying that about the states but just the idea to be travelling and to be somewhere else was there. I found combining that with photography, that I love this idea of going somewhere with a camera and experiencing a place with no reference what so ever because you’ve never been there and to take it in completely with that camera, because you make this kind of extra record that you are travelling completely. You make this. It makes you double aware. It makes you travel twice and experience a place twice with a camera, definitely with a camera. That is the first trip that I did. This probably shaped me. With a camera they were very formative.
This location ‘Les Fêtes Galantes de London Fields’ is your home, studio, café and gallery. Because you live here, your studio is here, this is your world that you’ve created. I think it’s fantastic. A dream that every artist would like to aspire to someday. How did it find you?
Thank you. I’m working on it big time. There are many reasons why I went in this direction, not only for promoting myself and moving forward. My work is very solitary, my life is solitary and my daily routine is a very solitary because of the nature of it. I don’t need people around. I don’t really want people around when I work taking photographs. I occasionally get an assistant. One assistant when I need some retouching or some customizing or things like that. You have one for six months and then after that I don’t need anyone.
It ticked a few boxes. The boxes: Etienne promote yourself and you’re lucky enough to have a shop downstairs that you’ve never used as a shop. Why don’t you just convert it? How do you do that, well I’ll work on the design, how do you do it, I did it myself. I’m a builder, whether you see that, you know on a small scale I love doing things myself. I love doing things myself and it takes more time.
But I think what I was getting at is the solitary aspect of what I do and I thought perhaps you should balance that or compensate that by having a place, which is a bit like a salon where people come and have coffee. They don’t come just to have coffee and sit on the computer, they come and have a conversation about the work or the local gossip or anything that is related to art is fun. And that has worked in a sense. As for my weekends, the gallery is open, I serve coffee and I speak for 48 hours. I exchange. It’s not a monologue.
The fact that it’s a small space people do engage and it’s also not written ‘café’ outside or it’s not written ‘gallery’ so people are not quite sure. Then I obviously have to present them with defining the space and on that first introduction, it creates something. It creates some kind of exchange and people start to talk and if they don’t want to pursue it or feel awkward they walk out. However you’ll find that perhaps 2/3 of the people are very happy to stay and talk. I’ve made friends. I’m starting to sell to local people, a way to promote my work but it’s not immediate but people buy.
I create these events. A couple of weeks ago we had this Christmas afternoon tea, Bianca Watts came. She is an established harpist. She came with her harp and she was playing and people were having mulled wine and everything. A wonderful setting, a wonderful crowd and that alone is something that I really appreciate. Especially now that people are on their phone and they seem to be ‘liking’ each other and that’s all they do.
And here we have a proper conversation, no one is on the phone and no one comes here with a computer and doesn’t say a word and have one espresso every 4 hours.
This is not what I want. I want conversation.”
Interview conducted by Geordie Groenhuysen