Gilles Barbier

10 Mar — 22 Apr 2017 at Galerie Vallois in Paris, France

26 FEBRUARY 2017
Gilles Barbier. Courtesy of Galerie Vallois
Gilles Barbier. Courtesy of Galerie Vallois

Gaël Charbau : Almost all your works belong to programmes, ideas, statements that you invent and that result in multiple series. If one day we were able to outline the cartography of this true galaxy, it would allow us to comprehend all the connections gathering your works in one and the same world. You are now presenting a nascent series from within this universe which is entitled « Ce qui est sorti du chapeau aujourd’hui » (What was pulled out of the hat today). Can you detail the underlying principle?

Gilles Barbier : The hat is the head, and today a clock’s frequency. As is often the case, the idea is to combine the power of doing with a freedom which can contradict the approach, often accompanied by a heavy, hackneyed and discriminating lexicon. In order to do this, I devise strategies to trigger a bursting within a given frame, where each fragment can subsequently be garnered. I call this principle a production machine.

Combining machine and subjectivity is something that has troubled me for a long time now, at least since AI has allowed to clarify this interaction. Ce qui est sorti du chapeau aujourd’hui acts as a production machine and therefore I don’t need to be preoccupied about the objects it produces, only to be attentive and dedicated.

G.C. : This series features all sorts of forms, characters, objects, ideas – which I call « unexpected » – that have in common to all come out of a hat, each time different but always located at the bottom of the drawing. One of these drawings presents a starry sky where you represented a constellation. This work, like many others in your creative process, engendered another series of medium size formats, depicting planets with strange names. Can you explain what it is about?

G.B. : While doing some research on the Internet to collect artist impressions, I came upon software programmes which generate names for planets, spaceships, etc. After using these programmes, I ended up with a great number of planet names. Some didn’t recall anything. Others on the contrary evoked imaginary configurations, textures, lights, stories, etc. The hat, under the form of a constellation this time, allowed me to throw these names onto a starry sky. To get something out of it, these planets became paintings, artist impressions, to use the standard term. They are worlds, powerful potentials, dreams. They are also painting factories, and I love that. What could Bellaqua, Gorgona Prime or Gamma Ecliptis look like?

G.C. : Gorgona Prime, for instance, possesses two very different sides, cadenced by their exposure to a sun which you imagined to be very close. It is a great illustration of your exhibition’s title: the artist impression. This term is used in sciences when we entrust the representation of a concept into an image to artists, often illustrators. I detect here a true metaphor for your entire oeuvre!

G.B. : An artist impression (in French, vue d’artiste) is the representation of a subject which is impossible to photograph; too far, too old, invisible, not existing yet. These subjects of which no mechanical reproduction is possible, occupy a particular segment within fiction. They are often conceptualised, such as exoplanets, but the only image we have of them is a fiction, an artist impression. One foot in a serious mental construction of reality, another in fantasy. This ambivalence obviously seduced me. Besides, it is still considered as a minor art form, as was for a long time the case with comic books; in short, a virgin territory. Setting foot on it produces a thrill like no other, and forcing these treasures unknown or ignored by the art world out in the open is part of a series of gestures which are very dear to me.

G.C. : A few months ago, while on a plane to Seoul, we talked about a series you had in mind called « Les lettres aux extraterrestres » (letters to extra-terrestrials). Today, I finally discover the first drawings. I feel as if you’d found an anti-austerity remedy to abstraction, but you will probably answer that there is nothing abstract in this series, right?

G.B. : Of course there is! At the moment, the Lettres aux extraterrestres are abstract drawings. But we can’t be sure whether it will remain so forever. Imagine that a real extra-terrestrial manages to read one of these abstraction like a text! Imagine that in his language and calligraphy, these shapes are actually readable motifs and signifiers! Then it is no more about abstraction, but about a message! These letters are absolutely nonsensical in terms of meaning, so I enclose them in bottles which I throw into the sea, or into space if I may say.

G.C. : You are also presenting a new and recent sculpture in this exhibition, a gigantic megalodon’s jaw. Is it, again, the result of a previous series?

G.B. : The mouth is the entrance giving access to the space-tube and transit areas. I have long been obsessed by these spaces as I detect in them an aspect of our contemporary architecture. In particular that of data transfers: servers, transport, transit of big data in the stomach, redistribution, etc. But also the architecture of the bodies’ circulation: metal detectors, underground, airlock, control, fuselage, corridors, lifts, escalators, etc. In all these carefully designed architectures, I feel absolutely powerless; unless I dare becoming a virus or a terrorist. It’s however not an option for me, wandering is my style! The space-tube prohibits stops, and flux must be permanent, although there are intermediary areas where we macerate while the organs of distribution reach an agreement. But let’s get back to this megalodon’s jaw. Its dimensions in relation to the body are those of a metal detector found in airports. To go through it is to allow for a treatment of powerlessness where everything is written, until we are released. However, a simple jaw is not enough to reveal this feeling of dispossession, submission, or flux. One must add the instructions which characterise the space-tube. Hence the instructions visible everywhere inside the jaw. The body that gives in and enters the space-tube must above all respect the instructions which ensure the flux’s serenity: danger pacemaker wearers, do not enter this area…

The basic argument of the show is a reaction to the following question: What if everything we do leads to death and extinction?

Since this question seems to be plausible and impossible to refute, then maybe everything is futile, including all art and politics and all the conversations you ever had and everything else we admire and consider worthy. Should we be reconsidering our criteria and values? Is there something that should be done about this or is extinction an unavoidable fate? Should we care about the little things or anything at all? Should we oppose “progress” and live like ants in communist arrangements or should we go all out and colonize the universe like the great aggressive mutation of matter that we are (consuming all resources in the way)? Being agnostic about these questions is what stimulates the production of the works in this show.

The obsessive drawings depict articulated and overlapping landscapes that are devoid of human figures but intelligent forces are implied. The artificial and the natural are merged and are now inhabited by 2D creatures that seem to have been installed there by a troglodyte that defaced the carefully rendered drawing. These hideous creatures analyze and critique their predicament and their reality. Some of these creatures are insects. It is appropriate that after all is said and done mankind is judged by arthropods, the very creatures that men thought of as disgusting, brainless without conscience and ok to be mass exterminated.

In this show the Theo Michael’s first ever large scale sculpture will be presented. It is a precarious arrangement of primitive and archetypal forms. Explicit semblances are avoided, but one could discern organic forms like worms or molecular structures, ice cream balls, phallic undertones and fecal matter or just some plain old fashioned modernist formal investigation. The argumentation that drives the work comes in the form of patina, paint layers that reveal previous paint jobs and a reluctantly vandalized surface that reveals an artificial history of changing one’s mind, complex ownership, uncertainty about creative decisions and what it feels to be a sculpture. A few smaller sculptures on a table are the product of extensive reworking of scraps from older works. Various non traditional sculpture materials have been used among them a pulp made out of the studios paper and plastic rubbish. Layers of different materials unorthodoxly used, make for a geological feel. Life is just complex matter and even the most artificial polymer plastics are made of stardust just like us.

In a Post Humanist manner, the artist assumes the perspective of other life or artificial intelligence or a Master Simulator. In his construct there is no politics, no logic, no good and evil, no art but only materials and their combinations the only universal code. This viewpoint places human activity on an equal level with insects, rocks or viruses. We need to escape humanity in order to clearly see what we are doing. Finally only a non human can critique a human. And then maybe we can understand.